"The driving force in the family has always been Mary Gates," one friend observed. "She seemed to tie everything together with the family. Mary was the smart one, Bill, Jr., was the shy one."
Despite her volunteer activities and community involvement that kept her busy, Mary Gates was a devoted mother. She also loved to socialize, and she and her husband threw frequent parties for their friends, who included many of Seattle’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals. A charming, gracious host, warm and outgoing, she could nonetheless be quite assertive, with a steely gaze and a firm handshake.
She is very much the kind of person who sizes you up, makes quick conversation and moves along, exiting gracefully but forcefully," a business friend said.
As successful as the gregarious Mary Gates was in Seattle’s community, the quieter Bill, Jr., also became a respected figure. His legal career was furthered by his relationship through marriage to the Maxwells. He was active in the bar, eventually serving as president of the Washington State Bar Association, and chairing several American Bar Association commissions. In 1966, he became a senior partner in the law firm of Shidler, McBroom, Gates & Lucas, a firm rooted in Republican politics.
My sense is that Bill, Jr., always wanted to position himself to exert quiet control in the law firm, and Mary was more inclined to pull public strings and press the switches," said one Seattle attorney who knows the family.
Both Mary and Bill, Jr., became active in Republican party circles as well, although they kept in the political shadows and out of the public eye. In 1973, Governor Evans, a family friend, quietly pushed to have Gates nominated to a federal judgeship in Seattle. But the state’s two U.S. senators at the time, Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Warren Magnuson, both Democrats, preferred a local attorney with more liberal leanings to fill the vacancy on the federal bench.
In local politics, Bill, Jr., refused to make personal appearances for candidates or do anything that might draw public attention to his political beliefs. Nonetheless, his beliefs were rock-solid. When a lawyer seeking re-election as a Democrat to the state legislature called on him to ask him for a campaign endorsement and financial contribution, he replied, "Jesus! I’ve never given money to a Democrat in my life."
Bill, Jr., set a firm and strong example for his children. "I’ve always wondered how Trey responded to his father," said another Seattle attorney who has worked with Bill, Jr. "He can be a hard man, difficult and demanding." Not unlike his son.
Although both were strong-willed, Trey and his father got along very well, and their relationship was an important influence on his childhood. The Gateses were a closely knit family. Trey Gates’ maternal grandmother, Adelle Maxwell, was also an important influence on him, encouraging him to read as much as possible, pushing him to excel in all that he did, challenging him to use his mind. They played card games together frequently, especially games like Concentration that required mental agility. Gates would remain close to his grandmother until her death in 1987.
"His family has always been a very important part of him," observed Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft and one of Bill’s best friends. "That has never changed, going back to when we first met as kids. " Dinner was always a time for lively discussions. Gates and his sisters used to question their parents about their work at the dinner table when they were growing up. "It was a rich environment in which to learn," Gates said of his childhood.
It was also extraordinarily competitive. His competitive fire was ignited early in life and fanned by childhood games, sports, and the driving ambition of his parents. Whether racing with his older sister to finish a 300-piece jigsaw puzzle, playing pickleball at the family’s annual tournament, or swimming laps with his friends at the country club pool, Gates loved competing— and winning. Just as importantly, he hated losing. He thrived on competition, as long as he was playing or doing something he was good at, and relished opportunities to prove himself, physically and mentally.
A friend who knew Gates in his early teens said: "Bill loved playing pickleball and was fiercely competitive. He loved playing tennis and was fiercely competitive. He loved water skiing and was fiercely competitive. Everything he did, he did competitively and not simply to relax. He was a very driven individual."
More than once the family flew down to California for the Rose Bowl game, a time for Mary and Bill, Jr.rsto socialize and visit friends. Trey spent hours at nearby amusement parks playing Demolition Derby in bumper cars. Although he was barely big enough to see over the steering wheel of the cars, he took particular delight in slamming into adult drivers.
