Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire — Summary

Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire — Summary

This book is amazing. My intuition bugged me a long time about reading a biography from Bill. I just didn’t knew which one. It’s not like there is one official Biography about him. Googling then I stumbled on a list of books among them was Hard Drive. It turned out to be the perfect choice.

This book was published in 1992, it captures the early career of Bill Gates. It is so captivating, I could barely put it down. This book fixed my ignorance about what makes Bill so successful.

What was little Bill like

11 yo Bill once told the family’s pastor: “I can do anything I put my mind to.”

That remark pretty much sums up the essence and intensity which define Bill Gates. At that age he had memorized the sermon of the mount better than anyone his age the pastor had witnessed.

Gates loved competing— and winning. Just as importantly, he hated losing. He thrived on competition, as long as he was playing or doing something he was good at, and relished opportunities to prove himself, physically and mentally.

A friend who knew Gates in his early teens said: “Bill loved playing pickleball and was fiercely competitive. He loved playing tennis and was fiercely competitive. He loved water skiing and was fiercely competitive. Everything he did, he did competitively and not simply to relax. He was a very driven individual.”

“Everything Bill did, he did to the max,” said Edmark. “What he did always went well, well beyond everyone else.”

Into Programming

Gates first had the opportunity to use a computer when his school Lakeside, made the decision to expose its students to the world of computing by buying computing time from a PDP-10 minicomputer in 1968. The PDP-10 was owned by Digital Equipment Corporation which billed clients for “computer time”.

Lakeside became one of the first schools in the country with computer capability. The computer room soon became a powerful magnet for several of Lakeside’s brightest students, especially Gates. Before long, the teletype would be his umbilical cord to a new and exciting universe.

Gates was in Paul Stocklin’s math class when he got his first peek at the computer room. One spring day, Stocklin took his entire math class over to the Upper School to see it. Under Stocklin’s supervision, Gates typed in a few instructions and watched in awe as the teletype, after communicating with the PDP-10 several miles away, typed back the response. It was better than science fiction.

Bill’s Business Acumen

Gates was really talented in math. But here is what really in my opinion defined his later success. He was really good at a lot of things.

Fred Wright, chairman of the math department at Lakeside when Gates attended, said of Gates, “He could see shortcuts through an algebraic problem or a computer problem. He could see the simplest way to do things in mathematics. He’s as good an analytical mathematician as I’ve worked with in all my years of teaching. But Bill was really good in all areas, not just math. He’s got a lot of breadth. It’s one of the unusual things about him.”

“If anybody wants to know why Bill Gates is where he is today, in my judgment it’s because of this early experience cutting deals,” said Marvin Evans, Kent’s father.

Meeting Paul Allen

Paul was going to change Bills life, and not just because with him he would create Microsoft.

Although Gates was only in the lower school, before long some of the older boys were coming to him for help with the computer. Among them was Paul Allen, who would egg Gates on, challenging him to solve a difficult problem.

“Paul thought I had this attitude like I understood things,” Gates said. “So when he got stuck he would say, ‘Hey, I bet you can’t figure this out!’ He would kind of challenge me . . . and it was pretty hard stuff.”

As they spent more and more time together in the computer room, Gates and Allen became friends. One day, Gates went to Allen’s home, only to be amazed by Allen’s collection of sci-fi books.

“He had read four times as much as I had,” recalled Gates. “And he had all these other books that explained things. So I would ask him, ‘How do guns work? How do nuclear reactors work?’ Paul was good at explaining stuff. Later, we did some math stuff and physics stuff together. That’s how we got to be friends.”

Bill and Paul made a great team perhaps because they were so different. Bill was intense, but Paul was cooler and more likeable by many.

Although Allen could be just as intense and competitive as Gates, he was surprisingly soft-spoken, with an equally soft handshake. Allen talks so softly, in fact, that when reporters interview him, his voice sometimes fails to automatically activate their tape recorders.

The other kids at Lakeside liked Paul Allen. To many of his classmates, he seemed more personable than some of the others who had taken over the computer room. It was easy to like the boy with the blond Fu Manchu mustache and aviator sunglasses who habitually carried a briefcase. There was no pretentiousness in Allen, none of the I’m-smarter-than-you attitude.

“Paul was cool,” said a classmate who was not one of the computer room crowd. “He was a nerd who didn’t look like a nerd. He was always more approachable and friendlier than Bill. . . . You would run into him in the hallways and he would actually stop and talk to you.”

Bill’s way into Business

What truck me while reading this biography is, how skilled a businessman Bill was. I had this preconception that him being a nerd programming day and night made Microsoft successful. But actually, that’s only part of the equation.

