As a young person I was very lucky to get a great education. The teachers I had were just fantastic. I got interested in science and math, and at age 13 I got a chance to use a computer. That was kind of unusual then. My high school didn’t actually have a computer; only a teletype connected over a phone line to a very expensive machine, a million-dollar computer, of which there were less than 1,000 in the world at that time. We used a tiny piece of it, so-called timesharing, and played around with programs.
It was strange because the teachers were supposed to teach us how to program, but you had to spend money for computer time, and if you made a mistake in your program, you could spend a lot of money. A few teachers found it daunting. So they asked me and some friends to teach the programming class. That was fun. And then we were asked to schedule the school’s classes using software, and that was also fun, deciding who would be in my classes, and scheduling meetings according to when I had free time.
About then, the miracle of the microchip was happening. My school friend Paul Allen and I thought, well, this is unbelievable; these chips are going to get more powerful. Paul kept showing me the progress, and when I was in ninth grade, I said, well, I don't want to start a company until the microcomputer is better than what was called the minicomputer, which cost about $100,000. I said, “As soon as that chip is as good as a minicomputer, we should drop out.” It didn't happen until I was actually in college, but finally Intel came out with this chip that was really phenomenal, and Paul said, “Is this as good as we need?” And I said, yes, it is. And that's when Microsoft got started.
In this country, if you get a great education, particularly in the sciences, you get a chance to have a job that's fun, that pays well and that has impact. I wonder why it's not easier to explain to kids, back in fifth or sixth grade, the phenomenal payoff from learning and pursuing your curiosity. But it's hard. In our foundation work, we’re trying to improve education, so that more young people will have these opportunities.
The other big thing our Foundation does is try to improve things in poor countries. Of the 6 billion people in the world, 2 billion live in very tough conditions, where a lot of children die before the age of five, and people don't have enough food to eat. Applying scientific advances to the needs of the poor, we could eliminate almost all of those childhood deaths, and we could increase agricultural productivity to make those people self-sufficient.
There's been some progress. But we need new vaccines, we need seeds, we need people who understand science and are devoted to these causes. I'm hopeful that many of you will go into these fields, which are so cool, so interesting. I love my new job at the foundation, because I get to learn new things all the time, meet with scientists, back the people doing good work, and I think it's the most fun job in the world.
What are some of your tactics and techniques for getting average Americans aware and involved in problems in developing countries?
The number one thing is to invest in yourself. Get a great education. That's the foundation for everything else. If you have that, then you can make incredible contributions. Second, start in your own community, whether by giving your time or your money, or speaking out for change. Mentor other kids. Volunteer. Today about 4 percent of people contribute to their communities in this way. If that went up to 30 percent it would make a dramatic difference. I didn't really get involved much until I was in my 40s. I was so maniacal about Microsoft that I did very little. We ran United Way campaigns. We did a few things. I hope more people will get involved earlier than I did, even in high school.
What did you read as a child and what do you read now?
When I was young, I read a ton of science fiction and biographies. I was interested in what it was like to be General Douglas MacArthur, President Eisenhower or President Roosevelt, or a great scientist like Newton or Einstein. I read a lot about the sciences, although the material available back then was not nearly as good as it is now. Now it's mind-blowing, because online you have more and more great courses and other free material. My favorite physicist, Richard Feynman, recorded some lectures back in the 1960s that are really great at explaining physics and why it's fun. I arranged to put them online so that anybody can just type into a search box, hopefully Bing, and watch them. They're called the Feynman Messenger Lectures. I used to ask my dad a lot of questions that he couldn’t answer. Now, my son asks me questions like, “Why don't we fall through the floor?” and “Why are some materials strong and some materials not strong?” We go online and satisfy our curiosity. I still read a lot of books too, and
I write about some of them on my website. Recently I’ve read some important books about energy by Vaclav Smil and also by David McKay.
How do you feel about magnet schools and special admission schools like Science and Leadership Academy? Do you feel they're beneficial?
