In Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft, Paul Allen describes the early fun days of discovering the personal computer, his love for programming at an early age, meeting Bill Gates at Lakeside private school, the origin story of Microsoft, the partnership dynamic between him and Bill.
Idea Man is a great memoir about innovation, vision, partnerships, sacrifice, compromise, conviction, consistency, and the power of self-belief. A lot of lessons were learned from pioneering the computer revolution, seizing opportunity, making bold moves, and executing relentlessly. Allen was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2009, leading to a renewed sense of urgency for life and sharing his story. Allen was vulnerable about his successes, failures, dealing with cancer, his thorny roller-coaster relationship with Bill Gates. Idea Man is a must-read for co-founding a tech company.
Paul was eclectic like his dad, with varying interest. He writes about his love for computer programming, a voracious reader like his mum, buying sport teams ( NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and part ownership in MLS Seattle Sounders FC ), founding Allen Institutes for Brain Science, Artificial Intelligence and Cell Science, Stratolaunch Systems, Apex Learning. and funding the first crewed private spaceplane with SpaceShipOne.
Paul Allen was a fan of American Musician Jimi Hendrix, he played the guitar and even formed a band. Paul was a serial entrepreneur, by the mid-nineties, he was involved in 140 companies. He had his fair share of successes and failures such as losing $8 billion in his foray into the cable industry.
Bill Gates – Restlessness
The one constant in my life those days was a Harvard undergraduate named Bill Gates, my partner in crime since we’d met at Lakeside School when he was in eighth grade and I was in tenth. Bill and I learned how to dissect computer code together. We’d started one failed business and worked side by side on professional programming jobs while still in our teens. It was Bill who had coaxed me to move to Massachusetts with a plan to quit school and join him at a tech firm. Then he reversed field to return to college. Like me, he seemed restless and ready to try something new.
Few people took notice of the 4004 early on, but I was a college freshman that year and had time to read every magazine and journal around. It was a fertile period for computers, with new models coming out almost monthly. When I first came across the 4004, I reacted like an engineer: What cool things could you do with this?
What cool things could you do with this?
The business world saw the 8008 as a low-budget controller for stoplights or conveyor belts. (In that vein, Bill and I would later use it in our fledgling enterprise in traffic flow analysis.) But I knew that this second-generation microchip could do much more, given the chance.
The Idea Man
Bill and I had already found a groove together. I was the idea man, the one who’d conceive of things out of whole cloth. Bill listened and challenged me, and then homed in on my best ideas to help make them a reality. Our collaboration had a natural tension, but mostly it worked productively and well.
Popular Electronics Magazine – January 1975
Like most magazines, Popular Electronics was postdated by a week or two. I was hunting for its new January issue—which stopped me in my tracks. The cover headline looked like this:
World’s First Minicomputer Kit
to Rival Commercial Models …
“ALTAIR 8800” SAVE OVER $1000
I slapped down seventy-five cents and trotted the half-dozen slushy blocks to Bill’s room in Harvard’s Currier House. I burst in on him cramming for finals; it was that time of year. “You remember what you told me?” I said, feeling vindicated and a little breathless. “To let you know when somebody came out with a machine based on the 8080?”
The Big Idea
My really big ideas have all begun with a stage-setting development—in this case, the evolution of Intel’s early microprocessor chips. Then I ask a few basic questions:
- Where is the leading edge of discovery headed? What should exist but doesn’t yet?
- How can I create something to help meet the need, and who might be enlisted to join the crusade?
Whenever I’ve had a moment of insight, it has come from combining two or more elements to galvanize a new technology and bring breakthrough applications to a potentially vast audience.
What if a microprocessor could run a high-level language, the essential tool for programming a general-purpose computer?
Spotting the Opportunity
Bill set the magazine down, and we planned our next move. The good news was that our train was leaving the station at last. The bad: We had no idea if we’d be in time to board. Though the article made vague references to BASIC and FORTRAN, it wasn’t clear whether MITS already had 8080-based languages available or in development. In either case, we’d be sunk.
Calling MITS that they had the program
Hoping for the best, we sent a letter to the company’s president on our old traffic-machine business stationery, implying that we had a BASIC ready to roll out. When we didn’t hear back, we followed up with a phone call.
The call to Ed Roberts.
This is Paul Allen in Boston,” Bill said. “We’ve got a BASIC for the Altair that’s just about finished, and we’d like to come out and show it to you.” I admired Bill’s bravado but worried that he’d gone too far, since we’d yet to write the first line of code.
