Raising Microsoft: Bill Gates Sr. Talks About His Son's Stormy Youth

Raising Microsoft: Bill Gates's Dad Talks About His Son's Stormy Youth
Raising Microsoft: Bill Gates's Dad Talks About His Son's Stormy Youth

Parents of less-than-perfect offspring, take heart: It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that Harvard University drop-out, Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates was at times a difficult kid, at least according to his father.

In a conversation last week at the 92nd Street Y in New York between William H. Gates Sr., a retired, prominent Seattle lawyer, and his son, Bill Gates, the senior Gates said, "It would be less than candid of me" to not admit that "as families go, and as conflicts arise between parents and children from common causes, the whole business of exerting independence, fighting against discipline, that's an experience we had, and it was one that was particularly the case with Bill and his mother for a period of a couple of years. It obviously worked itself out at a very early date."

"An interesting piece of that," Gates Sr. continued, "was the consultant that we went to and talked to about this. Mary [Mrs. Gates Sr.] and I would go in, and Trey [Bill Gates] would go in and talk to this fellow. This went on for a better part of a year, a year and a half. Toward the end, Mary and I were there for a meeting with him, and he said, 'You have this war going on with your son -- you really should understand that he's gonna win.' "

At the Y, Bill Gates responded, "Actually, it was great. I got through that early. My mom was on the front line, but dad definitely was in reserve."

Addressing his son, the senior Gates said, "I think you turned out OK. . . . He had a really great mother, I think you would agree with that."

Family Gave Young Bill a Model of the Real World

Gates Sr., who now guides the strategic direction of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also reminisced about a family tradition, when his two daughters and son would accompany their parents on annual two-week vacations at the Hood Canal, outside Seattle. On these trips, they and seven other families played tennis, water-skied and ate meals together.

Bill Gates said that experience -- particularly the opportunity to dine with other families -- combined with his own parents' regularly engaging their children in thought-provoking conversations at dinner, helped him succeed when he started Microsoft.

"When I went to start Microsoft and I had to sell to people 20, 30 years older than me, I didn't have that much hesitation. There's just a certain exposure that became commonplace, that allowed me to talk to adults, work with adults. It took me a little bit longer to work with people my own age," Gates said.

"Doing Microsoft just didn't feel like it was that hard or that a big deal. A lot of that goes back to having a family that ... gives [their kids] a model of what they are going to see out on the world, doesn't sugar-coat it, makes it something to share. It prepared me in a magical way, and I owe a lot to both my dad and mom for that," he added.

Childhood Friend Paul Allen Got Him Curious About Computers

Discussing why people older than he -- he was born in 1955 -- didn't recognize the growth potential of the software industry, Gates said, "They weren't as open-minded, they didn't think about software as the key ingredient."

"In all success stories, there are significant elements of luck and timing," he added, noting that his curiosity was also piqued by "an obscure article" he received from his childhood friend and Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, about the first microprocessor.

One key to Microsoft's success, Gates noted, were its deliberate attempts to build a broad set of skills. "We were able to build up a depth of engineering, an understanding of how you do complex software, how you deliver it around the world.

"I never went to work and said, 'Yeah, I haven't made a billion yet, I got to get on with this.' I just wanted to make software. . . . We were always reasonably careful about taking one step after the other. I said, 'Hey, software is going to be more valuable than hardware.' Now, of course, Apple is doing a good job proving hardware can also be valuable. But, hey, there's room for more than one success story here," he said.