"It’s Going to Happen"
Bill Gates would later tell a friend he went to Harvard University to learn from people smarter than he was... and left disappointed.
He had arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1973 with no real sense of what he wanted to do with his life. Although he listed his academic major as prelaw, he had little interest in becoming a lawyer like his father. Nor did his parents have any expectations that he would. There was no pressure on him to be this or that. They only insisted he go to college and mix with other students. And what better environment for their son than Harvard, America’s oldest institution of higher learning? There was a mystique about the place. It conjured up images of success, power, influence... greatness. Supreme Court justices went to Harvard. So did presidents. Now their son had ascended into this rarefied intellectual atmosphere. Any plans he had to form a software company with Paul Allen would have to wait, his parents insisted.
"I was always vague about what I was going to do, but my parents wanted me to go to undergraduate school," Gates said.
"They didn’t want me to go start a company or just go do graduate work. They didn’t have a specific plan in mind, but they thought I should live with other undergraduates, take normal undergraduate courses... which is exactly what I did."
At Harvard, most first-year students live in dormitories in and near what is known as the Yard, next to Harvard Square in Cambridge. The Yard is the center of what was the original college, founded in 1636, just 16 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. At the end of their first year, students can apply to live in twelve residential houses.
Gates was assigned to one of the dorms his freshman year and roomed with two other students, Sam Znaimer and Jim Jenkins. They had been assigned the same room by chance. They didn’t know each other. The three came from vastly different backgrounds and cultures—just the kind of environment Gates’ parents were hoping for. Gates was a rich white kid from Seattle. Znaimer was a poor Jewish kid from Canada whose parents had immigrated to Montreal after the Holocaust. He was attending Harvard on a scholarship, majoring in chemistry. Jenkins was a middle-class black kid from Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose father was in the service.
"I found Bill fascinating," recalled Znaimer, who today is a venture capitalist in Vancouver, British Columbia. "I had not run into too many people from fairly affluent, WASP backgrounds. I didn’t know those kinds of people in Montreal. Bill was someone who came from a comfortable family and had gone to a private school. He would talk about how some governor of the state of Washington used to hang out with his grandfather... which was not the world I was used to. On the other hand, Bill was very down-to-earth. There was not a lot of bullshit or pompousness about him. We all lived more or less the same lifestyle. We all ate together, worked together, and as a group we were all interested in science, engineering and that kind of stuff. We also all loved science fiction."
When he enrolled at Harvard, Gates received permission to take both graduate and undergraduate courses. That was not unusual for gifted students. What was unusual was that he was allowed to set aside those graduate-level courses in math, physics, and computer science and apply the credits toward a graduate degree later. "About two-thirds of my courses were toward my undergraduate degree and about a third were set aside for my graduate degree, although it all doesn’t matter now since I didn’t complete either one," said Gates.
That first year he took one of Harvard’s most difficult math courses, called "Math 55." Almost everyone in the class had scored a perfect 800 on the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Gates did well in the course, but he was not the best. Two other students finished ahead of him, including Andy Braiterman, who lived in the same dorm as Gates. Braiterman had entered Harvard as a sophomore. He and Gates became good friends and later roomed together.
Gates took the typical undergraduate courses in economics, history, literature, and psychology. His attitude toward class work was much the same as it had been at Lakeside. He worked hard and did well in those courses he cared about. He didn’t work hard in courses that didn’t interest him. However, he still did well because he was so smart. In Greek literature his freshman year, Gates fell asleep during the final exam but still managed to receive a "B" in the class. "He was really very proud of that," recalled Braiterman. "It was a story he liked to tell on himself."
That Gates would fall asleep in class was not surprising. He was living on the edge. It was not unusual for him to go as long as three days without sleep. "How he coped with lack of sleep I never figured out," said Znaimer. "I would kind of wimp out after 18 to 24 hours, but his habit was to do 36 hours or more at a stretch, collapse for ten hours, then go out, get a pizza, and go back at it. And if that meant he was starting again at three o’clock in the morning, so be it."