Roberts was interested, but he was getting ten calls a day from people with similar claims. He told Bill what he’d told everyone else: The first person to walk through his door in Albuquerque with a BASIC that worked would get a contract for the Altair.
If we’d been older or known better, Bill and I might have been put off by the task in front of us. But we were young and green enough to believe that we just might pull it off.
Curious Mum – Faye Allen
Bubbly and petite, a star student who sang in all the music groups, my mother worked nights in the local library, a job tailored to her teenage goal: to read at least one novel from every great author in the world.
Curious and friendly, with an easy laugh, Faye Allen was the kind of teacher whose former students stopped her in the street ten years later for a hug.
My mother read everything, from the classics to the latest novels: Bellow and Balzac, Jane Austen and Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer and Lin Yü-t’ang
I was reading on my own well before kindergarten. I can remember leafing through some illustrated primer when the page clicked into focus and the words suddenly made sense.
Not long after that, for Christmas, I was given an oversize picture book with everything a four-year-old could want to know about steam shovels, tractors, backhoes, and fire engines. I read that book every day. Seeing my interest, my mother had a friend give me a tutorial on steam engines. It wasn’t very technical, but I got my first inkling about the gears and belts and all the other hidden things that make a machine come alive.
Each morning she would send me into the world with a paraphrase of the Spartan mothers’ farewell to their sons marching off to war: “Go forth bearing your shield!” I walked out the door a little straighter when I heard that.
Go forth bearing your shield!
When you live with someone who doesn’t say much, you come to rely on intuition and body language. I could always tell when my father was displeased about something.
My father was selectively eclectic; he delved deeply into half a dozen pastimes over the course of his life, but no more. He introduced me to Stan Getz and Andrés Segovia, and to Indian art at the Burke Museum. He befriended a local modern artist, and his favorite living room chair sat under a framed Rouault print under a framed Rouault print of a king holding a flower.
“My parents rarely splurged on presents, but they never passed up opportunities for us to learn.”
Do what you love – Advice from his dad
I was still young when my father first asked me what I wanted to do with my life. It was his way of imparting his laconic wisdom: “When you grow up and have a job, do something you love. Whatever you do, you should love it.” He’d repeat this to me over the years with conviction. Later I’d figure out what he meant: Do as I say, not as I’ve done.
When you grow up and have a job, do something you love. Whatever you do, you should love it.
Our parents encouraged us at whatever we tried, and exposed us to Bach and jazz and flamenco, but it was more than that. They respected us as individuals who needed to find our own place in the world.
In fifth grade, I read every science book I could find, along with bound issues of Popular Mechanics that were hauled home from the university library, to be devoured ten or twelve at a gulp. The magazines commonly had futuristic cars or robots on the cover. The whole culture back then was charged with schemes and speculation about technology, some of which wound up coming true.
Computers – 11
I knew from science fiction about big machines called computers that did wondrous things. But it was all vague until I turned eleven, when my mother took me for an after-the-dentist treat, a trip to the university bookstore. Passing the adventure section, where I’d already polished off the likes of Tom Swift and His Flying Lab, I chose a beginner’s volume about computers.
In the simplest terms, it explained the fundamental bi-stable circuit, with an illustration of a flip-flop toggling between two transistors. In analog technology, boosting the input amplified output, much like increasing the flow of water from a faucet. But as a true digital device, the flip-flop circuit’s state was either one or zero, on or off. That book stripped the haze from computers and began to teach me how they really worked.
The Power of Association
MODELED AFTER A New England prep school, Lakeside was a collection of old brick buildings on thirty acres near the Jackson Park Golf Course in north Seattle. I was thrown into a forty-eight-member class of the city’s elite: the sons of bankers and businessmen, lawyers and UW professors. With scattered exceptions, they were preppy kids who knew each other from private grammar schools or the Seattle Tennis Club.
Just about everybody was smart at Lakeside, and they had skills and study habits that I lacked. The teachers were dynamic and demanding, prone to answering questions with questions.
My honors geometry teacher was Bill Dougall, the head of Lakeside’s science and math departments.
A few high schools were beginning to train students on traditional mainframes, but Mr. Dougall wanted something more engaging for us. In 1968 he approached the Lakeside Mothers Club, which agreed to use the proceeds from its annual rummage sale to lease a teleprinter terminal for computer time-sharing, a brand-new business at the time.
The Power of Timing
As usual, timing was crucial. If I’d been born five years earlier, I might have lacked the patience as a teenager to put up with batch-processing computers. Had I come around five years later, after time-sharing became institutionalized, I would have missed the opportunities that come from trying something new.
