Bill Gates Enters His Third Act: Ruthless Nerd Savior

After going from relentless competitor to sweater-wearing do-gooder, he’s becoming the merciless samaritan we need

Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Most of us remember Bill Gates achieving fame as a brilliant entrepreneur and a ruthless competitor who notoriously antagonized or vanquished rivals from Apple to Netscape. And in recent years we’ve also come to know the kinder, gentler Gates spending billions on philanthropic causes, including efforts to improve global health.

But lately, Gates, 64, seems to be entering a third act of sorts, blending do-gooder zeal with the prickly and confrontational impatience that made him a success in business. Asked recently about delayed coronavirus test results in the U.S., he offered no pretense of diplomacy. “That’s just stupidity,” he told Wired. “The majority of all US tests are completely garbage, wasted.”

This Gates 3.0 — the ruthless samaritan — may be jarring to those who don’t recall the Microsoft founder’s 1990s heyday. He became the world’s richest person and arguably the most famous business leader alive. This wasn’t because he was a visionary innovator, like his rival (and friend) Steve Jobs; indeed, his company was often dinged as a copycat. Gates was famous because he was absolutely relentless. His management techniques included berating employees who didn’t meet his standards, with rebukes from the recurring favorite “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” or “the stupidest piece of code ever written” to the more rarified “Why don’t you just give up your [Microsoft stock] options and join the Peace Corps?” He was a shouter, an eye-roller. “Bill knows it’s important to avoid that gentle civility that keeps you from getting to the heart of an issue quickly,” his colleague Steve Ballmer once explained.

By the mid 2010s, this soft-edged, sweater-wearing version of Gates, telling fawning interviewers that he just wants to make the world a better place, had completely replaced the old cantankerous one.

When the government came after Microsoft in 1998 with charges that its efforts to marginalize and crush business rival Netscape ran afoul of antitrust laws, Gates fought tooth and nail. In particular, his deposition by David Boies was a notoriously combative performance, deflecting questions by arrogantly bickering over the meaning of words like “concerned” and “compete.” (Gates later admitted to “rudeness … in the first degree.”)

Gates didn’t quite give up his stock options and join the Peace Corps, but starting in 2000 he gradually began to spend less time with Microsoft, and more with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports a range of health care, educational, and other charitable efforts around the world. His persona evolved from brash and pushy tycoon to a patient and smiling optimist. And his pursuits were practical and grounded, often focused on specific issues like infectious disease control, agricultural planning, or reproductive health care in developing nations — not abstract schemes to colonize Mars. By the mid 2010s, this soft-edged, sweater-wearing version of Gates, telling fawning interviewers that he just wants to make the world a better place, had completely replaced the old cantankerous one.

It was right around this time that Gates put on a pink sweater and gave what’s now a famous TED Talk: “We’re Not Ready for the Next Epidemic,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Though the message is dire in the extreme — the world did a bad job fighting Ebola and did not seem to have learned much from that failure — he’s calm, professorial, reassuring. The next outbreak might be “more devastating” but “science and technology” can save us from that fate, if we prepare.

We did not prepare. And watching this talk now is chilling — and ultimately enraging, when you realize he was saying all the right things, and the right people just didn’t listen. Which brings us to Gates today. His foundation is an active financial supporter of Covid-19 vaccine development efforts, and Gates himself has been a regular participant in public discourse about the spread of the virus and what to do about it. (For his trouble, he’s been targeted by bizarre conspiracy theories in which the vaccine serves as a potential method of global control, and that Gates actually created the virus.)

In the Wired interview — you can hear or read it here; there’s some editing variance between the audio and the transcript — Gates starts out critical, but measured and calm. And he professes to remain optimistic, at least when it comes to developing a vaccine.

But along the way, his comments start to sound more and more like Microsoft-era Gates. He calls treatment trials “chaotic,” adding: “It’s insane how confused the trials here in the U.S. have been.” And he sounds amused but exasperated as he describes having to meet with anti-vaxxer Robert Kennedy Jr. and others as some sort of precondition for talking to administration officials: “There was a meeting where Francis Collins, Tony Fauci, and I had to [attend], and they had no data about anything. When we would say, ‘But wait a minute, that’s not real data,’ they’d say, ‘Look, Trump told you you have to sit and listen, so just shut up and listen.’” But keeping an even keel, he dismisses this episode as “a bit strange.”

This is a Gates who demands his listener understand the stakes, and urgency, right now — and who frankly doesn’t have the patience to tolerate listeners who don’t get it.

Then, about 11 minutes into the audio edit, the question about testing comes up — the one that inspired his “just stupidity” response — and you can really hear how appalled Gates is, as he explains the problem of testing labs being paid the same whether results take a couple of days or a couple of weeks. If you don’t care how late the date is and you reimburse at the same level, of course they’re going to take every customer,” he says sharply. “Because they are making ridiculous money… You have to have the reimbursement system pay a little bit extra for 24 hours, pay the normal fee for 48 hours, and pay nothing [if it isn’t done by then]. And they will fix it overnight.” It’s a convincing point, delivered with harsh clarity.

This past weekend, on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show GPS, Gates struck a similar tone. Again he started out with a mild demeanor, even as he, for instance, dismissed the idea that the early travel ban had any effect on slowing the spread of Covid-19 as “nonsense.” But when he gets to the subject of testing, he again becomes increasingly agitated: “It’s mind-blowing that you can’t get the federal government to improve the testing, because they just want to say how great it is,” he says, when in fact we’re often ending up “with the most worthless test results of any country in the world.” By this point he’s dropped his grin and is waving his hands around. “No other country has the testing insanity,” he concludes, caused by a government that just wants “to keep acting like they’ve done a competent job.”

It’s not quite the 1990s Bill Gates, berating underlings into defending and advancing the all-powerful reign of Windows. But it’s also not the earnest softie making a patient and smiley plea for us all to do better. This is a Gates who demands his listener understand the stakes, and urgency, right now — and who frankly doesn’t have the patience to tolerate listeners who don’t get it. (And for good reason, given the circumstances.) He’s still a thoughtful person with selfless intent, but with merciless acumen and sharp elbows.

This is someone, in other words, who figures it’s important to avoid the gentle civility that keeps us from getting to the heart of an issue quickly. It’s hard to say whether this is the Gates he wanted to be right now. But maybe it’s the Gates we need.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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