In Search of the Real Bill Gates

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When he arrives there for dinner, owner Thierry Rautureau comes out to hug him and pour champagne. There follows a procession of a dozen courses, from black truffles and pureed celery root in smoked game consomme to venison with obscure types of mushrooms, each with different vintage wines. (The bill for two comes to $390, and picking it up assuages my discomfort that Gates had insisted on putting the previous evening's $37 tab at the Indian restaurant on his MasterCard.)

"There are two types of tech companies," Myhrvold says in between pauses to inhale the aroma of the food. "Those where the guy in charge knows how to surf, and those where he depends on experts on the beach to guide him." The key point about Gates is that he knows--indeed loves--the intricacies of creating software. "Every decision he makes is based on his knowledge of the merits. He doesn't need to rely on personal politics. It sets the tone."

Myhrvold describes a typical private session with Gates. Pacing around a room, they will talk for hours about future technologies such as voice recognition (they call their team working on it the "wreck a nice beach" group, because that's what invariably appears on the screen when someone speaks the phrase "recognize speech" into the system), then wander onto topics ranging from quantum physics to genetic engineering. "Bill is not threatened by smart people," he says, "only stupid ones."

Microsoft has long hired based on I.Q. and "intellectual bandwidth." Gates is the undisputed ideal: talking to most people is like sipping from a fountain, goes the saying at the company, but with Gates it's like drinking from a fire hose. Gates, Ballmer and Myhrvold believe it's better to get a brilliant but untrained young brain--they're called "Bill clones"--than someone with too much experience. The interview process tests not what the applicants know but how well they can process tricky questions: If you wanted to figure out how many times on average you would have to flip the pages of the Manhattan phone book to find a specific name, how would you approach the problem?

Gates' intellect is marked by an ability, as he puts it, to "drill down." On a visit to Time Inc.'s new-media facility, he answered questions from a collection of magazine editors as if by rote, but on his way out he asked to see the Internet servers and spent 45 minutes grilling the claque of awed techies there. Broad discussions bore him, he shows little curiosity about other people, and he becomes disengaged when people use small talk to try to establish a personal rapport. Even after spending a lot of time with him, you get the feeling that he knows much about your thinking but nothing about such things as where you live or if you have a family. Or that he cares.

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