His sleeping habits were just as bizarre. Gates never slept on sheets. He would collapse on his unmade bed, pull an electric blanket over his head and fall asleep instantly and soundly, regardless of the hour or activity in his room. (Gates still falls asleep instantaneously. When he flies, he often puts a blanket over his head and sleeps for the entire flight.)
"He didn’t seem to pay much attention to things he didn’t care about, whether it was clothes or sleep," said Znaimer.
To his roommates and the small group of students he hung out with, Gates was a very intense character. He would often work himself into a frenzy of energy and start rocking back and forth, head in his hands, during a conversation or while reading or concentrating on a mental problem. Sometimes, he would wave his arms madly about to make a point in conversations.
Much of this energy was directed toward computers, just as it had been at Lakeside. Although Gates may not have decided what he was going to do with his life when he entered Harvard, to those who knew him there was little doubt about his real passion. He worked for weeks during his first year there on a BASIC program for a computer baseball game, which required that he figure out highly complex algorithms that would represent figures on the computer screen hitting, throwing, and catching a baseball. Even when he was sound asleep under his electric blanket, Gates was dreaming about computers. Once, about three o’clock in the morning, Gates began talking in his sleep, repeating over and over again, "One comma, one comma, one comma, one comma..."
He spent many nights that year in the Aiken Computer Center at Harvard, which also had a PDP-10. Znaimer would sometimes drop by the computer building and find Gates hacking away at one of the machines. There were several games on the computers, including Steve Russell’s "Space Wars," and Gates and Znaimer would play computer games into the early morning hours.
To unwind and relax, Gates, Znaimer, and Braiterman would go to movies in Cambridge or play pinball in an upstairs lounge in their dorm. The lounge also had an early version of the video game "Pong." (This game had been designed by Nolan Bushnell, and it made him rich and famous. He sold the game through his startup company, Atari.)
As usual, when it came to games the competitive Gates almost always won. He became an exceptional player at both pinball and "Pong."
"Other than playing pinball and going to a lot of movies," said Znaimer, "we were all doing our share of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll... with the exception that the rest of us were more overwhelmed by our hormones than Bill. I don’t remember him chasing any women, and there were lots of opportunities."
No one who knew Gates at Harvard can recall him ever dating anyone while he was there. He did see one young woman occasionally when he returned home on holiday breaks to Seattle, but they were not romantically involved. The woman was Karen Gloyd, a freshman at Whitman College in Washington State. Gloyd was a couple years younger than Gates, having entered college early, at age 16. They met through their parents. Her stepfather was on the state bar association’s board of governors, as was Gates’ father. Gates did not make a very good impression on Gloyd. He lacked the social graces a young lady would have expected of a Harvard man. It was clear to Gloyd that Gates had had little experience with women. The first thing he wanted to know when they met was the score she made on her college SAT.
"It didn’t strike me as being a great pickup line at the time," recalled Gloyd, now married. "It’s kind of amusing looking back on it, but at the time I really wasn’t that amused. I thought maybe I hadn’t heard him right. I thought it rather odd to say the least." Gates then proceeded to explain to Gloyd that he had taken his Scholastic Aptitude Test twice so he could make a perfect score of 1600. (Math and verbal scores each count a maximum of 800 points.) Gates told her that when he first took the test, he breezed through the math portion but made a silly mistake and ended up with 790 points. The second time he took the test he got a perfect math score of 800. "At that point in the conversation," said Gloyd, "I assumed we had very little in common."
They did see each other a few more times. Once, when both were home from college, they accompanied their fathers on a bar association trip to Friday Harbor in the scenic San Juan Islands. Gloyd and several other young people on the trip took off in their parents’ cars and went into town at night to dance and party. Gates, however, stayed behind and played poker with the adults.
