Before there was Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, there was the senior Bill Gates, who celebrates his 90th birthday today. The elder Gates has lived a remarkable life in those nine decades, as detailed by GeekWire in a story published on Wednesday, and yesterday his son posted this happy birthday video for his dad.
For the GeekWire article about Gates Sr., reporter Lisa Stiffler interviewed numerous Northwest luminaries, including a former governor, renowned corporate and nonprofit leaders, prominent attorneys — and his son, Bill Gates Jr.
Here is an edited version of our conversation with Gates Jr. in mid-November at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle. The interview delved into Gates Sr.’s role in the evolution of the region’s tech industry beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, his influence on Microsoft, his personal traits most admired by his son, and the religious leanings of Jr.’s grandparents (actually, we weren’t expecting that bit of information — but their religious affiliations are really interesting given that the Gates Foundation is a global-health powerhouse — read on to see what we mean).
Starting in the ’60s, Gates Sr., who is actually William H. Gates II, was an attorney for and sat on the corporate boards of some of the Puget Sound area’s early tech companies. That included Physio-Control Co., a Redmond-based pioneer in defibrillators led by Dr. Karl William Edmark and Hunter Simpson; Intermec Corp., an Everett company and leader in barcode technology; and SeaMED, a medical instrument company. These connections proved helpful to Gates Jr. going back to his first tech venture with Paul Allen, a business called Traf-O-Data that aimed to analyze traffic data.
GeekWire: Your dad was involved with early tech businesses like Physio-Control, Intermec and SeaMED. What interested him? Where did he find his fascination with innovation and technology?
Bill Gates: Well, his law firm got involved in those. Actually, as a sixth grader he had me go down and meet with Dr. Edmark and Hunter Simpson. I wrote a long report about Physio-Control. Intermec, they did a tape reader. The original Traf-O-Data tape reader I got some guys at Intermec to build. My dad had a mix… He had quite a variety of clients including those. I wouldn’t say it was all heavy science or engineering.
Gates Sr. is a huge supporter of his alma mater, the University of Washington, and a booster for the Seattle area and its economy. To promote these interests, he helped launch the Washington Research Foundation in 1981 to assist academics at the UW and elsewhere commercialize their research, and the Technology Alliance in 1996 to encourage the growth of the Northwest’s IT industry. Both have been tremendously successful in their missions.
GeekWire: Your dad was involved with these companies some. He helped take public Physio-Control [in 1971]. He seemed to evolve into being involved with the Washington Research Foundation, Tech Alliance. How would you characterize his role in promoting and fostering the development of the tech industry in the Northwest — aside from yourself?
Bill Gates: He got into a lot of those things primarily through his connection with the University of Washington, and wanting the university to be strong and help drive the success of the community. He realized the university played an absolutely central role in whether the jobs coming in related to the new sciences, including biology and IT-type stuff. It was really through the UW that he got involved in the Tech Alliance. They went down and toured Silicon Valley, went to Boston, went to North Carolina, tried to figure out what state policies, including the role of the university, was in doing those things. Can you attribute it to the Tech Alliance or Microsoft being here or a variety of factors? Seattle is certainly doing well at tech jobs at the moment. Some people think too well.
GeekWire: How important do you think his role was in all of it? He seems like someone who really connects dots, connects people, has this longer vision and orchestrates moving people together to facilitate.
Bill Gates: Yes, in a broad sense, yes. But my dad’s not a technology person. … He was about, “How was this a great community to live in? How is it educating students really well?” He was involved in the Municipal League. He put more time into bar stuff [for the Seattle-King County Bar Association and the Washington State Bar Association]. He did so many different volunteer things, it’s hard to categorize. The bar was certainly the biggest single thing he did. He had a lot of stuff about judicial reform and malpractice insurance for lawyers.
GeekWire: What traits do you associate in yourself with your father’s personality? What do you see reflected in you from him?
Bill Gates: Well, my dad is more judicious — he has always been older than me (laughs). Just by his nature, he’s very collaborative, very judicious, and he is serious about learning things and really knowing what he is talking about. He’s good at stepping back and seeing the broad picture.
He came from Bremerton. Unlike my mother’s parents, who were quite well off — that grandfather was a banker who had done quite well — that grandfather had only gone to sixth grade, and owned a small furniture store. He sold it before [World War II], so that when it actually did well he was just working there. His parents, although his mom was very sharp, weren’t all that highly educated. In Bremerton, he met Dorm Braman [Gates Sr.’s Boy Scout Troop leader] and a bunch of people who activated his ambition and capability.