His favorite competitive arena for boyhood games was summer camp, at a place on Hood Canal known as Cheerio. The camp consisted of tennis courts and a dozen or so rustic cabins near the water. Each July the Gates family piled into the car and made the trip to Cheerio, where they would spend two weeks with about a dozen other families. It was a successful and competitive crowd, which included lawyers, business leaders, and politicians.
Bill, Jr., was always designated as the "mayor." The families staged "Olympic Games" featuring events such as the egg toss and relay races. Trey became particularly good at the game "Capture the Flag," which required skill and cunning, as well as athletic ability. His team almost always won.
"He was never a nerd or a goof or the kind of kid you didn’t want on your team," recalled another of the Cheerio brethren. "We all knew Bill was smarter than us. Even back then, when he was nine or ten years old, he talked like an adult and could express himself in ways none of us understood. When you are a kid, if someone is good at math, that’s what sets them apart. We all knew he was very, very good at math."
Trey first learned to water-ski and play tennis at Cheerio, as well. The entire family played tennis—Trey’s sister Kristi won many of the Cheerio tennis tournaments for the girls. It was Brock Adams who taught Trey to play tennis at Cheerio, and he soon developed into an exceptional player. (Several years ago, Gates came up with an interesting—some might say eccentric—method to work on his game and not lose valuable work time. He would practice writing nonsense words with his racket hand to improve his fine muscle coordination. Gates would sit in meetings with his Microsoft managers, scribbling meaningless words on a piece of paper, rocking back and forth in his chair.)
Mary Gates helped organize many of the activities at Cheerio. Always exceedingly well-organized, she had a weekly wardrobe battle plan for Trey throughout the year that included color-coordinating his clothes for each day, matching shirts, pants, and socks. On Monday he might go to school dressed in green, on Tuesday beige... Wednesday blue... then black.... When the family would go to Trey’s grandparents’ house on Hood Canal with friends, Mary would post dinner menus for the entire weekend on the refrigerator. Each meal was carefully planned out, along with dinner times. Everything fit into a schedule.
It is a trait she has passed on to her son, who brooks no wasted time either at work or play.
Were it not for a fateful decision by his parents in 1967, Bill Gates might well have ended up a mathematician or college professor. At 11 years of age, he was far ahead of his peers in math and science and in need of new academic challenges. His parents decided he should not continue in the public schools like his sister but instead enroll that coming fall at Lakeside, an all-boys private prep school noted for its rigorous academic environment. It was Seattle’s most exclusive school, home to the sons of the rich and powerful. About 300 students a year attended Lakeside, for a tuition that at the time cost roughly $5,000. Gates would be able to go head-to-head against the best and brightest of the next generation of Seattle’s leaders.
Lakeside was a crucible that would fire his creative genius in ways his parents never imagined. It was here that the proper mix of ingredients needed to forge Gates’ inner fire came together: energy, intelligence, intensity, competitiveness, obsessiveness, drive, desire, business acumen, entrepreneurship, and luck. He would cut his first business deals at Lakeside, and form his first money-making company. He would develop lasting friendships with a handful of Lakeside computer whiz kids like himself, who would become the first to join him in his crusade to build a software empire.
In 1967, students in the seventh and eighth grades made up the Lower School. The Upper School consisted of students in the ninth through twelfth grades. Those who started in the seventh grade and survived Lakeside’s academic pressure cooker until they graduated were called "lifers." Trey Gates became a lifer.
Until the 1960s, Lakeside was a very traditional prep school. Boys wore coats, ties, and wingtip shoes. The seniors had special privileges—only seniors, for example, could use the front doors or smoke. But with the Vietnam War came protest and change. The coats and ties came off, hair grew longer, and many of the boys started coming to school in beards, blue jeans, and army fatigue jackets.
