In the past week, retirement has been a big topic on my mind. I served as a sideboy and flag passer for a colleague, I dig some digging into the cost of a flag officer retirement, and I attended a surprise retirement party for a man who had worked for the DC Metro system since he was 16 years old, starting at a time when there were only buses. I have also spent quite a lot of time thinking about the timing of my reasonably near term retirement from my day job.
Of course, none of those routine events have qualified for national press coverage.
Bill Gates’s retirement, on the other hand, has been extensively discussed in the media and on the web for well over a year. Since the official date is now less than a week away, major business publications like Fortune are covering the story with almost as much ink and paper as the presidential election. I guess that is what happens when one of the world’s most successful – judging by the scorecard of our times – businessmen decides to stop working ever day at the company that he founded and ran for more than 30 years.
Like many people who are deeply interested in the world of computer technology, I have done my share of reading about Gates, his history and his business methods. I have been interested in computers long enough that I carefully considered investing in Microsoft when it first went public – I was in grad school at the time, however, and decided that an investment in Silicon Graphics was a better choice for my limited risk capital. My graduate thesis included the development of a commander’s display system using SGI workstations and I was thoroughly enthralled with the capabilities those machines had compared to everything else available at the time.
Through the lens of hindsight, that was not a good choice for a long term investment, but I did not hold the SGI for very long – it rose rapidly and I sold it off after what Peter Lynch would call a “three banger”. The investment helped build the college funds for both of my daughters.
My view of Gates and his company has always been “grudging” admiration. Microsoft software has been very important in my career and has helped me become far more productive and prosperous than I would have been without it. One reason that I have personally benefited from the software, however, is also part of the reason why my admiration is only grudging – I consider myself only moderately skilled in the use Windows, Word, Excel and PowerPoint yet I have been using parts of the Office suite for more than 20 years and Windows for about 15 years. (My first personal computer was a Mac Plus. When I bought that machine in 1987, I also bought a copy of Word and Excel.)
The complexity and idiosyncrasies of the programs have helped to keep me employed because I have been a bit more curious, patient and experienced than some of my colleagues, so they think I know what I am doing.
I have never really liked the company, its leaders, or its bullying business methods. From my perspective, their method of establishing their systems as a “standard” consisted of convincing highly placed executives in government and business to make huge, corporate purchases that imposed those programs on a work force with no options. In some cases, the persuasion used to sign those contracts seems amazingly close to corruption. I have been somewhat surprised by the number of former government officials that ended up with high-paying Microsoft jobs.
Once big business and big government picked Office programs, they told all of their suppliers that they would only accept documents in those formats. Workers also picked their home computers based on what was compatible with their office programs.
All that baggage aside, it is clear that Gates has accomplished some amazing things in his life, including amassing a personal fortune of around $50 billion. He has big plans for the future. Since he started his company when still in his teens and stayed at the top for just over 30 years, he has a lot of potentially productive years left. Since he was in a hurry to get started with business, he also apparently feels like there are a few holes in his overall experience and education that need filling.
This weekend, I read an article in Fortune titled Gates without Microsoft that gave me a bit more insight into the complexities of the man behind the legend. My admiration quotient increased to slightly above grudging as I realized how much Gates likes to read and learn about things outside of his area of expertise. I also have to admire his family’s credo “From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.” My parents used to say almost exactly the same words.
Many people have heard a lot about how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working to improve education and to improve health, especially in developing nations. Both of those missions are exceedingly important. What I found most interesting was the following quote:
He’ll focus on ideas related to his philanthropy, but he also will spend a lot of time with the staff of Ph.D.s and inventors at Intellectual Ventures (IV for short), Nathan Myhrvold’s Seattle-based skunkworks for discovering patentable new technologies. Previously IV hosted brainstorming sessions for foundation scientists, and Gates is an informal member of a group of IV partners and investors with more general interests that meets regularly. He plans to participate even more frequently after July 1.
“I’m not going to create a company,” Gates vows. “The foundation is the top priority. But there are some other things that I might help along. The scientific brainstorming with Nathan’s group has led to a new nuclear energy startup, and I’m a funder and advisor to that thing. It won’t be a huge amount of time, but the truth is, cheap energy that’s environmentally friendly is a breakthrough that is more important for the poor than the rich (Emphasis added.). And the poor need fertilizer, more reliable seeds, and better agriculture too. They can’t cut back their eating, because that’s called starvation. So I’m investing in that.”
(From Fortune July 7, 2008 page 114-116)
Not only does Bill Gates recognize that cheap and accessible energy is vital for human development and that poor people are more vulnerable than rich people when energy costs and environmental impact increase, but he also has already taken steps to invest some of his vast wealth in nuclear energy as one of the sources that has potential to solve the challenge.
I have no knowledge yet about the specific nuclear energy project that he is supporting, but I wish them all the best, as long as the knowledge developed is not so proprietary that a new monopolistic company arises. That “patentable new technologies” phrase carries some serious baggage for me these days, even though I once earned a patent and understand why the founding fathers gave Congress the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Source: US Constitution, Article 1, Section 8.)
In the past few decades, the fundamental concepts of “limited times” and “Authors and Inventors” have been obscured in favor of exclusive rights with virtually no time limits to corporations who leave the true creators scrambling over scraps. Someday, I will share some stories of conversations with investors that help to explain why Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. is taking the slow road to development.