He came to the UW, went to war and came back to law school. There is a whole group of friends, of which [former three-time governor and U.S. Senator for Washington] Dan Evans was part… Various people who out of this small group of friends would go on to all do pretty high-visibility and high-impact stuff. Those were the friends who were coming to our house when I was young, a great group of people.
My dad expanded his horizons way beyond what he grew up with. That grandfather liked to watch the boxing matches. That was the main TV show he was interested in. And all my grandparents were strict Christian Scientists [a religious movement founded by Mary Baker Eddy in the 19th Century that believes in the power of prayer over medicine for healing the sick].
GeekWire: Oh, really?
Bill Gates: Both my parents choose not to follow the strict, like no doctors, approach to things. In fact, my mom’s father died of cancer in incredible pain and never saw a doctor. Ever. It’s unusual that they were both Christian Scientists, they were from very different parts, very different backgrounds.
GeekWire: Does your dad have any traits that you would like to develop more in yourself?
Bill Gates: Yeah, I say in his book [“Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime”] “My dad is a little more cautious, wise.” Not as over-the-top quite so quickly. There’s a lot about my dad that I and others would love to have come more naturally. My dad is very good about how he makes things about the success of the activity, and not putting himself at the center of it… He chose not to run for political office. There was a time he considered being a federal judge. Actually, when that opportunity came along, his law firm was in a situation where he decided he wouldn’t do it. He really couldn’t leave the law firm at that point. I always thought he would be such a great judge. He shows no signs of regret because he passed that opportunity…. His law firm career went extremely well. But I think of him like a judge.
GeekWire: Talking to people for the profile of your dad, the accolades are just boundless. Is there any weakness that he has? Or anything he did where he might have said, “I wished I would have done that differently or better, or I could have been more effective somehow?”
Bill Gates: Well, my dad worked very hard when I was young. There was a pretty strong imbalance between the level of engagement that we had with my mother, who was also very successful and active. Libby, my younger sister, is nine years younger than I am. That is when women were being put on boards. So mom ended up on the board of the insurance company, the phone company, the university, and the bank. All these boards.
When I was young, my mom was busy, but not super busy. So my dad has shown some regret that he was so engaged in his work, that he let her do a lot of the communication. In fact, if dad was unhappy about something that was really unusual. Therefore, it was unquestionably something you better pay attention to…. [At the dinner table, my parents] were very good about talking about the work they were doing, which you can say that was centered on them. To Kristi and me, it was very interesting. Kristi is just two years ahead of me in school, a year and a half older than me.
My dad’s not an engineer or scientist. He never really got exposed to that stuff. And so he always said he wished he’d known more about that. That wasn’t the exposure he had. My dad is not big on regrets. There’s really very little in his life that he would regret…. Of course, when my mother passed away [in 1994], that was a very sad thing. Within a few years, my dad was helping out with the [Bill & Melinda Gates] Foundation. He then met Mimi and was lucky enough to get married to her. That has been a great thing for him.
GeekWire: Speaking of the foundation, what skills and strengths did he bring to the foundation that really have made him effective here?
Bill Gates: He and Patty Stonesifer [former co-chair and CEO of the foundation] brought together what initially were fairly small-scale efforts. That was great. In terms of the tone, the principles and things, my dad was quite fantastic. Patty had been an executive at Microsoft, was very capable about setting up the organization….
[In 2000] I put in $20 billion and so then the foundation had a minimum payout of a billion dollars a year. So they had to grow pretty quickly. That’s gone up. Then we had the [Warren] Buffett gift that doubled our resources. My dad’s role initially was very hands-on. As we got bigger, he stayed strongly involved in the community stuff. He stayed more involved in the education, the U.S.-focused stuff.
He did some international trips. I remember he and Jimmy Carter did this great trip to South Africa. That’s one of my favorite photos of my dad. He, Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela holding these babies. He went down to Honduras.
It’s fair to say he was way more focused and stayed more engaged in the domestic stuff. He loves the international stuff, he did some work related to that. But he was pretty tilted. He was really super knowledgeable about the Seattle-area stuff and quite knowledgeable about the U.S. stuff. As the global stuff became more scientific, like the malaria vaccine or something like that, he was super supportive, but that was not his hands-on area.
GeekWire: He has worked with so many amazing women, in different phases of his career and in philanthropy. He has seemingly a really natural way to treat women as equals, where it’s not called out or quota-driven. Going back to his law firm days, it seems like that’s just his default, that woman are completely equal. Is that how you experienced him as a dad? Did you carry that into your outlook?