"Bill and I played tennis together a few times, but we really didn’t have much in common socially," said Gloyd. "I always thought he was really nice, but I just thought he was sort of a brain, and I was more into partying, sororities, and that kind of thing. Bill was real shy. I didn’t get the impression at the time that he had a lot of experience dating girls and going out and doing social things. I may have thought of him then as being nerdy, but I think he just didn’t want to spend a lot of time doing things he wasn’t interested in."
Although Gates may not have had much experience with girls, he did have experiences of another kind that set him apart from many of his peers at Harvard. He had already been out there in the "real world." He even had his own company, Traf-O-Data.
"That was one of the more interesting things about Bill," said Znaimer. "Compared to the rest of us at Harvard, he was much more broadly grounded. You could find other people who were really good mathematicians or really good physicists. But Bill had a lot more hands-on experience. He had gone and worked in various environments, like TRW."
Znaimer remembered Gates spending several nights in his dorm room in early 1974 working on an IRS tax return for his Traf-O-Data business. "I could not have told you which way was up on a tax form. It was something my parents did," Znaimer said. "But Bill sure knew."
While Gates was finishing his first year at Harvard, Paul Allen was back in Washington State trying to find new business for Traf-O-Data. He had negotiated deals with municipalities in several states, as well as Canada. But the enterprise was being undercut by the federal government, which had decided to help cities and counties analyze traffic statistics.
No one was going to pay Gates and Allen for this service when the feds would do it for nothing. Their contracts in Canada were not enough to keep the business going. At one point, they even considered selling Traf-O-Data machines to a firm in Brazil, but the deal fell through. With their company on the skids, Gates and Allen began having long telephone discussions about what they should do next. Allen decided he would join his friend after Gates completed his first year. They would work together and "brainstorm" about future projects. Much to his parents’ dismay, Gates was even thinking about dropping out of Harvard. He and Allen were serious about starting their own computer company, he told his parents. That summer of 1974, Gates interviewed for a job at various places around Boston, including Honeywell, one of the so-called Seven Dwarfs that made mainframe computers in the shadow of Snow White—mighty IBM. A manager at Honeywell who interviewed Gates telephoned Allen in Seattle.
"I’ve just seen this friend of yours, and he really impressed me with his abilities," the guy told Allen. "We’d like to offer you a job, too. Come on out to Boston and we’ll finalize the deal."
Allen packed up his Chrysler New Yorker and headed east, driving across the country in three days to join Gates. But when Allen got to Boston, he was in for a surprise. He went to Honeywell dressed in his best suit to talk with the manager who had called him in Seattle. "That was a great discussion we had on the phone," the man told a startled Allen, "but we really didn’t offer you a job." It took some tense negotiating, but Allen got the job. He and Gates worked together at Honeywell for the rest of the summer.
Gates and Allen were convinced the computer industry was about to reach critical mass, and when it exploded it would usher in a technological revolution of astounding magnitude. They were on the threshold of one of those moments when history held its breath... and jumped, as it had done with the development of the car and the airplane. Computer power was about to come to the masses. Their vision of a computer in every home was no longer a wild dream. "It’s going to happen," Allen kept telling his friend. And they could either lead the revolution or be swept along by it. Allen was much more eager to start a company than Gates, who was worried about the reaction from his family if he dropped out of school.
"Paul kept saying, let’s start a company, let’s do it," Gates recalled. "Paul saw that the technology was there. He kept saying, ‘It’s gonna be too late. We’ll miss it.’ "
For a while, they considered building their own computer. Allen was more interested in computer hardware than Gates, whose interest was pure software—the "soul" of The Machine. As a boy, Allen had read electronics magazines and built radio and shortwave sets. He had worked with vacuum tubes, transistors, and finally with integrated circuits when he helped design the Traf-O-Data machine. But that experience also taught him what it took to build a computer. He and Gates soon abandoned the idea. They decided to stick with what they knew best—software. Building a computer was too hair-raising.
"We saw that hardware was a black art," Allen said. "That was not our area of expertise. Our forte was software."
