Bill Gates is Moving On

The End of an Era?
For more than 30 years, Bill Gates has been at the helm of Microsoft. All that changes as of Monday June 30th, 2008.

In some respects, this week won’t be terribly different for Bill Gates than the previous 1,712 weeks he has spent working full-time at Microsoft, the company he co-founded as a teenager. The 52-year-old icon has some one-on-one meetings scheduled with a few of his top technical executives. He has some customer meetings. And, as often happens, he’ll go to the television studio on Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., campus to tape a few messages for events he won’t be able to attend. In addition, he says, “I hope to write a few memos.” But normalcy will be an illusion. Everybody knows that when the week ends, Bill Gates will walk out of his office for the last time as someone on the clock for Microsoft. (On that final day, the routine will be shredded, and the staff has planned some internal commemorative events.) He’ll take a break this summer (including a sojourn to the Beijing Olympics), and beginning in September the new focus of his work life will be the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the organization he began with his wife in 2000. With a current $37.3 billion endowment, it’s the world’s richest philanthropic institution.

Gates leaves at a challenging time for Microsoft, but this is the final step in a painstakingly planned process that began four years ago. It was spring 2004 when the Gateses began discussing the possibility that if Bill increased his role at the foundation—making as big a donation in brainpower as he has in dollars—he could save or improve many lives. Gates formalized the move in June 2006, when Microsoft announced a two-year transition period scheduled to end, well, right now. “I don’t know of any retirement that’s been as carefully thought through,” says Gates.

The paradoxical aspect of this period has been that while Gates has consciously been stepping back in some areas (almost no one reports to him, and he has limited his tech focus to a few key areas like search and the next version of Windows), his passion for the software world is as intense as ever. “Bill comes to every meeting like he’s going to be here for the next 10 years,” says CEO Steve Ballmer. So no one really knows how much culture shock will set in when Gates leaves the campus this Friday. Though he will remain the chairman of its board of directors—assuring him a huge voice in any big decisions—and plans to spend the equivalent of one day a week on company business, the idea that he won’t be there seems unreal. Microsoft without Bill Gates? It does not compute.

Gates does have some specific ideas, big and small. At the suggestion of Warren Buffett—who will donate billions from his fortune to the foundation over the next few years—Gates intends to work on an annual letter, in the same spirit as Buffett’s yearly missive to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. To learn more about areas the foundation is working on, he is doing intensive reading on education and science, and has monitored online college courses in geology, history and microparticle physics. He is fully engaged on several problems already. “People know I have a particular fascination with AIDS and malaria,” he says. One obsession is an AIDS vaccine, and Gates was disappointed when a trial indicated that a promising candidate for a solution, made by Merck, was not effective. Discussing the vaccine, an intense Gates cites research that implies that a variation might be more effective. Clearly, he’s viewing the process the same way he views software development—maybe version 3.0 will do the trick.

Gates understands that his identity as a philanthropist will be drastically different than his role as the king of software. “We don’t have a CES on malaria, so you don’t get 50,000 people converging on a city and saying, ‘Oh, Bill’s keynote on malaria is coming’,” he says. He realizes that working on the issues of the foundation could make him more of a lightning rod than he was as the head of the digital Borg. “The new world is more controversial than the old world,” he says. “We do family planning. We fund research on crops, and some people think that you shouldn’t take science to help the poor people. This whole thing about which operating system somebody uses is a pretty silly thing versus issues involving starvation or death.”

Treading on uncertain ground like that underlines the difficulties Gates may face in leaving the job he has loved so much. “It may be more of a change than he thinks,” says Paul Allen, recalling his own departure from Microsoft in 1983. “You don’t always realize how dramatic that transition is going to be when people aren’t depending on your decisions day by day.”

“In no sense would I say, ‘Oh, I’m making a sacrifice because it’s something my mother told me I ought to do’,” Gates says. “I am doing something my mother told me I ought to do, but it’s going to be a lot of fun. And I feel good about the impact as well.” As for Microsoft, there’s always e-mail.

Here’s a funny You Tube Video of Bill’s final days.

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