Bill Gates: My two grandmothers, not to insult my grandfathers, were significantly more talented than my grandfathers… My two grandmothers were both very smart. His mother hadn’t much education; I think she went to eighth grade or something. His father only went to sixth grade. She was smart. She was the one who would read the Christian Science lesson daily. Every morning, you would read this Mary Baker Eddy lesson. I don’t know if my grandfather could have read it. She would always be the one who sat there and made a coffee and read the lesson. That was the first thing they did when I would go over and stay at their house in downtown Bremerton. He had his mother who was very sharp. He had a sister who didn’t get to go to college, which he felt kind of bad about because she actually helped support him.
Then my mom was very capable. It is hard to compare my mom and dad, because they were both ambitious and both very smart. My mom was even more sociable, even more of a people-person than my dad. She was a very energetic person. So he had that experience… Certainly, the expectations were for my sisters to go to college or to be good at anything. My older sister worked as much as I did. Libby chose a little less, but she had a great college education. Did a lot of serious work for a period of time. Dad is pretty even-handed about those things….
In 2010, Gates Sr. helped lead the campaign for Initiative 1098, a ballot measure to create a state income tax for Washington, which is recognized as having one of the least fair tax systems in the country because it puts a heavier burden on low-income residents than the affluent. I-1098 would have brought more balance to the system. Despite the efforts of Gates and others — including a TV ad in which Gates Sr. gets dumped in a dunk tank — the measure failed. Among the opposition were some of Gates Sr.’s friends, including Steve Ballmer, who replaced Gates Jr. as CEO of Microsoft, venture capitalist Tom Alberg and former governor Dan Evans.
Bill Gates: My dad has a well-developed sense of justice. He decided there should be an income tax. Based on the voters, not that many people agreed with him. But he had a firm conviction about that and he thought a lot of people would come along and support him. Even as that coalition ended up being quite small compared to what he hoped for, he stuck with it. Next thing you know, my dad is in these ads where he is being dunked in the tank. What was my dad at the time, 78 or something like that? I was like, “Come on, dad.”
It was like when he took the UW [Creating Futures] Campaign. First, he was reluctant, then he decided to do it. I said to him, “How come you don’t have a co-chair?” I don’t think anyone’s been a single head of a campaign before or since my dad did it that way. It’s not to say he didn’t get lots of help. He has a network of people who help him with things. But he chose to at least have that top spot by himself, which ended up being a massive amount of work. And thank goodness, unlike the income-tax thing, that one was, in the end, quite successful. [The eight-year effort led by Gates Sr. raised nearly $2.7 billion.]
GeekWire: Do you ask your dad for advice with business?
Bill Gates: Sure. He has been helpful many times. Not about the specifics of Microsoft, because we have a lot of technology things. We had a legal dispute early in Microsoft [in which the government alleged the company was engaged in noncompetitive practices] where I felt sure we were right and we ought to stay the course. He helped reinforced that. That was good. My dad is wise, and so I have run things by him. Not software strategy, but decisions.
My parents created a really strong social environment. When new people would come in to work for Microsoft, my mom and dad would often have them over. I figured if they were well older than me, they did a better job at connecting them into the community and who they might want to get to know or what groups they might want to be a part of. I was mono-maniacally focused on Microsoft and quite a bit younger than some of these experienced people we were bringing in.
Even when I wanted to hire Steve Ballmer, to drop out of business school, he was a year in, my parents had him over and were helpful. They knew when I was trying to hire somebody and thought about how they could help. When somebody new was starting, that they could help embrace them.
GeekWire: So was it hard when Steve came out against the income tax, after your dad brings him into the fold?
Bill Gates: It is now just a friendly joke. When Dan Evans came out against it, I was like, “Oh, dad” because Dan is a super liberal Republican. He didn’t like that particular form of the income tax. It is an interesting thing [how to implement an income tax]. Do you start [taxing] at the high end, and that’s a Trojan Horse for doing it broadly, or do you just do it for the high-end [income earners]? Anyway, lots of people have different opinions.
People who pay high incomes in this state, their employees pay less in taxes than in other states. When you are trying to hire somebody who is thinking about going to California or Washington, it is a benefit to this state. When a company has to balance the benefit they get from that versus what it means for the state not having enough revenue to do its job, it’s a tough decision. Steve came down one way on that. I am super close friends with Steve. That was fine, that was his judgment, that is what he chose to do. If [the measure had lost] 51 percent to 49 percent, I could say, “That was it, Steve.” [Given that I-1098 failed 64 to 36 percent] it’s not like that was some definitive moment in my dad’s quest for the truly-just income tax.