“We both were fascinated with the different possibilites of what you could do with computers,” Allen said. “It was a vast

area of knowledge we were trying to absorb. . . . Bill and I always had big dreams of what we could do with computers.” While Allen liked to read magazines like Popular Electronics, Gates read the business magazines that came into his family’s home. As a prelude to doing business in the “real world,” Gates and Allen formed the Lakeside Programmers Group, along with two of their friends, Richard Weiland and Kent Evans. Weiland and Allen were in the tenth grade, while Gates and Evans were in the eighth grade. The Lakeside Programmers Group was dedicated to finding money-making opportunities to use The Machine in the real world.

“I was the mover,” Gates said. “I was the guy who said, ‘Let’s call the real world and try to sell something to it.’ ”

The first Business Opportunity

Bill and Paul’s first opportunity to do business with their knowledge came thanks to their experience. It wasn’t money they were paid though, it was something more important, computer time.

Computer Center Corporation or C-cubed as Bill called it, was a company which attempted to sell timesharing services to scientific and engineering businesses. One of the founders and chief programmer had a son at Lakeside in the same grade as Gates. CCC got a deal with Lakeside which is how Bill and his friends got the opportunity to explore computers even more.

Soon they found out all kinds of loopholes in the system which enabled them to run detached jobs running in the background, playing chess, and eventually hacking the company’s accounting files to reduce the amount of the time the computer showed they had used.

After suspending the kids for weeks and threatening with the policy, they became more contrite. CCC’s problems didn’t stop there though. Gates soon brought the whole system down by typing in more characters than the terminal could handle, causing the company unhappy customers who where depending on the same time sharing computer.

The software was really bad, crashes who brought down all paying customers happened way too often. Every half an hour on busy days.

“We knew we had this reliability problem,” recalled Steve Russell, one of the programmers working for C-Cubed. “We knew how to turn the crashes on and off to some extent . . . simply by having lots of users and not having lots of users. What we wanted to do was get a herd of friendly users that we could turn on and off, so that we could turn them on to test the system and turn them off when we wanted the system to be reliable, because there were paying customers on the machines making money for us.”

So the company hired a herd of friendly users, and they became the unofficial “night shift.” C-Cubed offered Gates and the other Lakeside computer junkies an opportunity to try to crash the system. In exchange, they would get all the free computer time they wanted. They were simply to come down to C- Cubed in the evening and on weekends, after the paying customers were off the computer, log onto the system and have fun. The only requirement was that they were to carefully document each “bug” they found that caused the system to crash.

This is how Bill’s reading journey kind of started

It’s no secret Bill likes to read. His reading vacations are something the media often writes about. I recommend you to check out his book notes at https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books.

When Bills parents said he should give this computer stuff up because it was causing too much hold on him, he started reading.

Read he did, with the same kind of commitment he had made to computers. He consumed a number of biographies Franklin Roosevelt’s and Napoleon’s, among others—to understand, he said, how the great figures of history thought. He read business and science books, along with novels. His favorites were Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. He would later recite long passages from those two books to girlfriends. Holden Caulfield, the main character in Catcher in the Rye, became one of his heroes.

Gates wasn’t sure about his future, but he was confident

Bill went in and out of college during the time he worked with his friend Allen on several projects. He wasn’t sure what he’d become, he was good at many things. Should he become a lawyer? A mathematician?

“I met several people in the math department who were quite a bit better than I was at math,” said Gates. “It changed my view about going into math. You can persevere in the field of math and make incredible breakthroughs, but it probably discouraged me. It made the odds much longer that I could do some world-class thing. I had to really think about it: Hey, I’m going to sit in a room, staring at a wall for five years, and even if I come up with something, who knows. So it made me think about whether math was something I wanted to do or not. But there were so many choices. My mind was pretty much open.

I thought law would be fun. … I thought physiological psychology—the study of the brain—would be fun. … I thought working in artificial intelligence would be fun. … I thought theoretical computer science would be fun. … I really had not zeroed in on something. . . .”

Bill Gates

Bill eventually gave up his thoughts of becoming a mathematician because he thought there was no point if he couldn’t be the best. One thing he didn’t lack though was confidence. He firmly believed that he’d accomplish something great.

Although Gates may not have known what he was going to do with his life during high school, he seemed confident that whatever he did would make him a lot of money. He made just such a prediction about his future on several occasions to other students and teachers at Lakeside. In the 11th grade, Gates told his friend Paul Carlson that he would be a millionaire by the time he was 30 years old.

Gates said he was heading off to Harvard in the fall. Then he added, in a very matter-of-fact way: “I’m going to make my first million by the time I’m 25.” It was not said as a boast, or even a prediction. He talked about the future as if his success was predestined, a given, as certain as the mathematical proof that one plus one equals two.