Passion for Programming and Learning
In a sense, that time-sharing terminal marked my start in personal computing years before personal computers. Programming resonated with my drive to figure out whether things worked or not and then to fix them. I’d long marveled at the innards of things, from transistors and integrated circuits back to that young-reader’s book on road equipment. But crafting my own computer code felt more creative than anything I’d tried before. I sensed that there would always be more to learn, layer upon layer of knowledge and techniques.
Soon I was spending every lunchtime and free period around the Teletype with my fellow aficionados. Others might have found us eccentric, but I didn’t care. I had discovered my calling. I was a programmer.
Bill Gates – Persistence, Smart and Competitive
You could tell three things about Bill Gates pretty quickly. He was really smart. He was really competitive; he wanted to show you how smart he was. And he was really, really persistent. After that first time, he kept coming back. Many times he and I would be the only ones there.
Where I was curious to study everything in sight, Bill would focus on one task at a time with total discipline. You could see it when he programmed—he’d sit with a marker clenched in his mouth, tapping his feet and rocking, impervious to distraction. He had a unique way of typing, sort of a six-finger, sideways scrabble.
I wasn’t a nerd. I was just someone who happened to love computers, among many other things.
Traf-O-Data – Hard to compete with free
In hindsight, Traf-O-Data was a good idea with a flawed business model. We had done no market research. We hadn’t foreseen how hard it would be to get municipalities to make capital expenditures, or that officials would be reluctant to buy machines from students. For Bill, Traf-O-Data’s failure would serve as another cautionary tale. Above all, we learned that it was hard to compete with “free.” (Bill took that lesson to heart. Years later he’d become obsessed with Linux, the open-source operating system.)
In my experience, each failure contains the seeds of your next success—if you are willing to learn from it.
Grinding – Work Ethic
We worked all hours, with double shifts on weekends. Bill basically stopped going to class. Monte overslept his one o’clock French section. I neglected my job at Honeywell, dragging into the office at noon. I’d stay until 5:30, and then it was back to Aiken until three or so in the morning. I’d save my files, crash for five or six hours, and start over. We’d break for dinner at Harvard House of Pizza or get the pupu platter at Aku Aku, a local version of Trader Vic’s. I had a weakness for their egg rolls and butterflied shrimp.
I’d occasionally catch Bill grabbing naps at his terminal during our late-nighters. He’d be in the middle of a line of code when he’d gradually tilt forward until his nose touched the keyboard. After dozing an hour or two, he’d open his eyes, squint at the screen,blink twice, and resume precisely where he’d left off—a prodigious feat of concentration.
I can picture Bill debugging BASIC on a Teletype in the corner, flipping through the printout listing in his lap and typing with fierce intensity. He lived in binary states: either bursting with nervous energy on his dozen Cokes a day, or dead to the world. He’d work until drained and then curl up on the floor in his office and be asleep within fifteen seconds. Sometimes I’d return to MITS in the morning and see Bill’s feet sticking out of his office doorway in a pair of scuffed loafers.
Now our partnership needed a name. We considered Allen & Gates, but it sounded too much like a law firm. My next idea: Micro-Soft, for microprocessors and software. While the typography would be in flux over the next year or so (including a brief transition as Micro Soft), we both knew instantly that the name was right. Micro-Soft was simple and straightforward. It conveyed just what we were about.
From the time we’d started together in Massachusetts, I’d assumed that our partnership would be a fifty-fifty proposition. But Bill had another idea. “It’s not right for you to get half,” he said. “You had your salary at MITS while I did almost everything on BASIC without one back in Boston. I should get more. I think it should be sixty-forty.
Shares Issues again
“I had already been instituting the move to 16-bit software, but Bill wasn’t wrong about the SoftCard’s importance. Under the circumstances, I felt that our 64–36 partnership split was out of whack. Bill had set a precedent by claiming extra equity for his work on Altair BASIC, another exceptional contribution. Now it was time, I thought, to augment my share. A modest adjustment in the ratio seemed only right.
But when I made my case, Bill would have none of it. “I don’t ever want to talk about this again,” he said. “Do not bring it up.”
In that moment, something died for me. I’d thought that our partnership was based on fairness, but now I saw that Bill’s self-interest overrode all other considerations. My partner was out to grab as much of the pie as possible and hold on to it, and that was something I could not accept. I didn’t have it out with Bill at the time. I sucked it up and thought, OK … but one day I’m out of here.
