In Search of the Real Bill Gates

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"We became concerned about him when he was ready for junior high," says his father. "He was so small and shy, in need of protection, and his interests were so very different from the typical sixth grader's." His intellectual drive and curiosity would not be satisfied in a big public school. So they decided to send him to an elite private school across town.

Walking across the rolling quad of the Lakeside School, Bill Sr. points out the chapel where his son played the lead in Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy. "He was very enthusiastic about acting. But what really entranced him was in there," he says, pointing to a New England-style steepled classroom building. With the proceeds from a rummage sale, the Mothers' Club had funded a clunky teletype computer terminal.

Learning BASIC language from a manual with his pal Paul Allen, Trey produced two programs in the eighth grade: one that converted a number in one mathematical base to a different base, and another (easier to explain) that played tic-tac-toe. Later, having read about Napoleon's military strategies, he devised a computer version of Risk, a board game he liked in which the goal is world domination.

Trey and Paul were soon spending their evenings at a local company that had bought a big computer and didn't have to pay for it until it was debugged. In exchange for computer time, the boys' job was to try (quite successfully) to find bugs that would crash it. "Trey got so into it," his father recalls, "that he would sneak out the basement door after we went to bed and spend most of the night there."

The combination of counseling and the computer helped transform him into a self-assured young businessman. By high school he and his friends had started a profitable company to analyze and graph traffic data for the city. "His confidence increased, and his sense of humor increased," his father says. "He became a great storyteller, who could mimic the voices of each person. And he made peace with his mother."

"In ninth grade," Gates recalls over dinner one night, "I came up with a new form of rebellion. I hadn't been getting good grades, but I decided to get all A's without taking a book home. I didn't go to math class, because I knew enough and had read ahead, and I placed within the top 10 people in the nation on an aptitude exam. That established my independence and taught me I didn't need to rebel anymore." By 10th grade he was teaching computers and writing a program that handled class scheduling, which had a secret function that placed him in classes with the right girls.

His best friend was Kent Evans, son of a Unitarian minister. "We read FORTUNE together; we were going to conquer the world," says Gates. "I still remember his phone number." Together with Paul Allen, they formed the official-sounding Lakeside Programmers Group and got a job writing a payroll system for a local firm. A furious argument, the first of many, ensued when Allen tried to take over the work himself. But he soon realized he needed the tireless Gates back to do the coding. "O.K., but I'm in charge," Gates told him, "and I'll get used to being in charge, and it'll be hard to deal with me from now on unless I'm in charge." He was right.

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