Bill Gates vs. "Idea Man" Paul Allen: the sad autobiography problem

Fortunately, or for some unfortunately, we are nearing the end of numerous careers. Obviously, everyone would like to be remembered as a hero of their own story. 

Paul Allen’s autobiography – titled “Idea Man” – apparently tries to rewrite history. This is understandably causing a bit of a stir, because it paints Bill Gates as somewhat of a harsh figure during the early years of Microsoft.  

Since I followed Microsoft from its early days and was almost an employee back in the day, I figure I’d provide my own perspective, which I think may also apply to many of the other autobiographies you are likely to read. 

To be clear, I haven’t read the book but I’ve been doing background analysis for those who have.

What is drawing the most attention appears to be a tendency to restate history and I believe that is unfortunate – because I thought better of Paul.

The “Why” Behind the Autobiography

Generally, an autobiography is written because someone wants to be remembered well. 

Think of it as a  multi-page PR effort left behind by someone contemplating their own demise.

Often they are written by individuals who were once truly great and now realize they peaked years before.

 As such, they want to touch, albeit for a short time, that one-time feeling of fame and attention.  

Of course, the best autobiographies are written with a bit of humor and adopt a self-critical tone, supplying information that later generations can both learn from and be entertained by. 

The worst? Dull retelling of stories which gloss over all the mistakes in a vain hope of rewriting history.

The latter are rarely best sellers, often prompting critics to stand up and highlight the many inaccuracies.  

Paul Allen

Without Paul Allen there wouldn’t be a Microsoft. However, his biggest contribution to Redmond was recruiting Bill Gates, a man incredibly driven at a young age and who effectively created Microsoft.   

Not to belittle Paul, but his lack of success – post Microsoft – showcases that left up to him, Microsoft would have likely lost its fight with IBM.

Indeed, Redmond would have ended up as many of Paul’s own companies did: outright failures or sold.

Yes, Allen forever gets credit as a critical part of Microsoft’s birth, but like most managers, found it hard to transition out of a corporation “for fun” to a company that needed to succeed at a high level to survive. That simply wasn’t his strength.  

For example, I once worked with Paul on a project known as the Vulcan Ventures handheld laptop. He’d improperly staffed the company and the product never made it to market as a result. 

Once, during a critical meeting, Allen called in from his yacht which was floating off some tropical island. You don’t do something like that if you want to succeed, because it sends the message you don’t really care.

And if you can’t tell the difference between hardware experts and software specialists on a hardware project you’ll never be successful – and the laptop wasn’t.

Paul Allen’s Shares

Now I was told this story after the fact, but even so, heard it around 20 years ago when it was much closer to the event.  

Apparently, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer did indeed discuss diluting Paul Allen’s ownership due to his illness.   

However, they weren’t trying to rip him off, but rather, were concerned they would lose control of the company to his heirs after he died.

Remember, the heirs could have theoretically done something drastic, like forcing the sale of the company or its assets.  

I had a very similar discussion on a forum recently, so I understand this happens a lot with young companies: a large shareholder dies and suddenly you are in crisis mode because control of the company has shifted to folks who don’t want anything to do with it.

It is the unfortunate responsibility of the executive staff and the board to assure the survival of the company after the death of a key player. If what I was told is true, both Bill and Steve were not only within their rights to discuss this – they were required to.   

Yes, they probably should have had this discussion with Paul present, but when someone is thought to have a terminal illness, folks (understandably) tend to get uncomfortable talking about their death. 

In addition, both Bill and Steve were relatively inexperienced at the time, so they certainly screwed up, but weren’t trying to screw Paul.

Wrapping Up: Take it with a Grain of Salt

In a way, Paul Allen’s autobiography reflects why he hasn’t been successful since Microsoft and why Microsoft was more successful without him. 

He just didn’t grasp what is important about an book like this, namely, that it should convey experiences which can prevent others from making the same mistakes you made.   

It could have also entertained, because sometimes the funniest stories are the ones where you screwed up. Although Paul has quite a lot of those stories, they simply prompted many of us to highlight errors about issues that otherwise wouldn’t even be interesting.   

In the end, Paul never seemed to get the age-old motto: if you are going to do something, do it right or not at all.

 Unfortunately, based on early reviews, Allen and his book seemed to have utterly ignored such advice. 

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently, he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.