14 Jul 2013, 04:34

Review: Gates by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews

Recently on a holiday in Bali I had the time to read Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America. I also found time to get engaged but a review of that event will have to come in another blog post 😉

The basics

This book covers the life of Bill Gates from his birth through to around 1993. There is an update for the book written in 2012.

5 Things I learned about Bill Gates & Microsoft

  1. Gates says what you want to hear. One IBM executive secretly attended more than 30 speaking events that Gates spoke at over the course of two months. IBM wasn’t sure they were getting the whole truth from Gates on various subjects and so did some digging. Gates changed opinions, complete 180 degree changes on what he had just said hours earlier, depending on the audience who was listening. Judging the direction Gates would be going based on what he said was pretty pointless by most accounts.
  2. Gates avoids firing people. Despite the image of an intimidating titan of industry who cuts anyone down as needed, he avoided firing people at almost all costs. They would simply be shifted into parts of the company where they were not on the critical path of anything.
  3. Windows was almost an accidental success. The company worked tirelessly trying to get IBM to realise the potential of OS/2. The Windows team initially was tiny and certainly not considered the best and brightest in the company. Many big brained coders were enlisted into the OS/2 march. It wasn’t until IBM forced Microsoft away that work on Windows was stepped up a gear.
  4. Modern software development is built on the shoulders of giants. This book reminded me that the early days really were the early days. Tooling was non-existent. Computers barely functioned. There was no fancy GitHub or static analysis tools. No Agile methodologies. No unit tests. No anything really. The fact any software shipped – and worked – is nothing short of a miracle.
  5. Paul Allan is an under valued player. I semi already appreciated this from reading Paul Allan’s biography but it was very clear that his technical capabilities were critical in the early success of Microsoft. While he impacted many areas of the technical delivery of Microsoft products it seems the value of his hardware emulation software was significant. This internal IP to Microsoft allowed the company to emulate devices that they didn’t have access to, allowing Microsoft to ship products for new computers as they came to market. Keep in mind that the PC industry of the day was extremely fragmented and therefore this clever software was of huge value to Microsoft.I was surprised how frequently throughout the book the hardware emulation system that Paul Allan developed came up. This emulation software was written by Paul to assist in building BASIC for the Altair — the very first Microsoft product.

There are many other interesting points to note throughout the book, but these points stood out to me in particular.

The good parts

Overall I thought this book was very well written and provides a great insight into how Microsoft came to be the colossus that it is today. See how Gates, then a young executive, managed business relationships, growth, product direction and other every day business challenges was educational.

Getting insight into low level tactics and what ‘business as usual’ looks like for Bill Gates  is a great contrast to many modern books about Gates. Most modern books tend to focus on the epic victories such as taking the Browser market with only casual insight into the nitty gritty details. Or they portray the OS/2 & Windows wars as some master plan by Microsoft — this book paints a clear picture that it was only under significant pressure that Microsoft even seriously developed Windows.

This book is also well written, fast paced and easy to lose a few hours to without realising it. That’s usually my measure of a good book — the fact I came away with lessons learnt was just the cherry on top.

The bad parts

The book was updated in 2012 and I feel this was relatively worthless outside of drawing attention to the fact that this book existed at all. It seemed cheap to have a few pages condensing almost 20 years of change in the computing industry, Microsoft and Bill Gates’s life. The update also focused nearly entirely on the gradual decline of Microsoft in recent years and less on the truly epic ascension of Microsoft with Windows 95 through to Windows XP.

Having said that, this tack on section of the book is only a minor negative note in an otherwise interesting business read.

Wrapping up

If you have even a passing interest in the business of software then I’d strongly recommend reading this book. I grabbed it for $10 on the Kindle and you should too.