Harvard Notes By Jeff Benitz
At Harvard, Bill Gates III was well remembered.
Professors and some who had been graduate students at
the time all described him as brilliant. That is a
tough complement from a crowd of talent that is stingy
on praise and ordinarily jealous.
One professor in computer science was finishing his
dissertation for his PhD. in 1975 and though he was a
tutor to the undergraduates, he said regularly he
would consult with Gates on questions in regard to
computer language architecture. This was a time
before the personal computer. There were some
hobbyists fooling around with personal systems but the
standard was main-frames run with COBOL. The Internet
existed but the World Wide Web did not.
I was lucky enough in the 1970s to have an older
brother who begrudgingly would take me to MIT on
Saturdays to use their computers. A trek into Boston
was what you had to do to get on-line. While I would
play a TEXT version of Dungeons and Dragons, he would
write programs. We could kill the whole day. The
clanking and banging of teletypes, the punch cards,
the yellow ticker tapes, the PDP 11's are all gone
now, but then that was the best deal going.
This is the time Bill Gates was gearing up for the
future. Coming from probably the most elite private
school in Washington state (Lakeside School cost $5000
in 1967 that same year Harvard cost $1760) he was well
prepared for Harvard College. As I came from public
schools, I knew what it was to compete with private
school kids, as long as they went to a good private
school--- it was all about keeping up. They already
had a college education when they arrived at college,
Greek and Latin was under their belt.
What makes Bill Gates interesting, is he has all the
hallmarks of the Gilded Age in the late 19th century
dropped into a paradigm 100 years later. By most
reasoning, he was not someone to be a magnificent
success. He had family wealth, education, and comfort
in life. Somehow his parents bred in him a severe
ambition to be a cutthroat businessman (his family was
lawyers and bankers). Very few programmers have much
in the way of social skills. Look at the founders of
Cisco, Apple (Steve Wozniak), Lotus, they all lost the
companies they founded. The technical people usually
don't make out too well.
In private high school Bill Gates was already writing
software and selling it to government and companies.
At Harvard College he co-wrote a version of BASIC. He
had the business skills and scientific ability to
realize time was short if he was going to jump the
curve on technology. He left Harvard in his third
year without a degree.
We all know what happened after that, however, there
is a pointed difference between the Robber Barons
like, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Frick, and Mellon; Gates
became a philanthropist earlier. This is an ethic
Harvard and perhaps Lakewood drilled into his head.
As early as 1994, only roughly 13 years into corporate
America, Gates was giving away money. A nerd who was
picked on for his computer vocation was shaping the
world. He had decided the social contract counts.
Those in a position of leadership have a
responsibility to contribute in whatever fashion they
can to those less fortunate. They understand their
talent pool does not only exist in the upper classes.
If they are to survive they must mentor.
The Gates Foundation is strictly focused on education
and health. A narrow but important focus. When
Andrew Carnegie became the greatest benefactor in the
U.S. he was in his late 60's. He sold Carnegie Steel
to J.P. Morgan creating U.S. Steel and became the
wealthiest man in the world. Bill Gates is 51.
It is remarkable to consider, Warren Buffet the second
wealthiest man in the world, has teamed up with the
Gates Foundation forming the largest Trust in history.
On closer inspection it's not so odd. They both have
similar values. Buffett still lives in the same house
he bought in 1958 for $30,000. Gates, other than his
house in Seattle, has not been a member of conspicuous
consumption like most of his high tech peers. In
fact, he is noticeably absent in the circles of
indulgence. These two are both from the western part
of the U.S. and adhere to the industrial work ethic
that evolved from the 19th Century. Bill Gates has
not missed a day of work since he left Harvard in
1977. He has also not forgotten his heritage. Even
though Gates did not take a degree from Harvard
College, even though Gates was sued by Harvard for
writing some of his early commercial software on
university computers (a big no, no), he still gives
money to the college. Young talent is funded by his
gifts and Microsoft recruits heavily from within
Harvard's ranks. Business is business.
Warren Buffet must have been observing Bill Gates'
activities for years. Gates has stayed the course in
giving money to all levels of education. Microsoft
funds scholarships at USMA West Point. In fact, in a
separate program,(the Gates-Cambridge Trust), two
academic achievers from West Point this year will have
ALL expenses paid to study at the University of
Cambridge, England and one from USNA Annapolis. All
students must meet the rigid entry requirements that
any other applicant to Cambridge must pass. There are
100 grants given in 2006, many state schools and Ivy
League. It's based off of talent not privilege.
Clearly, Gates and Buffet have studied their history.
When Andrew Carnegie began to disburse wealth there
were conditions. In the world of social Darwinism
there is no space for losers or those looking for
hand-outs. Carnegie was willing to build Public
Libraries all across the country but he would only pay
half. If the community could not organize and
participate in a true project, they didn't get his
money. It demonstrated they weren't serious about the
library, therefore they didn't want the education he
was offering. Those aren't the people to promote.
This marriage between the Gates and Buffet finances
will be a boon for the competitive underclasses.
Imagine if Rockefeller and Carnegie had pooled
together? Never happen. Their economies were asset
based in oil and steel. This new breed acts the same
but knows it is all about information; who can
transport it, access it, and generate it. Those in
power who have not figured out how to nurture
successors are doomed. You don't hand your son a
sheaf of deeds and contracts and wish him luck
anymore. "He who travels lightest travels fastest."
These are some of the lessons from Harvard. Buffet,
who also left an Ivy League school before finishing
his degree (Wharton) is no fool in the process.
(Buffet did go on to complete college and continue
with an Ivy League graduate degree (Columbia).) In
the articles of the merge with the Gates Foundation he
has conditioned that Gates or his wife must not only
be alive and in charge of the fund, but active in its
This level of personal trust is uncommon today. That
Bill Gates is nearly 20 years younger than Carnegie
creates lots of promise for their work. If Gates puts
in the same energy he put into Microsoft this will be
truly a new age in philanthropy. Hopefully, others of
such intelligence and wealth will heed the example.