"The Sixties loosened up what had been a classic boys’ school," recalled Robert Fulghum, the bestselling author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, who was an art teacher at Lakeside. Fulghum represented Lakeside’s alternative side. He was the kind of teacher who would show up for his class in a gorilla suit to illustrate a point, and whose exams included questions like, "Suppose all humans had tails. Describe yours." Fulghum knew Gates fairly well, although the boy was never in any of his art classes.
Lakeside always drew on the city’s big-money establishment. Many of the boys who had passed through the school over the years were the movers and shakers of the community. It was a fiercely competitive environment at every level. "Even the dumb kids were smart," said one member of Gates’ graduating class of 1973. Among the students at Lakeside were the McCaw brothers, who together built a billion-dollar cellular phone empire.
Although the school rewarded the marchers and the saluters, the students who really attracted attention were those who were unusual in some way. These kids got a lot of support and encouragement from the administration and faculty.
"You could, if you looked at Lakeside superficially, think of it as an elitist school with high requirements and strictly focused on college preparation," said Fulghum. "But in fact, it tended to look very, very carefully at individual students, especially ones who stuck out in any direction, and it would give those students lots and lots of privilege and rope and space to do whatever they could do, even if it was far out of the usual constraints of the school."
In that sense, Lakeside was extraordinary: it allowed students to develop their own interests, and Gates quickly did just that.
There would come a time when every student in school knew his name, knew that he was the best of the best at Lakeside. But the only thing remarkable about Bill Gates when he began the seventh grade were his big feet. Although he was the smallest boy in the seventh grade, Gates wore size 13 wingtips. "We all wondered if he would grow into his feet," a classmate recalled.
Of all the friendships he would develop at Lakeside, none would be as strong or as close as his friendship with Kent Evans. The two were inseparable from the seventh grade. Both were gifted, both shared a passion for mathematics, and both would soon share an even greater passion for computers.
Gates and Evans had very different personalities. While Gates could be cold and aloof like his father, Kent was warm and outgoing. A minister’s son with a harelip and thick black hair, there was a down-to-earth quality to Evans. Lakeside students would remember him as "the nicest boy in school."
Toward the end of Gates’ first year at Lakeside, in the early spring of 1968, the school made a decision that would prove decisive to Bill Gates’ future. America was preparing to send astronauts to the moon, a technological feat made possible by the development of the computer. Lakeside had decided to expose its students to this new and exciting world of computers. The question was how to buy a computer on a school budget, even the budget of a well-to-do private school. The "Giant Brain" mainframe computers of the day cost millions of dollars and were out of reach of all but the government, universities, and the largest corporations. Digital Equipment Corporation, better known as DEC, had recently begun marketing a minicomputer, but even this refrigerator-size machine was out of reach of the Lakeside budget. So the school bought itself a relatively inexpensive teletype machine. For a fee, users could type commands on the teletype and communicate via telephone line with a PDP-10 minicomputer in downtown Seattle (PDP stands for Program Data Processor). The PDP-10, one in a series of very famous computers built by Digital Equipment Corporation, would play a significant role in Gates’ development as a computer programmer. The PDP-10 Lakeside used was owned by General Electric, which billed Lakeside for "computer time" used by its students. And computer time was very costly.
A group of mothers, the Lakeside Mothers Club, held a rummage sale to buy computer time and raised about $3,000, figuring the amount would be enough to last the rest of the school year. What they didn’t realize was how seductive a mistress The Machine would become to a few precocious boys who liked math and science. Bill Gates and Evans were about to develop a very expensive addiction.
Lakeside became one of the first schools in the country with computer capability. The computer room soon became a powerful magnet for several of Lakeside’s brightest students, especially Gates. Before long, the teletype would be his umbilical cord to a new and exciting universe.
Gates was in Paul Stocklin’s math class when he got his first peek at the computer room. One spring day, Stocklin took his entire math class over to the Upper School to see it. Under Stocklin’s supervision, Gates typed in a few instructions and watched in awe as the teletype, after communicating with the PDP-10 several miles away, typed back the response. It was better than science fiction.