By the fall of 1974, Gates had decided he would remain in school. The time just wasn’t right to start their company. Allen stayed on at Honeywell while Gates returned to Harvard to begin his sophomore year.
Gates landed in Currier House, where he roomed with his friend Andy Braiterman. These residential houses at Harvard, each with its own dining facility, are modeled after the residential colleges of Oxford and Cambridge universities. Gates’ former roommate, Znaimer, ended up at North House, about a hundred yards from Currier House.
Clearly, Gates was confused about his academic future. He would later say that he spent many hours sitting in his room "being a philosophical depressed guy, trying to figure out what I was doing with my life." He started playing poker. Lots of poker. This great American game of riverboat gamblers and U.S. presidents became as all-consuming to Gates as computers. He put the same intensity into his poker playing as he did anything else that mattered. When he first started playing poker, Gates was terrible. But he was very determined, and eventually became a pretty good player. "Bill had a monomaniacal quality," said Braiterman, his roommate. "He would focus on something and really stick with it. He had a determination to master whatever it was he was doing. Perhaps it’s silly to compare poker and Microsoft, but in each case, Bill was sort of deciding where he was going to put his energy and to hell with what anyone else thought."
This was serious poker the boys played, not a friendly penny-ante family game. It was not unusual for players to win or lose several hundred dollars a night. A $2,000 loss was not unheard of. The game of choice was Seven Card Stud, high-low split, meaning the player with the best poker hand splits the pot with the player with the worst hand.
The games were played nightly in Currier House in a room that was hardly ever used for anything else. It became known as the "poker room." Regulars at the table were some of the best and brightest at Currier House, including Tom Wolf, Greg Nelson, Scott Drill, and Brad Leithauser. Braiterman also played, although not nearly as much as his roommate. Other than Gates, none of the poker crowd went on to become billionaires, but they didn’t do badly, either. Wolf, known as the "Captain" of the games, is a mathematics professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Nelson is with Digital Equipment Corporation’s research center in Palo Alto. Drill is president of Varitronics Systems, an office machine firm in Minneapolis. Leithauser is a poet, author, and frequent contributor to The New Yorker. He teaches at Mt. Holyoke College. Braiterman is a top Wall Street tax attorney.
By most accounts, Gates became a good enough player to hold his own with this crowd. "He was a fine player—when he could pry himself away from his beloved PDP-10 computer," recalled Nelson.
"I was good," said Gates. "But what happened was that when we first started out, all these guys from the business school and the medical school would come in, and they weren’t very good. So we would raise the stakes, and people would lose their money and they would leave. Toward the end of the poker games at Harvard, it was guys who all we did full-time was play poker. By the very end, I was just able to hold my own."
There were a few games that went on for 24 hours. Trying to break his addiction, Gates once gave Allen custody of his checkbook. Then he asked for it back.
Drill said he often got the best of Gates in big pots when they went mano-a-mano. Gates, he said, had a tendency to play out his hand to the costly end whenever he believed he had correctly "read" other players at the table. Because of this tendency, Drill would sometimes razz Gates. He came up with a nickname for Gates from a popular dog food commercial of the day. "Here comes the Gravy Train," Drill would say, as Gates relentlessly threw more and more chips into the pot, refusing to fold his hand.
"My perception of Bill’s lifestyle, and it was a lot of people’s perception, was that he spent his time either playing poker or in the computer room," recalled Drill.
One student at Currier House who heard all about Gates’ poker exploits was Steve Ballmer, who lived just down the hall. After a long night of gambling, Gates would sometimes drop by Ballmer’s room to recount his adventures at the poker table. Ballmer was usually awake. He was able to go without sleep as long as Gates could. They had the same intensity level, the same unlimited energy source. They were on the same wavelength. In Gatesspeak, it’s known as "high bandwidth communication," or the amount of information one can absorb. The two would often engage in heated debates, exchanging information at a high band rate like two computers connected by modem. A short while into most conversations, Gates and Ballmer would start rocking in sync, talking at the same time but hearing every word the other said.
