Shelf Life

Paul Allen on Bill Gates and today’s Microsoft

Marketplace Staff Apr 19, 2011
Shelf Life

Paul Allen on Bill Gates and today’s Microsoft

Marketplace Staff Apr 19, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Back to my point about start-ups for a second. No matter how big they wind up eventually getting, there’s always a moment in a company where it’s just a couple of people with an idea trying to make a go of it.

Thirty-five years ago, it was Paul Allen and Bill Gates with an idea that eventually became Microsoft. Paul Allen’s got a new memoir out about the early days in that company and what he’s been doing since he left. It’s called “Idea Man.” Paul Allen, welcome to the program.

Paul Allen: Thank you very much.

Ryssdal: You know, much has been made about the — I guess you might say — tempestuous relationship between yourself and Bill Gates. But bear with me while I ask you this question. There you guys are, you’re running a company that would eventually be a multi-billion-dollar business, and granted it was the early days, but which one was more difficult to manage: The company and its development or your relationship with Bill Gates?

Allen: Um… well that’s an interesting question. No, I think Bill and I had a very, very productive working relationship and we could finish each other’s sentences. We were shoulder-to-should doing that first version of basic and some things that came after that. So we were a really productive partnership and team. As the company grows, you start to become more specialized. And I was always more focused on the technology side, where technology was going. And Bill was more drawn to the business side. So we kind of bifurcated our interests.

Ryssdal: Did you ever disagree, though, on where to take the company?

Allen: Well there were continual, heated interchanges and disagreements, but we were able to work through those. And I think at one point in the book I talk about how just hiring people, he would talk to Steve Ballmer, who’s the current CEO of Microsoft, about hiring people. I had the office next to Bill, so I could hear these discussions at super-high volume about Bill’s skepticism that we should hire a bunch more people, and Steve’s insistence that if the company was going to grow and deliver on all the promises it made, it had to hire a lot more people. My personal approach is a little different. I think you can usually examine these things in a lower level of intensity.

Ryssdal: So what happened to Microsoft? I mean, here we’ve got Google and Apple and all these whiz-bang technology companies, and they are what you guys used to be.

Allen: Right. In the book I call them the hell hounds. They’re either chasing Microsoft or in some cases ahead of Microsoft. There’s a real danger when you become big and successful that you miss opportunities. Early on, we were hyper-vigilant about looking at potential competition or areas we might have missed. But as you get big, you get slower, you become less able to react to all these changes. And I think unfortunately some of that’s happened to Microsoft. It’s doing its best to try to catch up and get back to being in a leadership position in some of these areas, but that’s really hard to do.

Ryssdal: You actually talk a little bit about what you perceive as a culture of mediocrity now at Microsoft. And you quote a guy who’s a senior manager there saying, yeah I’d like to take every fourth person at this company and just take ’em out and shoot ’em, and we’d be much better off.

Allen: Well he was speaking metaphorically.

Ryssdal: Well yeah, of course. Right. But the point is made?

Allen: Yeah. I think you have to be very vigilant and diligent in trying to keep up the standards of employees. I mean, there’s a lot of a great people at Microsoft. But you’ve got 3-, 4-, 5,000 people working on some of their big systems over there. It’s just much, much harder to maintain the same standard.

Ryssdal: You got sick in the early 1980s with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That is one of, if not, the main thing that led you to leave Microsoft in 1983. Do you think the company would be different had you stayed?

Allen: I’d like to think so. I mean, it’s unknowable, obviously, but I always came up with new ideas. The company did fantastically well after I left with some of the things we just started to do. Obviously, Windows and Word and Excel and many of those products. But I like to think that my ideas could have helped.

Ryssdal: Do they pick up the phone when you call?

Allen: Oh yeah. You have to imagine the challenges that they’re under facing all the competition they are. But I think when you’ve got

Ryssdal: You’ve had a number of health scares in recent years, and you said Bill Gates was the guy who came to visit you the most in the hospital. I’m wondering a final thought about your relationship with him. You’ve said you’ll never have a business partner again the way you’ve had a partnership with Bill Gates.

Allen: No. The partnership with Bill was a unique and completely fortuitous thing for both of us. And you can probably tick off on the fingers of maybe one hand those kinds of partnerships, where each person brings something unique to the game, and yet it’s so complementary and so creative.

Ryssdal: Paul Allen, he co-founded Microsoft. He’s done a whole bunch of stuff since then. He’s got a new book out. It’s called “Idea Man.” Mr. Allen, thank you so much for your time.

Allen: Thank you.

Ryssdal: There’s more of my interview with Paul Allen, and he’ll be on the Marketplace Tech Report tomorrow. It’ll all be on The Big Book.

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