A Conversation with Bill Gates

As his full-time job at Microsoft comes to an end, Gates opens up about his future role at the company and what he'll miss the most

Perhaps no business leader is more iconic and better-known worldwide than William H. Gates III. He helped pioneer an industry, became one of the world's wealthiest men along the way, and subsequently launched the biggest philanthropic foundation ever. As he steps back from his full-time work at Microsoft (MSFT) on June 27 to devote the bulk of his time to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an era ends as well.

Gates isn't prone to sentimentality. He struggles at trying to determine his own legacy. In many ways, he's more comfortable talking about the one day a week he'll continue to work at Microsoft. In a conversation with BusinessWeek Seattle Bureau Chief Jay Greene, Gates talked about what he'll continue to do at the company, as well as how he will miss working alongside his friend, Microsoft CEO Steven A. Ballmer. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

You've witnessed so much change in technology since starting Microsoft. What are the next big breakthroughs?

Well, the most important breakthroughs are those whose work has been going on in labs, including Microsoft Research, for more than a decade. The idea of a computer that can see and watch your gestures, and know who you are, that can understand your speech—all that leads to a very interactive environment where your desk is an intelligent surface. Your whiteboard is an intelligent surface. We're seeing glimpses of that. It's amazing that today we are so keyboard- and mouse-oriented. All those new ways of interacting, from ink to speech to vision, will get into the mainstream in the next decade. I would say that's the single thing that's the most dramatic. If you walk into this office 10 years from now, you'll say: "They just wrote stuff up on that board, and they just laid the papers out on the desk. That's really weird."

You've been bullish on the natural-user interface for years. With this shift, what role will you play in helping the company address those kinds of opportunities in the future?

Well, the interest in those investments and the incredible progress we've made are not at all confined to me. The great people in Microsoft Research, and in Office, and the other groups are full speed ahead on those things. Steve may ask me to look in on some particular projects to help spur them on, because he knows I love the stuff. But I don't think that's a necessary thing. These are among the big, big, big bets that over the past 10 years we've had a lot of people working on.

Does the fact that you love the stuff suggest it will be something you will play a future role in?

It means there's a chance. Steve and [chief technical officers] Ray [Ozzie] and Craig [Mundie] will just have to decide which things. Do they pick things that are going super well, and have me push them even more? Do they take things that are in trouble and have me help out with those? They get to decide, and I love software pretty broadly, I've got history with all the different projects. The only one that's known for sure, that's actually laid out in a very concrete way, is how I'll continue to help the search team.

And that's the one area that they've mapped out for you? Nothing else?

We're going to pick a couple other ones. We've got some candidates, but that's the only one that's for sure.

You said you'll spend one day a week working on company projects. Have you figured out how that is actually going to work?

No, we haven't figured that out, and it's kind of a novel thing that we'll definitely learn as we go. I'll try to group it all together into a single day; I think that will be convenient for people. So I'll have regular meetings that I'll do with the top guys, and some of the things they'll ask me to follow up on will come out of that.

With the one-day-a-week schedule, will it be possible to dive deep on projects, or will it be more dabbling and offering advice?

I'll actually be more in-depth than I am today. Today I give guidance, but I do it across such a vast number of projects. The number of individual projects in which I get to say, O.K., I'll take a couple of days and write a memo about that, are very few. I enjoy doing that. It forces you to make your ideas more concrete. Sometimes you find there are some flaws, and you have to write it all down. So these ones I work on, they'll just get more of that.

Are you worried that as you work on projects like search, but also have your plate full with foundation work, that product development could get delayed?

No, I'm not a critical path for any of these things, not today. Understand, none of the product groups have worked for me for eight years. When Steve became CEO, all the product groups—with the exception of research and some incubation things—were working for Steve. So people don't sit around waiting for me, and I'm not in the management chain; I'm just an adviser. Where they brainstorm, I can reinforce some good stuff. I can seed some ideas. But that's very similar to how I work now.

While you say you're not a critical path, has that seeped into the organization?

You bet. They go full speed ahead. That's the way it has to work, because the number of things going on in this company at any one time is huge. Now, if I send out mail saying, "Hey, I don't think you should ship this product without solving such and such a problem," then there might be a dialogue about the trade-off. I don't force them to do it. If I thought it was supercritical, I might say to Steve, "I think you should tell them to do it." But they don't work for me. They do listen. So it works.

Have you sorted out how you think your role is going to work, or do you think it's going to be a work-in-progress for the next several months?

Parts of it are very clear. I've always given pieces of time to different projects, so that's really no different. What will be hard to understand the impact of is that I have a ton of context for all the other things going on in the company, and I know the people very well. But as time goes by, will I maintain enough knowledge about those things? On the other hand, it could be that my distance and independent thinking would create a new type of value that I'm not so much part of the groupthink, or even the head of the groupthink, that can take place on campus. So this thing will evolve over time.

Do you worry about losing touch with technological breakthroughs as you focus on philanthropy and other areas?

In terms of science broadly, I'll actually probably be more up-to-date than I am now. There will be some specific things about what's going on in Microsoft that I won't be as up-to-date on. But if I'm good at one thing, it's probably staying up-to-date.

Fair enough. But I suspect you'll spend more time thinking about issues at the foundation, such as education and global health. And time is not infinite.

Yes, but software is an interest of mine. I've had 33 years in it. I won't be as broadly up-to-date on things, but you can still know a heck of a lot, and you can take the areas that you're being asked for advice in and make sure you get up-to-date. The tools to do that—in terms of sitting and talking to people, browsing the Internet, trying out software products, writing some code—this is what I've been doing my whole life. So I'll have to make sure that I don't give advice on anything that I'm not well-versed in.

What do you think you're going to miss most about not working full time?

Oh, there are some interesting decisions that I get to brainstorm with Steve about, and I'll get less of that. I love working with the top people here, and I love working with Steve in particular, and that will be substantially reduced. I like working with the top researchers, but the most poignant thing for me is that Steve and I for 28 years have built this thing. We made a lot of mistakes together, we did a lot of brilliant things together, and we enjoyed doing that.

A lot of folks have opined in the past few weeks about your legacy as a business leader. What do you think your legacy at Microsoft is?

I'm going to have to look up the word "legacy" and see what the definition is. You know, just look around you. Here's a company. Were there personal computers before? Are there personal computers now? Was there a software industry? It's nothing personal to me, but Microsoft has gotten a chance to play a central role in something that's very dramatic. It has become the tool for making jobs effective and interesting, and education being done in a new way, and science being done in a new way. It's a phenomenal thing. And it goes on.

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