I finally had a chance this weekend to sit down and watch the three-part Netflix documentary “Inside Bill’s Brain” about Bill Gates. As someone who worked at Microsoft in the waning years of significant “Bill involvement” through his transition into his next chapter of life, I was really curious how he would be portrayed in the series. Would it be hit job or love fest?
Have you ever flipped through the channels and landed on one of those five hour long Time-Life commercials that featured a musical collection of the greatest hits of the 70s and 80s? But if you order now, you will also get the 90’s Dance Party Mix CD as a free gift? Even though you know its a commercial you stay awhile to hear all of the music and let the memories come flooding back. It was kind of like that.
Ultimately, for me, my interest proved to be more nostalgic as the series would ping-pong back and forth between his Microsoft years and the initiatives he has driven through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I got to see faces I had not seen in a very long time. I loved the segments that featured Nathan Myhrvold. While Nathan had left Microsoft by the time I had gotten there, I did have some great interaction with him in his role at Intellectual Ventures. In my experience my interactions with him were always high energy and he definitely comes across as the happy, mad scientist in the documentary. While they talked about his voluminous cookbooks on bread, which I am sure are fantastic, it was through a chat with him about more avant garde cooking that I got turned on to his work in Modernist Cuisine. Whether you like Modernist Cuisine or not I still find that series of books fascinating just to look through and read. Lord knows I couldn’t make any of it.
The shots of Bill drinking copious amounts of Diet Coke, also brought about a smile and a fond memory back of the time when I was going through the process that would ultimately lead me to become a General Manager and partner in the firm. There used to be a program called “Sine Cera” latin for Without Wax which was sort of a mashup between a business and Geek Beauty pageant. I have no idea if this is still a thing done in the Satya era but it was an incredibly stressful thing for the candidates going through the program. The pre-work alone to be done before the event was significant. You were given packets of information about products, technology, business, and more that you pretty much had to memorize before you got there, and then upon beginning there were three full days of grueling interrogation on your thoughts, ideas, how you would evolve such things and more. These interrogations would be led by senior Microsoft Leaders. The events were done in teams, singly, and its probably pretty safe to say that you were always under the watch of someone’s eyes. All of that is the backdrop against my story. I happened to be sitting next to Bill during one of the events inside the program. He had just put his Diet Coke on the floor next to where we were sitting and I, in my fidgety nervousness, inadvertently kicked it over. He turned and looked at me and said in a stern voice but deadpan voice, “Oh that is not good at all”. I began to panic slightly and apologized profusely and offered to get him another. He then smiled and said, “It’s ok there is plenty more.” He then produced another Diet Coke almost magically from I have no idea where. I thought with absolute clarity that for sure I would be on the next group headed out the door. In some ways it actually focused me even more during the rest of the program. Ultimately it turned out to be nothing. But in retrospect, seeing all the Diet Coke cans did make me laugh.
The portions of the series where they interviewed Melinda were also really enjoyable because you ended up getting a great view into their relationship, their partnership and a part of Bill Gates that no-one ever sees. She was able to humanize him in a way that most would never know. She was engaging and approachable, but you could tell she was a lioness in her own right with a much more EQ-centric way of thinking. In my mind the quintessential power couple.
The series was an interesting weave between the old and the new. If I am being honest I came away with a feeling that it was really more intentioned to highlight the work the Foundation is doing. Which is not a bad thing. At one point in the series the interviewer grills Gates on whether or not he thinks can solve anything with technology. Bill’s answer was that it’s the one thing he is good at. It’s the hammer he knows. So, of course every problem looks like a nail. The fact is without technology or thinking bigger most of these problems will not get solved. I would much rather someone with the ability, resources, and technical know-how put their mind(s) to these problems than say, bureaucrats or career politicians. Then again, I am likely guilty of wielding the same hammer. I ended up really enjoying the series much more than I had thought.
Though I thought better of it, I still ended up reading different reviews, commentary, Slashdot troll trains, and other thoughts on the series via the Internet. I find it fascinating how Bill could still be so divisive. Many harken back to his time as CEO of Microsoft, during the Anti-Trust suit, and portray him as this hawkish, maniacally focused, world-dominating force of evil. Completely ignoring all of his philanthropic work, or alluding to potential evil schemes. Which kind of makes me laugh. Who knew self-sufficient power-free toilets in the deserts of Sudan were the first step towards a one-world government?
Was he focused? Yes! Was he driven? Yes! Did he want to succeed? Yes! Was he focused on making his company better? Yes! He is an incredibly smart man. Like every other incredibly smart person I have ever known, including many of his most fervent detractors (who are equally biased and in favor of competing technologies) he was a true believer of his own work, industry position, a lover of his own mental progeny. The true believers arrayed against him are equally as passionate. Thank God for the true believers otherwise our Technology world would be more of a Meh-ritocracy or Meh-topia versus a near-Meritocracy.
I know some of you will read that last part and just claim that I am just attempting to be an apologist and am showing some of my personal biases or reacting in a typical Microsoft brain-washed way that was pre-programmed into me years ago. Maybe. Although, as I sit here from my Linux laptop, using open-source software to write this post, and publish to an open source blog platform I would say that’s probably a stretch. Especially as I was equally emphatic about Unix (and subsequently Linux) during my days prior to joining the Redmond crew.
I guess in closing I would definitely recommend giving it a watch. And Spoiler Alert… for the record I would like to ask the question that is hanging out there…. Who didn’t eat Tang, Wylers, or Kool-Aid without adding water back in the day?