AS I LOOK back at my life, I’d propose that my successes were the product of preparation and hard work. Yes, I was lucky to get early programming opportunities in high school and at C-Cubed; to have a father with the keys to a major library system; to find a partner in Bill who could take my ideas and magnify them; to cross paths with Ed Roberts, who needed to buy what we were able to build, just at the right time.
But it was no accident that I was positioned to take advantage of those breaks. IBM came to Microsoft in the first place because we had pushed the frontier for microcomputer languages with more prescience and boldness than anyone else.
I had ties to Tim Patterson because I’d hustled to develop an 8086 BASIC and later hired Tim to take a first pass at the SoftCard. I was drawn by nature to people who, like me, were eager to see what might come next and wanted to try to make it happen. From my youth, I’d never stopped thinking in the future tense.
Typically we’d tour the top computer science schools at the best universities: MIT, Cal Tech, Harvard, Yale, Stanford. (I can recall a packed lounge at MIT where students were chanting the actors’ lines in unison during a Star Trek rerun.) Bill thought it was better to get programmers when they were young and enthusiastic, before they were ruined by working somewhere else. After my stint at Honeywell, I couldn’t disagree. We wanted freshly minted bachelor’s degrees, occasionally a master’s, rarely a PhD. Above all, we were after the brightest lights.
As a technology company grows, it must balance the need for innovation with the imperative to bolster existing products and keep the profits flowing.
Bill kept running big decisions by me. Our dynamic was more intertwined than the partnership at Apple, where Steve Jobs was the grand thinker and Steve Wozniak the crack hardware designer. Bill and I were both generalists at heart. That was a big strength for Microsoft, but it also meant that no subject escaped debate.
Whenever we locked horns, I’d have to raise my intensity and my blood pressure to meet Bill’s, and it was taking a toll. Some people can vent their anger, take a breath, and let it go, but I wasn’t one of them. My sinking morale sapped my enthusiasm for my work, which in turn could precipitate Bill’s next attack.
Too angry and proud to make an emotional appeal, I never went in and told Bill, point-blank, “Some days working with you is like being in hell.” So my grievances hung in the air, unstated and unresolved. By the time we fought over DOS 2.0, our partnership was living on borrowed time.
Lymphoma-Hodgkin’s disease at 29
On September 25, they performed the biopsy. After I came out of anesthesia, the surgeon entered my room looking grim. “Mr. Allen,” he said, “I took out as much as I could, but our initial diagnosis is lymphoma.
I knew that was cancer, but not much else, and as I found out more I got terrified. In those days, even early-stage lymphomas had a fifty-fifty chance of killing you.
I tried to make sense of the possibility that I might soon die. I’d had twenty-nine good years, but I couldn’t help feeling cheated. I had so much more to explore and experience.
If I were to relapse, it would be pointless—if not hazardous—to return to the stresses at Microsoft. If I continued to recover, I now understood that
Life was too short to spend it unhappily.
By the end, Bill and I had diverged in ways that went beyond our yelling matches. His extreme competitiveness helped make him a historically successful CEO, but it also destabilized our relationship.
Sometimes it seemed that Bill so utterly identified with Microsoft that he’d get confused about where the company left off and he began. I didn’t feel quite the same way. The business was hugely important, but it did not define me.
LOSING THE CAMARADERIE and creative work at Microsoft left a hole in my life. I missed the good times with Bill, when we’d spur each other on to bigger and better ideas, though the occasions had grown fewer toward the end. But I never felt tempted to reconsider my departure. It was like a failed romance. Parts of the relationship had been wonderful, but I remembered the negatives, too. I could not go back.
In the high-tech field, there’s tremendous pressure even when you’re doing well; you have to run incredibly hard just to hold your competitive position.
Effect of Anti-Trust on Microsoft
In a company where tech decisions were still ultracentralized, the repercussions of a distracted CEO had to be damaging. We can only speculate as to how much it affected Microsoft’s course in those critical years, and over the difficult decade that followed.
Microsoft arguably touches more lives on a daily basis than any other corporation on earth. More than a billion copies of Windows are in use around the world. But the company is haunted by a decade and more of missed opportunities in Internet search and smartphones, social networking and digital media sales.
Apple, once a niche player in personal computers, is at present the dominant purveyor of the Cool Devices of the future. Google has blown past Microsoft in search and in Internet-based computing, or “the cloud.” Facebook is king in social networking, where Microsoft’s lone modest success is Xbox LIVE.
