Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Paul Allen: Idea Man

The excerpts below are from Paul Allen's new memoir Idea Man.

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.


Liam said...

IIRC, Jeff Bezos had a similar epiphany at Princeton, then switched from physics to computer science.

Albert said...

The professor is not him. He is too young, but I cannot think of anyone who got PhD at 16.

steve hsu said...

Yes, he'd said that in a number of interviews I read. Coincidentally, I know people from his eating club and vintage at Princeton, so I think I know the actual people who scared Jeff out of physics :-)

steve hsu said...

I was hoping Noam might enlighten us ;-)

DK said...

This idea man owns the worst broadband company ever (Charter Communication) which he led into filing Chapter 11 less than two years ago.

Guest said...

I think sometime in the early 1980's Math 55 at Harvard was renamed Math 25. There used to be a Physics 55, so the studly thing for geeks was to take both Math 25 and Physics 55. I took Math 25 from Professor Gleason in 1986. He had taught it for many years, but don't know if he taught Gates. Also, Gleason is famous for not having a PhD.

I see that now there is both a Math 25 and a Math 55.

RKU said...

Actually, Math 55 was still Math 55 in the early/mid 1980s. And there was some article in the New Yorker or somewhere a couple of years ago that mentioned Math 55 still had the same reputation, so I don't think the name ever changed...

Guest said...

I guess Math 25 was a watered-down version of Math 55. I know that between 1986 and 1990 there was no Math 55.

Abcd said...

There was one in the Harvard Crimson itself:

Albert said...

On the opposite side of software geekdom, Richard Stallman took Math 55 also. He is only two years older than Gates.
Download his biography here
Start reading at page 41 of the book.
It's really too bad that Stallman has become a nutcase like Grothendieck. He is anti-Facebook, anti-everything.

Mariano Chouza said...

Well, Paul is just relaying what Bill said. Maybe Bill was exaggerating or had heard not-entirely-true stories... it happens all the time: :-)

Justin Loe said...

College Friends Remember Gates’ Genius, Poker Playing

Salient quote:
"In the spring semester of his sophomore year, Gates took Math 250, which Sethna and many of his friends had completed that fall.

“We had all found it challenging, and [Bill] said he found it very easy,” Sethna says. “He told us he had finally figured out what math was all about. It was just a system and he had figured out the system.”"

RKU said...

That's a great Crimson article. It really doesn't sound like they've watered-down Math 55 much even after all these years...

I remember there was one in-class 3-hour midterm in which Schmidt told everybody as he was passing out the exam that he'd decided to give people an extra 15 that they would have enough time to read the first question! Everyone later agreed that test was the hardest they'd ever encountered in all their four years of college. The top score was 45%, the second highest was something like 32%, you had a cluster of maybe a dozen students down in the low to mid twenties, and an awful lot of zeros or near zeros.

steve hsu said...

Yes, I really liked it as well.

I wonder whether physicists who take Math 55 really get much benefit from it, other than a sense of accomplishment. Seth Lloyd described his Math 55 experience to me and his description of the score distribution was similar to yours.

I placed out of the usual math sequence at Caltech and took Ma 108 my freshman year, which was taught by Tom Wolff, a Ma 55 alum and contemporary of Bill Gates (see link; I didn't realize it at the time but I was taking analysis from a world-class (Bocher prize) analyst). At the time I was still considering math as a possible direction, but Ma 108 helped me realize my real interests were more in theoretical physics than math.

dabacon said...

Passed out of Ph1 as well? In my year I think they only let two people do that (one was my roommate).

steve hsu said...

Yup. But I had already taken the "equivalent" of Ph1 (Halliday and Resnick) and a QM course at Iowa State (junior level, in their sequence). In my year there were also 2 kids who took Ph12 as freshman, IIRC. The other guy also graduated in 3 years and he started his PhD under Wilczek at UCSB, but then switched into mathematical logic or something. He's now in Silicon Valley doing chip design stuff. The CEO of his startup (also a techer, and a famous hacker) refers to him as their "secret weapon" :-)

dabacon said...

Roommate is currently trying to convince Bill Gates he's backing the wrong nuclear power plant design. (His day job is producing analytic solutions in general relativity.)

steve hsu said...

Hmm.. very interesting. Is this the same design Myhrvold is backing? (TerraPower?)

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