"I knew more than he did for the first day, but only for that first day," said Stocklin, who now chairs the Lakeside math department. "We were really winging it.... None of us knew anything back then. This thing wasn’t like a Macintosh."
Gates was immediately hooked. Whenever he had free time, he would run over to the Upper School to get more experience on the system. But Gates was not the only computer-crazed kid at Lakeside. He found he had to compete for time on the computer with a handful of others who were similarly drawn to the room as if by a powerful gravitational force. Among them was a soft-spoken, Upper School student by the name of Paul Allen, who was two years older than Gates.
Seven years later, the two classmates would form Microsoft, the most successful startup company in the history of American business.
When Albert Einstein was four or five years old and sick in bed, his father gave him a magnetic pocket compass. In his Autobiographical Notes, written 60 years later, Einstein described the compass as "a wonder." It may well have determined the direction of his life as a theoretical physicist. "That this needle behaved in such a determined way did not at all fit into the nature of events," he wrote. "I can still remember—at least I believe I can still remember—that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me."
Bill Gates undoubtedly cannot explain why he reacted as he did to his own "wonder," the computer. But it triggered a deep passion, an obsession, in him. From that first day in the small computer room at Lakeside, its pull on him was inexorable.
Gates devoured everything he could get his hands on concerning computers and how to communicate with them, often teaching himself as he went. The faculty knew next to nothing about computers. Gates and the other kids hanging out day and night in the computer room were pretty much on their own.
"We were off in our own world," Gates recalled later. "Nobody quite understood the thing but us. I wanted to figure out exactly what it could do."
This insatiable appetite for computer time was very expensive. Within weeks, most of the $3,000 raised by the Mothers Club was gone. Eventually, parents were asked to help pay Lakeside’s mounting bills from General Electric.
Gates’ first computer program, a series of instructions telling the computer what to do, was a tick-tack-toe game. He then wrote a program for a lunar lander game, which required the user to make a soft landing on the moon before expending all fuel in the spacecraft and crashing on the moon’s surface. (This game would prove somewhat prophetic. The Apollo 11 lunar lander carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had only seconds of fuel remaining when it landed on the Sea of Tranquility, July 20, 1969.) As his programming skills developed, Gates taught the computer to play Monopoly™, commanding it to play thousands of games in search of winning strategies.
These early programs were written in a computer language known as BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.) It was developed by two Dartmouth College professors in 1964 under a grant from the National Science Foundation to teach their students an easier way to use computers. Gates was particularly interested in the mathematical foundations of computer science, the strange new binary world in which one communicated with the computer using only two words—usually designated zero and one. Gates talked about this relationship between computers and mathematics in the book Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers: "Most great programmers have some mathematical background, because it helps to have studied the purity of proving theorems, where you don’t make soft statements, you only make precise statements. In mathematics, you develop complete characterizations, and you have to combine theorems in very nonobvious ways. You often have to prove that a problem can be solved in less time. Math relates very directly to programming, maybe more so in my mind than in other people’s minds, because that’s the angle that I came from. I think there is a very natural relationship between the two."
Gates had always been very good at math. In fact, he was gifted. On the math achievement test Lakeside gave its students, Gates was the number one student in the school. He later scored a perfect 800 on the math portion of his college boards.
While at Lakeside, he took advanced math courses at the University of Washington. "I read ahead in math, so I really didn’t spend much time on math classes in school. Even when I got bad grades in everything else, which was up through the eighth grade, I always did well in math."
Fred Wright, chairman of the math department at Lakeside when Gates attended, said of Gates, "He could see shortcuts through an algebraic problem or a computer problem. He could see the simplest way to do things in mathematics. He’s as good an analytical mathematician as I’ve worked with in all my years of teaching. But Bill was really good in all areas, not just math. He’s got a lot of breadth. It’s one of the unusual things about him."
