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If you like Bill Gates's story, you might also like:
Timothy Berners-Lee,
Jeffrey Bezos,
Stephen Case,
Michael Dell,
Lawrence Ellison,
John Hennessy,
Reid Hoffman,
Jeong Kim,
Ray Kurzweil,
Craig McCaw,
Pierre Omidyar,
Larry Page,
George Rathmann,
Carlos Slim,
Frederick Smith,
Ted Turner and
Oprah Winfrey

Bill Gates's recommended reading: A Separate Peace

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Bill Gates
Bill Gates
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Bill Gates Interview (page: 3 / 7)

Co-Founder and Chairman, Microsoft Corporation

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What about school in general? You were a great reader. Otherwise, what kind of a student were you?

Bill Gates: Well, through eighth grade I was sort of enjoying the fact that I could do reasonably well without any effort. They had this thing where you'd get an "effort: which would be one, two or three, and then a grade. And so the ideal I always wanted was an A3, where you had the least effort, but the greatest grade. So my grades weren't all that great. And then in eighth grade I had been at a private school for a couple of years and decided that I better start getting good grades, both in terms of having some freedom, the way I'd be treated, and thinking about college. So from ninth grade on, I had a reasonably spotless grade record. I got quite serious about grades at that point.

Were you always good at math?

Bill Gates: Math was the thing that came most natural to me. And you know you'd take these exams, some of which were sort of nationwide exams, and I did quite well on those. That gave me some confidence, and I had some teachers who were very encouraging. They let me read textbooks, they encouraged me to take a college course on symbolic math, which is actually called algebra. So I felt pretty confident in my math skills, which is a nice thing, because not only the sciences, but economics, a lot of things if you're comfortable with math and statistics and ways of looking at cause and effect, that's extremely helpful.

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Do any particular math teachers come to mind from that era?

Bill Gates: I had one named Paul Stockland at the school who challenged me. Later one named Fred Wright who challenged me. I actually majored in math for the time I was at college, because it's a very interesting topic. But it was kind of a strange topic, because there's not a direct career for most people in terms of being a full time mathematician. So for all but a very few people, it's a tool that you use, but probably not what you're going to spend your life working on.

Your parents took you out of public school to send you to the Lakeside School. Apparently that school had a big impact on you. Why did they make that move?

Bill Gates: My parents had this notion that I had this high potential somehow and that I was not taking advantage of it. The environment that I had been in, sort of being a goof-off was more socially rewarding than being that serious. It was public school, so they weren't pushing people all that hard. You could read the textbook in the first week and there wasn't anything interesting going to happen the rest of the school year. So they had me take an exam to go to a private school. And I thought, "Well, should I pass this exam or not? You could fail it and you wouldn't have to go." But that sort of violated my sense of integrity. "Hey, I'm good at taking tests. I don't want to get confused about that." So I was admitted and they encouraged me to go. It was a boys' school, reasonably strict. During the time I was there it actually transitioned, merged with a girls' school and stopped having uniforms, stopped calling the teachers "Master." So it became pretty normal, but it was a change at first. And the idea of just being kind of a goof-off wasn't the sort of high reward position like it had been in public schools. So my parents were right, it had the intended effect of creating a more challenging environment. And some teachers who were nice about saying that I should try harder, and exposing me to a lot of math and science, and eventually that's where I got to use the computer.

We've read that at first you weren't thrilled about the transfer to Lakeside.

Bill Gates: Lakeside was a longer school day, and it's a change. I had gotten super comfortable at public school, kind of being goofy, and here people were studying, and at first, because I didn't get great grades, they had me in a study hall, and a few people who got really good grades didn't have to go to the study hall. Nobody knew that I was actually clever, so they were actually treating me like some average student. Anyway, it was an adjustment. All the other kids there were making the adjustment as well. So it took a couple of years to get my grounding. I'm super glad that I went to that school. It is a fantastic school. I'll probably send my kids to that school.

Could you tell us about the role of the Lakeside School Mother's Club in introducing you to computers?

Bill Gates: The Lakeside's Mother's Club had a rummage sale every year to raise money for the school. And instead of just funding the budget, they always would fund something kind of new and interesting in addition. And without too much understanding, they decided having a computer terminal at the school would be a novel thing. It was a teletype -- upper case only, ten characters a second -- and you had to share a phone line to call into a big time-sharing computer that was very expensive. When you were connected up it would charge, and then when you actually had a program running it would charge a lot more. So they set up this teletype, and some of the math and science teachers played around with it. One of them accidentally spent a lot of money with an infinite loop program. They spent like $200 by surprise. So they were a bit intimidated, and a bunch of us kind of hung out there and tried out different things. The programming language was BASIC, which was quite novel at the time. It had been invented by some Dartmouth professors. So that was the first computer language I learned, and I wrote increasingly complex programs. So that eighth grade exposure was a pretty neat thing, even though the machine we were working on was quite limited.

Even most colleges didn't have one of those at that time.

Bill Gates: No, the idea of students playing around with a computer was very unusual at the time. In fact, that computer -- eventually the costs were high enough they took it away. But then some other computer companies had come around, including one in Seattle, that a bunch of us went down and volunteered to help out and do some work for. So from that point on we always managed -- although it was dicey at times -- to find access to computers. That was very unusual in high school. But it took a lot of initiative on our part to get those experiences, but we wouldn't have done it if we hadn't had that early eighth grade exposure.

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 11:02 EDT
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