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Originally published June 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 30, 2008 at 6:51 PM

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Brier Dudley

What's Bill Gates really like? That's a billion-dollar question

People always ask what I really think about Bill Gates. Sometimes it's a test, to see if I share their view that he's the scourge of techville...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Bill Gates Retires

Bill Gates, who ends his full-time involvement with Microsoft Friday, was often right. He made a career, a company and an industry by looking over the horizon.

Brier Dudley
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People always ask what I really think about Bill Gates.

Sometimes it's a test, to see if I share their view that he's the scourge of techville.

Other times it's an opening line for someone who wants to gripe about problems with a computer or a Hotmail account.

By a huge margin, though, people are asking because Gates is one of the most fascinating characters in modern history — the billionaire geek, the wily-but-compassionate tycoon, the inspiration for entrepreneurs far and near.

They're especially curious here in the Puget Sound area, where people have been asking themselves what to think about Bill since he became so famous, controversial and the face of Seattle to much of the world.

It's a complicated question. The native son has been a difficult child at times. His smug performance in the early antitrust case tempered regional pride in the way he bamboozled IBM and skimmed the cream from the PC revolution, perhaps the biggest industrial transformation of the century.

While Gates was changing the world with software, Microsoft was making Seattle richer, more cosmopolitan and more congested than it would have become otherwise. (That should have cured the city of its inferiority complex regarding San Francisco — which still hasn't gotten over Microsoft's success — but the trolleys and weird new library suggest otherwise.)

I first met Gates in downtown Seattle during the 2001 earthquake, the day I broke the story that he was expanding his house in preparation for a third child. After running into the lobby of the Westin, we chatted and watched the TV coverage, then walked out to his car — a ho-hum Lexus sedan with a child seat in back. He drove it off himself, just another Seattle dad.

He always seemed polite, funny and charismatic. He's only turned away to ignore a few of the questions I've asked, and the wisecracks about reporters that I've heard him make were said quietly to other executives in the room, never to my face.

It's no wonder he attracted thousands of brilliant people to Redmond and inspired them to do incredible things. Maybe more of them would still be working there if he didn't use a brutal Socratic method, especially in the earlier years — quizzing, cussing and belittling people who didn't perform up to his standards.

Once I asked Rick Rashid, Microsoft's research chief, if Gates really had mellowed after the antitrust trial ended and Steve Ballmer assumed most of the management duties. Rashid said there was less yelling.

Maybe that's just the nature of the beast. Steve Jobs apparently uses a similar approach at Apple, and Microsoft lost some of its edge since Gates turned his focus to philanthropy.

I was warned by handlers that Gates doesn't like to be physically touched. But it seems like the closer people are to him, the more devoted they become.

During a Las Vegas tech conference a few years ago, I had drinks with Microsoft old-timer Carl Stork. While Gates was regaling a mob of fans across the room, Stork reminisced about early days at the conference, when they would save money by sharing a room and Stork would have to pick up his boss's underwear in the morning.

Most people probably don't give the question of what to think of Gates much thought, since Microsoft's image-makers have spent decades grooming Bill's public persona.

At first he was the brilliant-but-thrifty computer genius, riding coach on his way to conquer the world. Then it was the industry visionary whose memos and musings during annual "think weeks" on Hood Canal turned the tide of history.

More recently they've been painting a picture of a wizened techno-philosopher king, slurping orange pop and scribbling on legal pads in his quest to solve the great riddles of world health and economics, now that he's put computers on every desk.

I'm still not sure what to make of the guy.

It's easier to point out some of the lessons we've learned watching his amazing trajectory.

One is that you can't underestimate the value of a great education and a family that encourages learning. Gates may have dropped out of Harvard, but his imagination and interests were nurtured by Seattle's public and private schools.

Another is the pitfall of judging someone by appearances. Misreading the gangly kid from Seattle with big glasses cost IBM tens of billions.

The story of Bill Gates should also be a reminder to have patience with our children, even when they're obnoxious, and have faith that they'll end up making the world a better place.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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