Bill’s and Allen’s thought every home would eventually have a computer. They just weren’t sure to truly commit to doing something about it. Bill wasn’t sure about dropping out of school. It was Paul who finally convinced Bill to fully commit to their vision.

Gates and Allen were convinced the computer industry was about to reach critical mass, and when it exploded it would usher in a technological revolution of astounding magnitude. They were on the threshold of one of those moments when history held its breath . . . and jumped, as it had done with the development of the car and the airplane. Computer power was about to come to the masses. Their vision of a computer in every home was no longer a wild dream. “It’s going to happen,” Allen kept telling his friend. And they could either lead the revolution or be swept along by it. Allen was much more eager to start a company than Gates, who was worried about the reaction from his family if he dropped out of school.

“Paul kept saying, let’s start a company, let’s do it,” Gates recalled. “Paul saw that the technology was there. He kept saying, ‘It’s gonna be too late. We’ll miss it.’ ”

How BASIC was born

The first personal computer that came out was the Altair. It had just 256 bytes of memory with the option to expand to 4K bytes. The PC came without operating system, to be useful it had to at least have a language. Ed Roberts, the creator of the Altair decided the PC should use BASIC because it was easier than other languages at the time like FORTRAN .

The problem was that the PC’s capabilities were too limited to run a high level language like BASIC. This was THE opportunity for Bill and Allen.

“We were in the right place at the right time,” Allen would say later. “Because of our previous experience, Bill and I had the tools to be able to take advantage of this new situation.” Gates faced different challenges than his friend. He had to write slick, tight code and make it fit into the maximum 4K memory of the Altair. It was like trying to squeeze his size 13 feet into size eight shoes. Actually, it was a tighter fit than that. Their BASIC not only had to fit in the limited memory space, but room had to be left over to run programs. What was the use of having a BASIC if there were no memory left in the computer to do anything?

“It wasn’t a question of whether I could write the program,” Gates said, “but rather a question of whether I could squeeze it into 4K and make it super fast.”

He did. Gates said later that of all the code he ever wrote, he was most proud of the BASIC program developed in those eight weeks at Harvard. “It was the coolest program I ever wrote,” Gates said.

Basic was going to be the first product of the new company called Microsoft. Allen was to present it to Ed’s company called MITS located in Albuquerque. Sitting in the airplane a problem came up.

As his plane was on its final approach into Albuquerque, Allen suddenly had a horrible thought. “Oh my God!” he cried out loud, startling the passenger seated next to him. He and Gates had forgotten to write what’s known as a “bootstrap,” a program that would instruct the Altair how to load BASIC. Writing on a piece of paper in complicated 8080 machine language, Allen had the program completed before the jet’s wheels peeled rubber on the runway of the Albuquerque airport.

The next morning, Roberts came by to get Allen, and they returned to MITS. It was time to test the BASIC. The code was on a paper tape. Unlike the Altair kits that would be sold to the public, the machine at MITS had several perks unavailable on the public models. This Altair Was running on 7K of memory. And it was connected to a teletype. Allen would not have to read the flashing lights to understand output from the Altair. But best of all, this Altair was hooked into a paper tape reader. Allen could feed his BASIC tape directly into the machine. Otherwise, it would have meant flipping the toggle switches on the front of the Altair approximately 30,000 times in proper sequence. The only thing Allen had to key into the machine was the loader program.

the 8080 simulator or coding the BASIC itself, would now mean failure.

Suddenly, the Altair came to life. It printed “memory size?” Allen entered “7K.” The machine was ready for its first instruction. Allen typed “print 2 + 2.” The Altair printed out the correct answer: “4.”

Balancing ego and ambition

An entrepreneur has to be very good at putting his ego aside in order to get the best out of other people’s knowledge. Bill had that ability.

Although the office atmosphere was casual, it could also be confrontational. Gates was very demanding and the work was intense.

“Bill was always pushing,” said one programmer. “We’d do something I thought was very clever, and he would say, ‘Why didn’t you do this, or why didn’t you do that two days ago?’ That would get frustrating sometimes.”

But the Microkids expected to be challenged. And they expected to be able to challenge Gates. In fact, he wanted them to argue with him. His confrontational style of management helped Microsoft maintain its edge, its mental toughness. It made those who worked for him think things through. These are qualities that continue to distinguish Microsoft to this day. It is a culture that never gives employees a chance to get complacent because as soon as they do, someone is going to challenge them. Gates was not afraid to change his mind if someone made a convincing argument, a quality that Steve Wood came to admire. “Bill is not dogmatic about things. He’s very pragmatic,” Wood said. “He can be extremely vocal and persuasive in arguing one side of an issue, and a day or two later he will say he was wrong and let’s get on with it. There are not that many people who have the drive and the intensity and the entrepreneurial qualities to be that successful who also have the ability to put their ego aside. That’s a rare trait.”

