Last week Netflix premiered a new three-part documentary about the iconic and relentless Bill Gates, who co-founded Microsoft in 1975 and helped bring about the dawn of the information age — while also becoming the richest man in the world.
Interviewing important people from Gates’ life, the documentary-makers try to summarize a lifetime spent competing hard in the technology business which then transitioning into a “second act” of ambitious philanthropy focusing on problems like sanitation in third-world countries. With his wife Melinda, Gates founded what is said to be the largest private foundation in the world.
The common thread, the film-makers seem to posit in “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates,” is the unique mind of Bill Gates. In fact, part of the fun of the documentary is just seeing which great geek stories the film-makers chose to include from Bill’s high-stakes life in their three hour-long episodes.
There are some moving memories and some private reminiscences, a return to our shared history and a new and determined perspective about our own collective future. They ask Gates how he feels about himself — getting careful and cautious answers where he earnestly tries to resist the temptation of building his own myth — and acknowledge the important people, many of them women, who helped Gates at key points throughout his life. They include perspectives from his wife, as well as friends, co-workers, and collaborators who probably know Gates about as well as anybody. But underneath it all lingers that tantalizing fascination of what we’ve always secretly wondered about his massive success. Is there something to be learned from the life of Bill Gates?
Coding for Days without Sleep
“Bill writes code for days without sleep,” the documentary’s first episode begins. It’s setting up the story of the time he was arrested for speeding near Albuquerque New Mexico at the age of 22. The documentary describes this as “blowing off steam… pushing the limits of his car — and the law.”
A few times the documentary makes the point that Gates’ intense ability to focus can become a problem. Gates later shares some memories from his childhood. “My parents’ authority seemed arbitrary. I really didn’t want to follow their rules…” This hints at the image of an uncompromising and remorseless Gates that some geeks may have formed in the late 1990s when the U.S. government brought an antitrust action against Microsoft.
Internal Microsoft memos revealed that Gates had been unapologetically pushing for ways to crush Microsoft’s competitors, whether it was the pioneering Netscape web browser or Linux’s open source operating system. And the 1999 docudrama “Pirates of Silicon Valley” reached back even further, including a scene where Apple co-founder Steve Jobs confronted Gates over Microsoft’s appropriation of Apple’s software ideas for their own personal computers.
If that’s your image of Bill Gates, you’ll enjoy the new documentary’s flashbacks to his life as a young geek. Episode 2 opens, “Bill is on a mission. He needs to unlock the mysteries of the PDP-10 computer. But the adults won’t share the source code with 13-year-old Bill.” It’s one of his great young adventures with future Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, as “together they boldly go where no one has gone before.” Specifically, the trash dumpster.
Throughout the documentary there are stylized and lightly-animated illustrations of young Gates — arguing with his mother, printing out programs with Paul Allen, and eventually meeting Melinda. Gates remembers Paul Allen as “the one who came to me and explained to me about chips and the magic of putting more and more capability on chips.”
And the late Allen himself even appears in the documentary through archival film clips, describing Bill as “an amazing programmer. There were times where he would fall asleep — literally put his head on the keyboard and fall asleep. And then he’d kind of groggily wake up, look at the screen, and then he’d start typing right where he left off.”
For me, this was the most interesting part of the documentary. “We had a lot of fun,” Gates remembers. “I had never gotten drunk, and Paul got me drunk…” Gates is asked if Allen was a “corrupting” older brother. “Oh yeah. There’s definitely an element of that. I was good friends with Paul before that, had been to his house, gone to movies with him. But the real intensification of our relationship was through this summer, Paul became my best friend.”
They’d gotten a job as young programmers before Gates was even out of high school, and it was just a few years later, when Gates was 22, that the two men would team up again to write the operating system for the world’s first commercial microcomputer. It’s a memory that they couldn’t let slip away — of how these two young men had started their very first software company together. “We were just bursting with excitement,” says the voice of Paul Allen. “We barely slept. We would take breaks off for fast food, and go back to work until 3 in the morning.”
But of course, Allen left Microsoft within a few years, partly because of health issues — he struggled with both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. But it’s also known that Allen felt unhappy with the environment at Microsoft. In the documentary Bill remains tight-lipped about the tension that developed between him and Allen, saying circumspectly that “There were times I was tough on Paul. There’s many years there, I’m his boss, and I’m calling him up saying, ‘Hey, work hard.'”
But Melinda Gates says the two Microsoft co-founders eventually began to repair their relationship, remembering “We had times with Paul, we would sit for hours. They were like two little boys laughing together over these old stories.”
Still, when the interviewer asks Gates if he has any regrets about how he left his relationship with Paul, there’s a long and significant pause, as sad music plays in the background, and the narrator fills in the rest of the story. “Before Bill knew Paul was sick, there were attempts to reach out to one another, but it never happened. And then when Paul announced that he was ill again, Bill reached out and finally let all of the emotion out. Bill was very honest about how he felt about Paul, and how he loved Paul, and how their friendship is more important than any of the things that may have caused either one of them to be angry. Love lasts. And anger tends to fade. And that was sort of a breakthrough, and they were on a path to be together again, but …”
“Did Bill get to see him again before he died?” the interviewer asks a former Microsoft employee.
“No,” he replies, nodding solemnly. “No.”
But the documentary’s thesis seems to be that Gates intense focus is now being brought to bear on the humanitarian challenges faced by Gates in his post-Microsoft work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In his first interview, Gates seems a little stiff, barely swinging his arms as he walks with his interview into the woods. But then the narrator remembers that the first time they’d ever met, Gates was reading the Minnesota state budget — and “In his tote bag were 37 other budgets.”
Soon the documentary makers are interviewing Nicholas Kristof, the reporter who wrote the article about a lack of freshwater in third-world countries that inspired the foundation in a new direction. Gates says three million children were dying every year from a lack of freshwater. Bill and Melinda had just had their first daughter, and Melinda describes her incredulous reaction. It seemed tragic — and needless. The article transformed the foundation, and Kristof calls it “the most important article I’ve ever written for that reason.”
Gates says he agrees with the perception that he’s a technophile who thinks technology will save everything. The film-makers note the Gates Foundation applied high-resolution satellite imagery, algorithms, and computer power to create and analyze detailed maps of Nigeria. One thing learned: people were more likely to get polio if they lived on the boundary of a political district, where they could fall through the cracks of relief efforts.
Philip Welkhoff, a director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says “One of the big questions was how can we use quantitative analysis to understand how to get from low polio to zero polio.” The documentary acknowledges both their setbacks and their triumphs. In Dakar, the foundation’s Omni Processor is now treating one-third of the city’s sludge and providing clean, drinkable water. And episode three also focuses on the Foundation’s work in helping fight climate change, including some comments from Larry Cohen, CEO of Gates Ventures.
But it also explains how this philanthropic impulse was rooted in Gates’ childhood.
One of Gates sister remembered their mother was also a board member of several organizations. “Suit on, put together, briefcase, walking out the door to a meeting… She was a force. And she wanted our family to be a force.”
Gates says she had a sense of values that was communicated quite clearly, if indirectly. And when asked about the worst day of his life, Gates thinks for a few seconds, then says “The day my mother died.” One of Gates’ sisters adds that “It’s a shame she’s not here.
“Because she would be so proud of him.”
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