Scale, Culture, and Leadership
How did a company once at the forefront of technology and change fall so far behind? It’s a thorny question, with roots that go back decades, but I believe it boils down to three broad factors: scale, culture, and leadership.
The obvious answer is that Microsoft got huge and failed to deal with the consequences. When I left the company, it had fewer than five hundred employees. By 1990, there were more than five thousand; by 2000, nearly forty thousand; today, more than ninety thousand. At that scale, cultural changes creep in unless you guard zealously against them. To avoid mediocrity, you need to be rigorous about weeding out underperformers. Microsoft hasn’t proven to be good at that.
To avoid mediocrity, you need to be rigorous about weeding out underperformers
Today’s Microsoft has fingers in dozens of pies, from small-business accounting software to Webcams. But too many efforts can distract from the unwavering focus you need for your core products and strategic initiative.
Too many efforts can distract from the unwavering focus you need for your core products and strategic initiative.
Microsoft is struggling to adapt to that new reality. Over time, its Enterprise-leaning culture has calcified; the fast follower became a slower one.
Zune came out five years after the original iPod, an established category leader with a potent consumer lock-in called iTunes, and has captured only a sliver of the market. Bing, Microsoft’s first credible challenge to Google Search, wasn’t launched until 2009. Fourteen months later, the domestic search engine market share for MSN/Windows Live/Bing Search stood at a combined 14 percent, a distant second to Google’s 65 percent.
User inertia makes the new incumbent tough to dislodge, and the one-time alpha dog finds itself trailing.
Running man syndrome
Picture a man running uphill toward a goal. He gets tired and thirsty, but he’ll keep running until management applies a fitness test and winnows out ideas without promise.
I’ve learned that creativity needs tangible goals and hard choices to have a chance to flourish.
Prescience is a double-edged sword. If you’re a little early, you might hit the jackpot with Altair BASIC or Starwave. But if you’re too far ahead of technology or the market, you can wind up with something like Metricom.
Losing $8 Billion in the cable industry
We left behind a company with positive cash flow and a strong foundation, but the lessons I learned were among the most expensive ever. My net loss in the cable business was $8 billion.
The downside of overleveraging
WITH THE CLARITY of hindsight, I could say that I took the wrong people’s advice in plunging into Charter. I needed savvier, more experienced executives to assess my risks and to run the company, and I didn’t have them until it was too late. But the fact remains that the investment was mine, and I made serious miscalculations.
Cable is like a mule train. It’s moving as fast as it can but still takes forever to get anywhere.
Travel through Books
I wasn’t raised as an adventurer. As a child, I traveled through books, the way my mother did. The piles of National Geographic in our basement depicted the larger world out there, but I didn’t envision myself as a globetrotter. Then, as a young man at Microsoft, I simply lacked the time to explore. All that changed when I became ill at twenty-nine.
After a buildup of fluid in my other lung, a chest biopsy revealed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the disease that had so terrified me when I was misdiagnosed as a young man. I had the most treatable variety, but the cancer was so aggressive that it had already reached stage IV, spreading beyond the lymph nodes.
Bill Gates being a friend
Throughout this difficult period, one of my most regular visitors was Bill Gates. He was everything you’d want from a friend, caring and concerned.
I was reminded of the complexity of our relationship and how we always rooted for each other, even when we were barely speaking. It seemed that we’d be stuck with one another for as long as we lasted
When I became gravely ill in my twenties, I found myself regretting that my life was so narrowly focused. But after I recovered and traveled the world, I soon became restless. I discovered that what I missed most was creating things. And so I went back to work.
SOME PEOPLE ARE motivated by a need for recognition, some by money, and some by a broad social goal. I start from a different place, from the love of ideas and the urge to put them into motion and see where they might lead.
The creative path is rocky, with the risk of failure ever present and no guarantees. But even with its detours and blind alleys, it’s the only road that I find fulfilling.
Finding the right people for your Vision
I’ve also seen what can happen when the right team isn’t in place, how the best ideas can founder. I made more mistakes in pursuing the Wired World than I can count, but the first and worst was this:
I often failed to find the right people to help me execute my vision. My own history probably swayed me to take a flier on some with slim track records and to entrust them with too much too soon. Since then I have learned to be more careful.
Talent is indeed essential, but seasoning and maturity are not to be underestimated.
Above all, I’ve learned the pitfalls of getting so locked in to looking ahead that you miss the pothole that makes you stumble, or the iceberg that sinks you. Still, any crusade requires optimism and the ambition to aim high. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to find my own challenges, see them through to fruition, and—if everything breaks right—change the world for the better.
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.