Face Time With Michael Dell

The still youthful founder and CEO of the technology powerhouse gets personal (sort of) about taking apart a computer, dropping out of college , and making breakfast for his kids.

Age: 36
Family: Wife, Susan, produces a line of custom women's clothing and owns an Austin boutique; four children, ages 4 to 8
Parents: Wanted Dell to be a doctor; father is an orthodontist, mother is a money manager Résumé highlight: Youngest CEO ever to have his company make the Fortune 500. Dell Computer joined the list in 1992, when Dell was 27
Little-known personal fact: Middle name is Saul
Daily email volume: 175 incoming, 60 outgoing; reading and answering email takes Dell about two hours a day

From the moment you start negotiating time to interview Michael Dell at his company's Round Rock, Texas headquarters, his pr people warn you: Michael doesn't like personal questions. When you say, in return, that you have no interest in talking about quarterly server shipments, you are met with silence. What will there be to talk about?

Dell, one of the great entrepreneurs of our era, can make even the most innocent question seem frivolous. In an era when Americans are as interested in Bill Gates's house as his Internet strategy, Dell's personal reticence is unusual, even refreshing, in a quirky sort of way. It does make him a tough fellow to chat with, though.

In person, Dell is physically larger than you'd expect. Over 6 feet tall and robust, he radiates great energy. His sense of humor is bone-dry. Only one question made him really uncomfortable.

I'm told that you personally try every product that Dell produces. Really?

Well, Dell produces an awful lot of products now, so I can't possibly try out every one of them. But I certainly make it my business to use as many as possible as they are being developed. I want to test the stuff out to make sure it works. And of course, you gotta have the latest stuff. The coolest stuff.

Okay, what's the coolest thing you guys are doing right now?

We have this pretty incredible product -- the Inspiron 8000 notebook. It's simply the most powerful notebook ever produced. It's got the CD drive and the DVD drive, and the mini-PCi slot with the wireless networking.

I can walk around the house with it, surfing the Net. Any room in the house.

And do you do that -- walk around the house with your laptop, surfing the Web?

Well, it's a little hard to walk and type at the same time. But yeah, I take my notebook from room to room. No cords. The nice thing is, wireless access is popping up all over. In airports, for instance.

What do you look for on the Web?

News. Information. What we are doing, what our competitors are doing, what the other companies in our space are doing. What our customers are saying about us.

So you actually go to customer-complaint Web sites and read what people are saying about your company?

Yeah. I go to the Usenet forums, the chat rooms, the Web sites. I learn about things we are doing well. I learn when we screw up.

That kind of feedback is actually important to you? You act on it?

All the time. Some of it is just chatter -- you tend to filter that out. But it's so built into our system now, we actually have teams that monitor those sites routinely. It's a whole new form of feedback. It's not just noise to us.

Let's talk about your first computer, the Apple II that your parents got for you when you were 15, which you promptly took apart. Why did you do that?

I wanted to see how it worked.

You weren't worried that it wouldn't work when you put it back together?

No, those were the days when you could go get all the data books about something, take the top off, and it was all simple. You could look inside and look at the data books and figure out what each of the components did.

Today, if you took the top off one of the computers we make, you'd see that big black chip in there with the word "Pentium" on it, and 260 pins connecting it to the board, and you'd have absolutely no idea what that thing does. And I don't think they'd tell you, either. (laughing)

By the way, I bought the Apple II myself. My parents didn't buy it for me.

Were you one of those guys growing up who did the RadioShack electronics kits?

Yes, I built radios from kits -- all that stuff.

So did the Apple work when you put it back together? Did you use it?

Oh yeah, I set up a bulletin board with it, you know, a BBS.

Do you think that you could make one of your computers today?

Oh sure. It's not that hard, you know.

You've been running Dell since you were 19 years old. You're now 36. I'm curious how you keep motivated -- what gets you excited to get out of bed in the morning?

You say that as if I were a 70-year-old man nearing the end of his career. I'm only 36. I think I have a few more good years.

But I'm pretty careful about that. I believe in keeping a pretty good balance. I work hard, I play hard.

What do you play at?

I play with my family, with my kids.

Give me a sense of what your work pace is like, what your workday is like.

I get up at about 5:45 or 6. I exercise. Run. Or lift weights. Or swim. At 7:15, 7:30, I take the kids to school and come to work.

Do you make the kids breakfast?

(Looking puzzled) Not really. They know what they're doing. One time I made them pancakes. (laughing) The first one wasn't that good, but the second one was better.

That's the whole Dell model!

I'm all about learning from my mistakes.

I get home at about 6:30 and hang out with the family, have dinner with the kids. I'm pretty good about that.

I do a little email while the kids get ready for bed. I read the kids some bedtime stories, and tuck them in. After they go to sleep, I go back and do email. It's a great time to work, really. It's quiet. And everyone else seems to be working.

What's your wife doing then?

She's doing her email too. And I try to go to bed by 10:30.

So you're not addicted to any of these network TV shows -- West Wing, ER?

(Looking puzzled) No.

You dropped out of college after your freshman year. Obviously, if you look at what you've created, that was the right decision. But do you feel like you missed out on anything by not going to college? Art history class?

No, not art history. I was in college for a year, so I got to experience many of the things people go to college for. The objective of going to college is to learn -- and I think I've learned more doing what I've been doing than I ever could have in college.

I hear that you're planning to have a server computer installed on your airplane. I'm just wondering what you'd be doing on an airplane that would require that kind of power?

(Turning red in the face and rising to leave) I sure hope you're not planning to write about the airplane.

Well, hang on a second. You are legendary for not wanting to talk about anything at all related to your personal life. Why are you so reserved about that stuff? It's not relevant, really. I can't imagine why anyone would care.

Contact Michael Dell by email (michael_dell@dell.com).

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