Bill Gates, programmer?

Bill Gates, programmer?

Summary: Clearly he did some programming in his teen years but we don't know what he worked on, and while Paul Allen went on to write advanced microprocessor simulators, Gates clearly did not.

A week or two ago I made an unguarded comment about Bill Gates being an opportunist rather than either a visionary or a programmer. That drew a lot of argument - on both issues.

The visionary versus opportunist side of this is pretty clear. Visionaries create new strategies, drive the public's understanding of new ideas through innovation, and generally lead the charge in new directions. Microsoft's record of innovation is a null set: just about everything they've done has been opportunistic, making money on other people's ideas or products.

Basically Bill Gates has made more money for himself and his shareholders selling Steve Jobs' ideas to the public than Apple has, but it's easy to see who's been the visionary and who's been the opportunist in that relationship.

The programmer issue is much harder to get to the truth on. Here's the canonical "fanboy" picture of Bill Gates, Programmer extraordinaire, from


Although Bill Gates is known mostly for his founding of Microsoft he also has done a number of programming jobs before becoming the worlds richest man. Bill Gates first programming job would be when he offered the principle at his high school a timetable organizer that would be more efficient and easier to use than what the principle had previously been using. Little did Gates' principle know that Bill had created the program to his own benefit... Bill was going to be in all the pretty girls classes. Bill's second job was a summer's work programming in which he earned 4200 dollars. At the age of fourteen Bill Gates and his programming buddy thought up the idea for a traffic counting computer which would later be named 'Traf- o-Data' and earn them 20 000 dollars. But when word got around that the computers were being sold out of a basement by a couple of teens the business fell through. Gates also worked as a Congressional Page and at a programming company called 'TRW'. After dropping out of Harvard Gates created the first basic operating language for the computer. Although Gates has programmed a number of programs he is still going strong at it and is programming as I write this.

So how much truth is there to this? Some of it has a basis in reality: he clearly did learn some BASIC in school; this summary, for example, appears to have consensus support:


In 1968 at age 13 as an 8th grader while at Lakeside School (a private exclusive school for boys) he got access to a Teletype connected by a 110 baud modem to a GE MARK II time-sharing system that only had BASIC (Beginner's All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). The teletype combined a keyboard, a printer, and a paper tape punch and reader. It cost $89 per month to rent the teletype and $8 an hour for on-line fees (about $450 and $40 in 1998 dollars, respectively). Gates quickly became an avid programmer and one of the main users of the system.

(Note: You can experience a facsimile of this for yourself - see the GE-235 BASIC replication project led by Tom Kurtz.)

Paul Allen, two years ahead of Gates at Lakeside, was part of the group Gates found clustered around the GE terminal but his focus, and that of most of the others in the group, was on the internals: not on using BASIC, but on what made the thing work and therefore on what else it could be made to do.

Beyond that period, however, the picture gets hazy. We know Bill Gates sold a couple of programming projects culminating in his pitch to Altair on providing a BASIC for the MITS machine, but we do not know from independent sources either who delivered on those projects or what was delivered..

According to an Andrew Orlowski article in the register entitled Could Bill Gates Write Code? the answer with respect to the Altair BASIC is a resounding "Yes." Here's a bit from the story:


Even if you've been following our saga of Micro-Soft's 1975 Altair BASIC here and here, - one question remains unanswered.

Was it any good?

Reuben Harris has been disassembling a [4K Altair BASIC] binary with some help from Monte Davidoff, the third author of Altair BASIC (along with Gates and Paul Allen) and who we interviewed here last week. He has the same question in mind:-

"'Could Bill Gates Write Code?' Or was he merely the luckiest man alive," before concluding... "Yes He Bloody Could!"

And that should be convincing, except that it isn't because the quality of the code isn't at issue - and both IBM and DEC had similar products for their 5X00 and PDP lines respectively. What's at issue here is who first wrote that code and on that the only evidence we have is in a listing that miraculously surfaced sometime in 1999 - about ten years after Bill Gates first promised to make it public.