Our foundation supports charter schools, which are not necessarily magnet schools, but similar in providing places where different approaches can be tried out. My interest is more on teaching. We need to understand better what makes a great teacher, and make it easier for other teachers who want to improve to learn from them. It's mind blowing how little research has been done on great teachers and on helping others learn to do what they do.
We need to improve education a lot, and there just hasn't been enough invested in that. This is why education is our foundation’s big cause for the United States. If the education system doesn’t change, it’s not pretty to think where the country will be in 20 years. But historically, we've been willing to fix the things we need to fix. This one's maybe the toughest ever.
We want to change the world and stuff, but if we try, what can we do to protect ourselves from people who criticize?
If you're successful, you will get criticism. Most innovations are controversial. For example, our foundation tries to make sure there’s enough food for everyone, and so we're involved in biological techniques to make better seeds. That's very controversial. We’re involved in distributing supplies that help women control their family size. That's very controversial. In education, the very idea that outcomes should be measured is surprisingly controversial.
Sometimes the criticisms are perfectly valid. Maybe sometimes we’ve been naive about delivering aid to poor countries, or haven’t fully appreciated how tough a teacher's job is. You can't be thin-skinned.
At Microsoft, I think I remember some criticism, too. It comes with the territory. If you're not being criticized, you have to wonder if you're relevant at all. Part of the strength of a person or an organization is to live through that controversy, come out of it and come up with new things. You need some toughness. You need to listen and understand why you're being criticized, but still persevere.
Alex List (a high school student who participates in the Partnerships for Achieving Careers in Technology and Science program)
As a person who balances many different things, what is your goal as a parent, and what is your biggest difficulty as a parent or as a family man?
Well, I have three kids and they're a lot of fun. We get to travel together quite a bit, and we use that as an opportunity to learn things. They've visited a lot of slums and orphanages, which are maybe not their favorite parts of their trips, but I think they’ve gained a different perspective. We also do science trips. We've gone to the toilet paper factory, the sanitation plant, the steel mill. Those are kind of neat things, because we spend a day and we're talking about what this is, who invented it and why.
I feel good that I do get time. I travel, and when I leave, my kids joke, “Well, are you coming back this time? Oh, four days, it's a short trip, why are you coming back so soon?” My youngest knows that's a fun thing to say when I'm leaving.
I have read a lot of books aloud for each of the kids. It’s important to spend time doing things either with the kids as a group or one-on-one. I have to allocate the time to do that, but it's not like a chore or anything, it's just a matter of planning ahead, and making sure it's a priority. It's a real privilege.
If I was someday in a position to help a Third World country, where should I start?
All the countries that have grown to wealth did it by having infrastructure, stability, and education. But first they had to get population growth down to a reasonable level and get health up to a reasonable level. So, the things that are most catalytic depend on their level of wealth.
If they're really poor, which is about a billion of the 6 billion, health conditions alone are a poverty trap. There's just too much malaria, too much stunting, too much childhood death, too much AIDS. Until health improves, there is no way to move up to the next level.
Once health improves, when life spans reach, say, 60 years, then the big things are education, particularly female literacy, and the quality of the government.
With the basic elements in place, miracles like China can happen. Many countries that used to need aid – China, Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Thailand – are now completely self-sufficient and actually donating aid. So it can be done, and you can make a difference.
Education In This Region
Science Leadership Academy is an innovative public high school in Philadelphia with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship. As in other large U.S. cities, Philadelphia’s public schools face many challenges, but the district has made significant strides with innovative programs such as the Science Leadership Academy, a partnership with the Franklin Institute. The SLA opened four years ago to provide a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum focused on 21st-century learning. Students learn in a project-based environment that emphasizes inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. The SLA graduated its first class in 2010. Of the students who started as freshmen four years ago, more than 90 percent graduated, and more than 99 percent of the seniors are going to college – having earned more than $5 million in scholarships.