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November 19, 2007

Startups better see something Gates doesn't

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano at 2:55 PM

In addition to the somewhat controversial statements Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates made Friday about an engineering talent shortage, there were several other interesting tidbits from his speech and question and answer session with an audience of high school, college and professional members of the National Society of Black Engineers.

For starters, the atmosphere in the room at Microsoft's conference center in Redmond differed dramatically from that of Microsoft's annual shareholder meeting, at which Gates spoke earlier in the week. Gates noticed it, too. After waiting through a long and loud standing ovation -- "Thank you. Thanks for having me. Thank you. All right, thanks very much." -- to begin his speech, he said, "I've been at a lot of meetings in this room, but I think you may be the most energetic group we've ever had here."

Gates compared the software development process to a much more mundane pursuit: bread baking.

"The pace is really something because whenever you come out with software, customers love to tell you what's right, they love to tell you what's wrong, and you know you can go out and do something new. It's not like working at a bread company where they ... go back and tell you they don't like bread anymore, and great, well, we're a bread company, what do they expect? We're not going to change our product."

The question-and-answer session, as is often the case with a young, engaged audience, was the best part. There were lots of questions about how Gates got started and how one could emulate his success.

Gates dismissed the personal risk he took of dropping out of Harvard to start Microsoft, saying, "I could have always gone back to school. When I started hiring my friends, and they had kids and things, then it was more risky, could I pay them? So I had to be really sure."

For those wondering how to build a Microsoft-sized company today, Gates said the trick is finding a big opportunity based on a major change that the big players -- himself included -- are missing. "You'd have to have an idea that's revolutionary. ... You'd have to have a breakthrough in artificial intelligence or robots or something that was so big that the existing companies really somehow just weren't getting their minds around it, and doing it well. ... So, you'd better see something I don't see if you want to start a company now."

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Tricia Duryee
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