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

Rob Walker
Published in
6 min readAug 13, 2020


Bill Gates
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…