Several years later, Gates would ask Ballmer to join him at the controls of the Microsoft joyride. He would become the second most influential person in the company, next to Chairman Bill.
Ballmer was much more social than Gates. He seemed to know everyone at Harvard. He convinced Gates to join the Men’s Club at Currier House. As an initiation rite, Gates was blindfolded, dressed in a tuxedo, and brought to the dining room table, where he was ordered to talk about computers.
Just as Gates wanted to be accepted as one of the boys back at Lakeside in Seattle, he also wanted to fit in at Harvard... to belong to a fraternity and be part of "the group." But it wasn’t in his nature. Despite his association with the outgoing Ballmer, Gates was very much a loner with only a small group of friends. His shyness often came across as aloofness.
"Bill and Steve were polar opposites," said Braiterman. "Bill was really not a social kind of guy. He was not the sort of person who hung out with a lot of people. I don’t mean he wasn’t social in the sense of being unfriendly or anything. He just wasn’t very outgoing. Steve was."
Ballmer did not have the passion for computers or the technical background that Gates had, but he did share his interest in mathematics. Ballmer was working on a degree in applied mathematics. At one time in high school, Gates had thought about becoming a mathematician. It was one of many career possibilities. Now, at Harvard, he was having second thoughts as he sized up his competition. Still, he continued to take graduate-level math courses his sophomore year.
"He would sit in class without even a pad of paper, resting his head on his hands," recalled Henry Leitner, who took a graduate math course with Gates on the theory of computations. "He would look very bored, then a half hour into a proof on the blackboard, Bill would raise his hand and blurt out, ‘You made a mistake, I’ll show you.’ Then he would trace the mistake back. He would stump the teacher. He seemed to take great joy in that." Leitner, now a senior lecturer in computer science at Harvard, was a graduate student at the time. He and Gates sat next to each other in class, and were supposed to collaborate on homework problems. But Leitner couldn’t get the younger Gates to work on problems he didn’t think worthy of his time. Gates only liked the challenge of the most difficult problems. "I used to wonder what I was doing trying to work with this guy," said Leitner. "He would only do about 20 percent of the work. But it was worth it. A couple minutes on the phone with him and he would straighten me out on a complex math problem. He was a real character."
At Lakeside, Gates had been the best student in the school at math. Even at Harvard, he was one of the top math students. But he was not the best. He had met several students better than he was at math, including Fred Commoner, the son of scientist-author Barry Commoner. Gates eventually gave up any thoughts of becoming a mathematician. If he couldn’t be the best in his field, why risk failure?
"I met several people in the math department who were quite a bit better than I was at math," said Gates. "It changed my view about going into math. You can persevere in the field of math and make incredible breakthroughs, but it probably discouraged me. It made the odds much longer that I could do some world-class thing. I had to really think about it: Hey, I’m going to sit in a room, staring at a wall for five years, and even if I come up with something, who knows. So it made me think about whether math was something I wanted to do or not. But there were so many choices. My mind was pretty much open.
I thought law would be fun.... I thought physiological psychology—the study of the brain—would be fun.... I thought working in artificial intelligence would be fun.... I thought theoretical computer science would be fun.... I really had not zeroed in on something...."
It’s not well known outside a few of his professors, but Gates did make one small but noteworthy contribution in the field of mathematics while at Harvard. He helped advance the solution to a mathematical puzzle that had been around for some time. No one had come up with a definitive solution.
This was the puzzle, as it had appeared in several mathematical journals: "The chef in our place is sloppy, and when he prepares a stack of pancakes they come out all different sizes. Therefore, when I deliver them to a customer, on the way to the table I rearrange them (so that the smallest winds up on top, and so on, down to the largest at the bottom) by grabbing several from the top and flipping them over, repeating this (varying the number I flip) as many times as necessary. If there are "n" pancakes, what is the maximum number of flips (as a function of "n") that I will ever have to use to rearrange them?"