Wright was in charge of the computer room in the Upper School, and has been given much of the credit for cultivating Lakeside’s first crop of computer talent in the spring of 1968. He nourished, encouraged, and befriended not only Gates and Allen but a handful of others, including Marc McDonald, Richard Weiland, and Chris Larson, three of the first programmers hired to work for Microsoft.
"You have to understand what early age compulsions are like. They are all-consuming," said the Reverend Marvin Evans, Kent’s father. "After Lakeside got that computer, Bill and Kent were in constant trouble with the faculty. Some of Kent’s journals demonstrate this. Everything was late—chemistry workbooks were late, physics workbooks were late, history and English themes were late."
Wright, amused by the antics of his young charges, adopted the code name, "GYMFLKE," to log on to the computer, an inside joke on Gates, Evans, and some of the others who "flaked out" of gym to work on The Machine. While the kids all became experts at finding confidential user passwords and breaking computer security systems, none of them, Gates included, discovered Wright’s secret password.
Although Gates was only in the lower school, before long some of the older boys were coming to him for help with the computer. Among them was Paul Allen, who would egg Gates on, challenging him to solve a difficult problem.
"Paul thought I had this attitude like I understood things," Gates said. "So when he got stuck he would say, ‘Hey, I bet you can’t figure this out!’ He would kind of challenge me... and it was pretty hard stuff."
As they spent more and more time together in the computer room, Gates and Allen became friends. One day, Gates went to Allen’s home, only to be amazed by Allen’s collection of sci-fi books.
"He had read four times as much as I had," recalled Gates. "And he had all these other books that explained things. So I would ask him, ‘How do guns work? How do nuclear reactors work?’ Paul was good at explaining stuff. Later, we did some math stuff and physics stuff together. That’s how we got to be friends."
It wasn’t surprising that Allen should be well read. For more than twenty years his father, Kenneth Allen, was associate director of libraries for the University of Washington.
Although Allen could be just as intense and competitive as Gates, he was surprisingly soft-spoken, with an equally soft handshake. Allen talks so softly, in fact, that when reporters interview him, his voice sometimes fails to automatically activate their tape recorders.
The other kids at Lakeside liked Paul Allen. To many of his classmates, he seemed more personable than some of the others who had taken over the computer room. It was easy to like the boy with the blond Fu Manchu mustache and aviator sunglasses who habitually carried a briefcase. There was no pretentiousness in Allen, none of the I’m-smarter-than-you attitude.
"Paul was cool," said a classmate who was not one of the computer room crowd. "He was a nerd who didn’t look like a nerd. He was always more approachable and friendlier than Bill.... You would run into him in the hallways and he would actually stop and talk to you."
Allen and Gates not only spent a lot of time working together in the computer room but also a lot of time talking about the future of computer technology.
"We both were fascinated with the different possibilites of what you could do with computers," Allen said. "It was a vast area of knowledge we were trying to absorb.... Bill and I always had big dreams of what we could do with computers." While Allen liked to read magazines like Popular Electronics, Gates read the business magazines that came into his family’s home. As a prelude to doing business in the "real world," Gates and Allen formed the Lakeside Programmers Group, along with two of their friends, Richard Weiland and Kent Evans. Weiland and Allen were in the tenth grade, while Gates and Evans were in the eighth grade. The Lakeside Programmers Group was dedicated to finding money-making opportunities to use The Machine in the real world.
"I was the mover," Gates said. "I was the guy who said, ‘Let’s call the real world and try to sell something to it.’ "
As it turned out, the real world called them first. And what a deal it was—all the free computer time they wanted.
Founded by four University of Washington computer experts in the fall of 1968 with the backing of several Seattle investors, Computer Center Corporation was a private Seattle firm offering the largest concentration of timesharing computer power on the West Coast. The company (which Gates referred to as "C-Cubed") had leased several computers from Digital Equipment Corporation, including a PDP-10 like the one Gates and the other Lakeside students used.