That source, which can be seen but not copied at Harvard's Pusey library, apparently contains these comments:



Beyond that, what we know is that the other people involved from the earliest projects on, including Allen and Davidoff among many others, have amply demonstrated the needed skills in other contexts - but Gates has not. Indeed most of the photos from the period show Allen at work with Gates looking on, and even the Gates publicity machine has backed off claims about his post 1975 programming expertise and personal contributions to MS-DOS since the truth about its origins in QDOS and CP/M has become widely established.

So bottom line, was, or is, Bill Gates a programmer? Clearly he did some programming in his teen years but we don't know what he worked on, and while Paul Allen went on to write advanced microprocessor simulators, Gates clearly did not.

It's legitimate, therefore, to argue that he did programming, and so must be, or at least have been, a programmer; but, I think the questions should be considered largely unanswered because we have lots of claims but no incontrovertible evidence for any serious work.

But if he never did know much about making software, how did he succeed in building Microsoft? What I think is that fanboy's picture of him as the boy genius earning his way from programmer to billionaire misrepresents the nature of Microsoft as a software company. It isn't, it's a marketing company, and in that context we can treat David Every's summary of how Microsoft got IBM sponsorship as applicable both to the Gates programming record as seen by fanboy and as an answer to the question about Microsoft's success:


There was no quality to Gates' or Microsoft's product -- it was timing and chance (and marketing and contacts) that led to their success. They were wise and ruthless enough to exploit the opportunities -- there was no genius (but probably some fraud).

Topic: Software Development

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  • Unanswered questions.....

    With the way you are trying to justify your comments it sems there is a little bit of Gates envy around!! Isn't opportunism the essence of capitalism? and arent those people who make the opportunities considered to be great businessmen?
    • The Sign of a great businessman

      A great bussiness man doesn't create opportunities. What they do is recognize opportuties and take advantage of the opportunities. Most people who fail in business fail because they ingnore to many opportunities. I look back at my own life and think "if I had done this then". Well that's is looking at the opportunities I let slip by. A great businessman doesn't let anyone of them slip by. They don't look back and say "What if".
    • Weren't we talking about BillG, MITS BASIC genius?

      Maybe so. I think you've overlooked an element of ethics, but should we go there, the next thing you know people will be throwing around Ayn Rand and Nietzsche. But, here's the point: for some reason being a great businessman isn't cool enough, some people have to see Bill Gates as a great programmer, a hacker extrordinaire, the man who compiled liberty_valance-1.0.
  • Winners write history

    I have no first hand experience of Microsoft. However, the most useful article I have seen on Bill Gates is posted here:

    I tend to believe the accuracy of this article. It illustrates that Bill Gates had enough technical knowledge - and let's be clear here raw IQ - that he could 'motivate' people to work beyond their natural inclinations.

    So why all the 'Bill's a programmer stuff'? Most people want to rationalise success. They don?t care if it is accurate, just so long as it fits.

    Msoft Marketing obviously want this to happen, because to them it could be great branding. But they can't promote the bottom line: "Bill's success is based on the fact that he scares the sh@t out of people".

    So the geek idea was pushed (which was attractive for a whole host of reasons), and once again the winners got to write history.
  • Marketing software.

    That's a very restrictive view of being a software company. And, given the attitude is not just Mr. Murphy's, I think it's part of the reason so many Unix-based outfits became unsuccessful software companies.

    Try this more relaxed view: A software company is one which creates and sells software. What the softare does and how it does it are keys to success.

    Makes everything come clear, doesn't it?!
    Anton Philidor
    • Stay on subject

      Murph was trying to establish whether Bill Gates was ever a programmer. He naturally had to say SOMETHING about his software company - but that was more of an aside.

      He mentioned DOS once, and neither Windoze nor UNIX. He also acknowledged Dollar Bills' ability to be a marketer.

      Your M$hilling is out of place here. Try to critique the blog - not take it as an offense to try and talk about Gates.
      Roger Ramjet
    • Microsoft was his subject.

      He finishes the discussion of Bill Gates's programming experience by saying that Mr. Gates did some programming, but whether he was a programmer is unresolved. That's not a resolution.

      Then he comes to the end of the comment, and is definite:

      "What I think is that fanboy's picture of him as the boy genius earning his way from programmer to billionaire misrepresents the nature of Microsoft as a software company. It isn't, it's a marketing company..."

      Then he uses a quote that says the same thing to reinforce his emphasis.

