On Bill Gates and Harvard's notorious Math 55. What professor is Gates talking about below? The professor who currently teaches Math 55 is invited to comment -- anonymously, of course ;-)
... I offered a word to the wise: “You know, Bill, when you get to Harvard, there are going to be some people a lot better in math than you are.”
“No way,” he said. “There’s no way!”
And I said, “Wait and see.”
I was decent in math, and Bill was brilliant, but by then I spoke from my experience at Washington State. One day I watched a professor cover the blackboard with a maze of partial differential equations, and they might as well have been hieroglyphics from the Second Dynasty. It was one of those moments when you realize, I just can’t see it. I felt a little sad, but I accepted my limitations. I was O.K. with being a generalist.
For Bill it was different. When I saw him again over Christmas break, he seemed subdued. I asked him about his first semester, and he said glumly, “I have a math professor who got his Ph.D. at 16.” The course was purely theoretical, and the homework load ranged up to 30 hours a week. Bill put everything into it and got a B. When it came to higher mathematics, he might have been one in a hundred thousand students or better. But there were people who were one in a million or one in 10 million, and some of them wound up at Harvard. Bill would never be the smartest guy in that room, and I think that hurt his motivation. He eventually switched his major to applied math.
On Bill and Steve Ballmer conspiring to steal Allen's stake in the company while he was ill with cancer.
One evening in late December 1982, I heard Bill and Steve speaking heatedly in Bill’s office and paused outside to listen in. It was easy to get the gist of the conversation. They were bemoaning my recent lack of production and discussing how they might dilute my Microsoft equity by issuing options to themselves and other shareholders. It was clear that they’d been thinking about this for some time.
Unable to stand it any longer, I burst in on them and shouted, “This is unbelievable! It shows your true character, once and for all.” I was speaking to both of them, but staring straight at Bill. Caught red-handed, they were struck dumb. Before they could respond, I turned on my heel and left.
I replayed their dialogue in my mind while driving home, and it felt more and more heinous to me. I helped start the company and was still an active member of management, though limited by my illness, and now my partner and my colleague were scheming to rip me off. It was mercenary opportunism, plain and simple. That evening, a chastened Steve Ballmer called my house and asked my sister Jody if he could come over. “Look, Paul,” he said after we sat down together, “I’m really sorry about what happened today. We were just letting off steam. We’re trying to get so much stuff done, and we just wish you could contribute even more. But that stock thing isn’t fair. I wouldn’t have anything to do with it, and I’m sure Bill wouldn’t, either.”
I told Steve that the incident had left a bad taste in my mouth. A few days later, I received a six-page, handwritten letter from Bill. Dated December 31, 1982, the last day of our last full year together at Microsoft, it contained an apology for the conversation I’d overheard. And it offered a revealing, Bill’s-eye view of our partnership: “During the last 14 years we have had numerous disagreements. However, I doubt any two partners have ever agreed on as much both in terms of specific decisions and their general idea of how to view things.”
Bill was right. Our great string of successes had married my vision to his unmatched aptitude for business. But that was beside the point. Once I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s, my decision became simpler. If I were to relapse, it would be pointless—if not hazardous—to return to the stresses at Microsoft. If I continued to recover, I now understood that life was too short to spend it unhappily.
Bill’s letter was a last-ditch effort to get me to stay, and I knew he believed he had logic on his side. But it didn’t change anything. My mind was made up.
In January, I met with Bill one final time as a Microsoft executive. As he sat down with me on the couch in his office, I knew that he’d try to make me feel guilty and obliged to stay. But once he saw he couldn’t change my mind, Bill tried to cut his losses. When Microsoft incorporated, in 1981, our old partnership agreement was nullified, and with it his power to force me to accept a buyout based on “irreconcilable differences.” Now he tried a different tack, one he’d hinted at in his letter. “It’s not fair that you keep your stake in the company,” he said. He made a lowball offer for my stock: five dollars a share.
... “I’m not sure I’m willing to sell,” I countered, “but I wouldn’t even discuss less than $10 a share.”
“No way,” Bill said, as I’d suspected he would. Our talk was over. As it turned out, Bill’s conservatism worked to my advantage. If he’d been willing to offer something close to my asking price, I would have sold way too soon.