The Biggest Idea Bill Gates Ever Had

Before there was Microsoft, there were a couple math geeks from Seattle hanging out in Cambridge Massachusetts. One of them had a habit of snoozing on his keyboard.

The Biggest Idea Bill Gates Ever Had
Bill Gates [Image: Flickr user Mohammad Jangda]

In the winter of 1974, Paul Allen showed up at Bill Gates’ dorm at Harvard with the new issue of Popular Electronics in his hand. MITS, a company in Albuquerque, had made a home, or “personal,” computer and was calling it the Altair.


“Hey, this thing is happening without us,” Allen said to Gates, referring to the home-computing revolution they always jabbered on about. So, as Walter Isaacson records in the Harvard Gazette, the two went into a eight-week fugue state of writing code. Which is how, in the mid-70s, computational legends were born.

What can we learn from Gates’ dorm-room ascendance–this story that’s become an archetype for dropout entrepreneurialism, for the Zucks who would follow? To learn the full story, read Isaacson’s account–since he’s one of the best nonfiction writers alive. But for the takeaways, look below.

Gates got motivated.

The creation of the Altair lit a fire under Gates’s keyboard. As he’d tell Isaacson:

“When Paul showed me that magazine, there was no such thing as a software industry,” Gates recalled. “We had the insight that you could create one. And we did.” Years later, reflecting on his innovations, he said, “That was the most important idea that I ever had.”

Soon Gates was on the phone with Altair, saying they could write software for the home computer–though they hadn’t yet. Which threw them into a frenzy.

Gates made connections.

One night Allen and Gates were in the dorm having dinner. They and their fellow geeks were complaining of floating-point math routines, a tedious task they needed to do as part of shaping the program that would become their business.

Then some guy from Milwaukee, one Monte Davidoff, said “I’ve written those types of routines” to them. After getting grilled by Allen and Gates, Davidoff was in–and got a nice $400 for his work. We might call this a moment of life-shaping serendipity, eh?


Gates worked insanely hard.

Gates had a habit of studying for 36 hours straight, which carried over to getting the code off the ground. And sometimes led to his face being on the keyboard:

“He’d be in the middle of a line of code when he’d gradually tilt forward until his nose touched the keyboard,” Allen said. “After dozing an hour or two, he’d open his eyes, squint at the screen, blink twice, and resume precisely where he’d left off–a prodigious feat of concentration.”

Gates took a monstrous risk–and delivered.

Soon Allen would be in Albuquerque with a punchtape of code, ready to pitch it to MITS. Let’s let Isaccson set the scene:

…. the Teletype clacked to life. “MEMORY SIZE?” it asked. “Hey, it typed something!” shouted one of the MITS team. Allen was happily flabbergasted. He typed in the answer: 7168. The Altair responded: “OK.” Allen typed in: “PRINT 2+2”. It was the simplest of all questions, but it would test not only Gates’s coding, but also Davidoff’s floating-point math routines. The Altair responded: “4.”

And home software was born.

Bottom Line: When the keyboard’s hot, strike.

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.