      The discussion of whether Bill Gates was a programmer is left unresolved and treated as mildly interesting. The question of whether Microsoft was successful because of its software is answered emphatically at the end of the article.

      I think from your own phrasing that you didn't notice the emphasis because you agreed with the conclusion so thoroughly.
      Anton Philidor
  • My first computed experience

    was in 1974 on a teletype connected to an IBM 360 mainframe. I was programming in BASIC by 1975. I would have liked to have squared off against him - there was no one in middle school that came close to my talent - which isn't saying a whole lot (only about a dozen people used the computer, and they liked playing games - STERL and MALAR).

    Programming takes more experience than talent. I'm sure that Bill started off pretty bad at programming - but people like Paul Allen would "rub off on him". I think that since Bill had the talent for making deals, he separated from the technical day-to-day stuff to concentrate on marketing. Which of course suited him best . . .
    Roger Ramjet
    • Roger, ya beat me to it by 4 years! (old codger flashbacks)

      As a lab technician at a small UK university in 1976, I had access to the uni' "computer centre" and its IBM mainframe. I taught myself BASIC at a desk sized VDU, during my lunch hours. Users logged in and got a 1K, 2K or 4K "slot". The BASIC was single-commands-to-a-line, numeric variables only. The mainframe became a GEC 4082. So it was on to ALGOL and COBOL, using punched cards. Meanwhile, on the home front, the first home computers had arrived. The ZX80. Swiftly followed by the Tandy TRS80, Commodore PET, Apple II, etc etc. Thousands of UK programmers submitted free code to a dozen different computer mags every week - none of them were named Bill Gates. Perhaps if they'd sold someone elses code to a major player, like Bill G did, they'd all be just as rich now?
      • Gates and the British computer industry

        I remember an interview with Hermann Hauser the former CEO of Acorn computers (manufacturers of the BBC micro).

        He recounted how Gates came to see him in the early 80s trying to sell him MS-DOS.

        Having seen the product Hauser responded "we can't use this,Bill, it doesn't have any networking support" (the BBC micro had an ethernet port as standard and could be used as a terminal to a host system). To which Gates replied "what's networking?"
    • I started in 1984, but...

      My mother started about 20 years before that. Back then, even assembler wasn't an option - programming directly in machine code in binary. Fun.

      [i]Programming takes more experience than talent. I'm sure that Bill started off pretty bad at programming - but people like Paul Allen would "rub off on him". I think that since Bill had the talent for making deals, he separated from the technical day-to-day stuff to concentrate on marketing. Which of course suited him best . . .[/i]

      I remember reading a comment about Bill Gates's programming - to the effect that it was bad. A quick Google shows this:

      I'm not sure if that has been verified though...

      Certainly I agree that Bill's talents were not best spent on programming.

      With regards to "Programming takes more experience than talent", I'd say BOTH are important to become a good programmer. Unfortunately, dumb programmers can survive in the commercial world, so you can have experianced but poor programmers. Of course, even someone naturally suited to programming starts out poor, and I haven't seen a university course that can churn out good programmers.

      Personally, I think that a good programmer needs to be good at thinking in abstract ways, good at being creative, good at thinking logically / precisely, and to have a good memory. If you have all that (which I'd say well under 1% of people do), then with some experiance you'll probably get good.
      Chris Rijk
      • In terms of MBTI

        [Personally, I think that a good programmer needs to be good at thinking in abstract ways, good at being creative, good at thinking logically / precisely, and to have a good memory.]

        I find that you need either a iNtuitive or Thinking trait. I've seen many NT's, some STJ's and a few NF's that are decent at programming. SFP's and SFJ's are pretenders . . .
        Roger Ramjet
        • iNtuition is the key factor

          NF types are often convinced that they'd be no good in a technical role. But it's the N factor that enables abstract thinking. (I'm INFP). ISFJ's and ISTJs make fabulous system validators. I'm working with a bunch of 'em right now. :-)
          • Not many NFs

            Most F types are female - and they tend to stay away from tech. :(

            F types are hard to understand since they are unbounded by (lack of) logic . . .

            Subjective reasoning works - for some odd reason . . .
            Roger Ramjet
  • Another article addressing this question ...

