On Tuesday morning (June 3rd), at Microsoft’s Tech*Ed Developer conference, Bill Gates made his last scheduled public presentation as a full-time Microsoft employee. About 90 minutes later, 15 tech “influencers,” myself included, gathered around a square table in a small room at the north end of the convention center, and were joined by Mr. Gates for lunch.
We were invited to this luncheon just a few weeks ago, and very unexpectedly. A couple of weeks later, we were told that we’d each have the chance to ask “BillG” (as he is known on Microsoft’s email system) a question. So I prepared one or two clever questions in advance. I had planned to ask Mr. Gates about the future of the BASIC programming language…given its historical importance to Microsoft’s business, and considering its apparent demise of late, at least in the world of .NET development. I also had a non-technical question prepared: whether Gates has ever considered running for public office. I expected the latter question would be ill-suited for a luncheon at which 15 top evangelizing geeks were in attendance, but I was hoping the conversation might swing that way.
To my surprise (and, from what I can tell, the surprise of everyone there), the questions asked of Bill at lunch were almost entirely focused on education, policy and issues concerning the world’s poor. The questions from our group were all quite astute, and I, for one, enjoyed very much being able to talk about matters beyond the keyboard. Throwing out my prepared questions, I instead asked Gates of his views on the United Nations. Gates answered, and I am paraphrasing, that the United Nations is important, necessary and broken. In other words, if I may infer, it needs reform, and it necessarily suffers from bureaucratic inefficiencies, but it’s an irreplaceable institution, and that trashing it (or de-funding it) is naive and ill-advised. That’s a pretty nuanced answer compared to the more polarized positions expressed by many politicians. It bucked a trend. There was more of that to come.
From others’ questions, I learned that Bill Gates is extremely focused on issues of secondary and higher education. He is quite critical of teachers unions, as he believes they institutionalize a system where under-performing teachers become ensconced in the educational system; in effect, he believes the union discourages any notion of competition or real meritocracy. Perhaps that sounds reactionary…but I have to tell you that in the context of his discussion, even to my own liberal sensibilities, it seemed, unexpectedly, quite reasonable. Gates also feels that school systems controlled by mayors (including in my own home town of New York City) are more more investment-worthy than are schools controlled by school boards (which Gates feels lead to contract negotiations between teachers and teachers). What is really hard to convey here is that Gates states these things more as empirical observations than partisan positions. And as he does so, he eliminates the component of controversy that you might expect (and I would have expected) in such proclamations.
And the surprises didn’t end there. I learned that Gates feels Junior/Community Colleges and Associates Degree programs are essential to helping develop the labor pool (including skilled labor) in this country. I also learned, courtesy of a question from Stephen Forte, that Gates is somewhat critical of micro-financing and bullish on “micro savings.” He feels micro-financed loans often have unreasonably high interest rates and can therefore be ineffective. Meanwhile, the lack of access by the world’s poor to simple retail banking services requires them to do things like invest their money in livestock (often resulting in losses of up to 30% when they need to liquidate the investment) or in jewelry (which has inefficiencies of its own), or to posses the cash and suffer inflationary depreciation, and risk of theft. This can lead to problems more grave than those solved by micro-finance loans. And between the use of small retail locations for deposits, ATMs and cell phones (for checking balances, and so forth), even remote, poor areas could have access to banking services.
There’s one thing about a person having financial and political independence: he can avoid politically correct rhetoric with impunity. For Bill Gates, one example of this was his reference to poor countries, not as the “third world” or the “developing world” but as the “poor world.” Trust me here: this phrase was not one he used in condescension. Rather, I think Gates likes to use directly descriptive names for things, because it saves time, and gets right to the point. It is also, I found, more respectful of the problems faced by the poor, and more respectful of the need to help them. And to Gates, at least as I read him, helping more people emerge from poverty isn’t just about charity, ethics, or responsibility. It’s about an opportunity, not just for them, but for the people who will employ them. Lifting people out of indigence can actually mean economic benefit for the rich. That was inspiring, because it made the problem of poverty seem approachable to me. Another unexpected outcome of the conversation.
Gates’ keynote at Tech*Ed was, unfortunately, anti-climactic: there was little new announced and the presentations lacked punch and enthusiasm. Lunch, on the other hand, was inspired. And inspiring. It’s pretty clear then where Gates’ real passion now lies. And with him (and his foundation’s money), focused full-time on a pragmatic, mostly a-political approach to solving some of the world’s worst problems, I am hopeful that he can be an agent for real and lasting improvements. For Gates (to borrow a phrase attributed usually to the Mormons), solving world problems is not just about doing good, but also about doing well. Each of these motivations is quite powerful; together they could be transformational, if not unexpected.