Perfect Salesmanship

Gates sustained Microsoft through tireless salesmanship. For several years, he alone made the cold calls and haggled, cajoled, browbeat, and harangued the hardware makers of the emerging personal computer industry, convincing them to buy Microsoft’s services and products.

He was the best kind of salesman there is: he knew the product, and he believed in it. Moreover, he approached every client with the zealotry of a true believer, from the day he first articulated the Microsoft mantra: “A computer on every desktop, and Microsoft software in every computer.”

Entrepreneurial & Technical Skills

In my opinion, the best entrepreneurs are those who have the right domain specific knowledge. Elon Musk is a perfect example of someone who makes great use of the physics principles he learned at college, at his companies.

“He’s one of the few in the industry who has an enormous technical acumen,” said Osborne of Gates. “He’s the only entrepreneur in the industry who will pick up the code and comment on how good it is. He has the ability to look at it and tell what the programmer is doing right or wrong.”

Microsoft’s earlier recruiting style

…Microsoft went after highly competent technical people rather than skilled managers with an MBA. The recruiting emphasis was on finding exceptionally bright young employees with intensity, technical ability, and almost rabid enthusiasm. Knowing how to write code was more important than knowing how to write a business plan.

Microsoft was looking for highly driven individuals. The employees Bill wanted were those who spend a lot of hours working without needing supervision. People who loved working so much, they didn’t needed outside motivation.

During a phone screening, Microsoft personnel would ask a series of open-ended questions: “We’d have them describe a typical work week, or their typical day. We wanted to know how many hours they were awake, what they did in those hours. We’d ask how they felt about projects that didn’t get done. The kind of person we wanted was the one who responded, ‘God, I just hate that!’. . . . We were looking for what people did with their time, and the amount of energy in their voice would tell us what we wanted to know. We wanted to know if they were driven enough, so we could drop them into our atmosphere and have them thrive.”

Gates was great identifying the right people for his team.

Unlike a lot of corporate executives, Gates was able to put his ego aside, look at himself honestly, and to learn from his mistakes. He knew he had made a mistake in hiring Towne. In hiring Shirley, he would not make that mistake a second time.

“As you watch how Microsoft has developed, what you see is Gates realizing well in advance what he’s not good at and going out and finding exactly the right person to do the job,” said Stewart Alsop, a respected industry observer and longtime Gates admirer who writes a national computer newsletter. “This is so rare. I’ve been following startup companies for years. I can’t tell you how rare this is. Look at what happened with James Towne. Gates was told that as the founder of the company what he needed was a management guy, someone to organize the company. So he found Towne. But Gates realized quickly that Towne was not taking into account the history and culture of Microsoft. He was organizing Microsoft in a classical way rather than as it should have been run. He realized Towne was not bad, but that he, Gates, had made a mistake and Towne was the wrong guy for the job. So Gates went out and hired Jon Shirley. And he was absolutely the right guy. . . . The process of identifying the mistake, figuring out the problem and fixing it is what makes Bill Gates different. I’ve watched him do it over and over again.”

Microsoft used stock options to attract the best engineers wizards they could.

The option to buy stock in the company was a powerful recruiting tool, and the prospect of getting rich convinced more than one programming whiz kid just out of college to come to work for Microsoft. These options were dangled in their faces like strings of pearls.

A company is as good as the people composing it.

Microsoft had been successful, Gates felt, because of the caliber of people it hired. Prospective employees must display ambition, intelligence, expertise, and business judgment. But it was intelligence that counted the most.

Gates pushed his people hard because he wanted them to be better. Each day, he said, they should come to work thinking “I want to win.” They also must understand the shifting priorities between work and family, which sometimes meant working weekends. The combination of ambition and wanting to win every single day is what Gates referred to as “being hard core.”

Microsoft vs IBM

In the battle with big blue, Microsoft displayed it’s superior efficiency. Microsoft’s teams were small and highly integrated. They had a flat and flexible structure unlike the bureaucratic giant which moved slowly and with a giant overhead.

Big Blue managed the OS/2 project by committee, and it took a long time to get things done through such formal channels. While Microsoft programmers worked in small, tightly integrated teams, IBM took just the opposite approach. It had hundreds of people working on OS/2 in Boca Raton and at the IBM lab in Winchester, England. Programmers working on the OS/2 project at IBM were only too aware of the company’s ineffective bureaucratic structure. The Wall Street Journal reported on an allegorical memo making the rounds among IBM programmers that told how IBM lost a rowing race to Microsoft. An IBM task force, appointed to look into the loss, found that Microsoft had eight people rowing and one steering, while IBM had eight people steering and one rowing. The task force recommended that the one rower should row harder.

This book is one of my favorite Biographies because it is highly captivating and I learned a lot from it.