    ... can be found here

    (quote) "Gates didn't come close to inventing the chip, the PC, the operating system or productivity software. Apple, IBM and the human condition did the dirty work to make the PC popular. In reality, Gates just signed a couple of contracts at the right time and made the most of it.

    To portray Gates as anything less than perhaps the luckiest and most savvy businessman of all time would be doing him a disservice".

    As for visionary - Bill Gates totally and completely failed to even MENTION the internet in his 1995 book "The Road Ahead". Visionary? In true Redmond PR bullshine style, the book was later re-written and re-published, to include a section on the internet.

    "Until 1995 Microsoft didn't consider the Internet relevant. It was overlooked in Gates' The Road Ahead first published that year. (Gates, Bill. The Road Ahead. Viking Penguin, 1995) Instead of the passing fad Bill Gates imagined, the Internet became a primary reason many people use computers. It was created and grew without the help of Microsoft. Microsoft's Internet strategy has been to follow the lead of others in everything from the web browser to instant messaging"

    I see no visionary ...
    • Give me a break

      Neither Apple or IBM invented anything by your standard. Intel had much more to do with the invention of the PC and the micro-chip. Many other companies (including IBM) wrote operating systems before Apple. Apple borrowed the idea of the graphical user interface from others. Gates/MSFT had the insight that using a standard hardware platform (Intel microprocessors) and standard OS (DOS and then Windows) would unify a fragmented industry and create a virtuous cycle of hardware and software. That's a much more "visionary" idea than the Mac...which is fantastic industrial design of ideas developed by others.

      The fact that Gates and MSFT missed the boat on the Internet is probably disappointing for them but certainly isn't/wasn't a unique problem. That's how big paradigm shifts work...they surprise almost everybody. I didn't see Apple coming out with a Web browser early on.

      Your point about Gates success being based solely on luck is rediculous. Every successful business is based somewhat on luck. But luck only gets you opportunities. Cashing in (in this case literally) on opportunity takes more than luck. It takes hard work and insight.
      • Not convinced, Mark

        It's a matter of recorded fact that the Acorn minicomputer (standard issue in UK schools in the 70's) had ethernet. (see also Nimbus Research Machines). Its a matter of recorded fact that graphical interfaces were being independantly written (often be self-taught amateurs) for every 8 bit minicomputer available in the late 70's/early 80's. It's a matter of recorded fact that in the late 70's, on uni' owned PDP11's, programmers were using the new C language (now THAT's innovation) and UNIX OS (now THATs innovation). All those amateur coders contributed their work to dozen upon dozen of monthly magazines. This idea, of collaborative software devlopment, evolved into the superior Linux OS. Now THAT's innovation.

        Microsoft have copied, borrowed, stolen and purchased pretty much every "innovation" they've ever claimed. In fact, the only real innovation exhibited by Microsoft has consistently been in the areas of PR, spin, FUD, astroturfing, deception and even illegal business practices.
        • You're missing the point

          What I said in my post is that Gates/MSFT saw the value/promise of a standard hardware and software platform and exploited it. There were literally dozens or more companies that were building interesting hardware using microprocessors and various operating systems. Gates insight was in seeing that a standard would create a virtous cycle.

          Your last paragraph is rediculous nonsense.
          • Did he or was that just how it turned out

            I don't see that a anyone's vision but more of fluke. So many factors occured to bring about standardized hardware and software.

            Just one example would be Compaq reverse engineering the IBM BIOS then none of this would have happen. The opportunity offered to Microsoft by this action of Compaq's is one of the major points that standardized software and hardware. This is not visionary of Billgates or even Microsoft but very opportunistic as they really screwed IBM due to IBM's short sightedness.

            Saying Microsoft and Bill Gates are not visionary is no slight against them. They did what most of could not or would not and that is walk throuh that door when opportunity knocks. Add a bit of luck to that and looks what happened.

            Bill Gates happen to be lucky that he was in the right place and right time 3 times in row and had the guts to take advantage of the opportunities presented. Give those 3 opportunities to someone else they'd have squandered them. In fact the creato of CPM did just that.
          • "Lucky three times in a row..." That's funny

            You unintentionally proved my point. Lucky once? Maybe. Lucky twice? Possibly. Lucky "three times in a row?" Funny.