You were a visionary in software and a highly effective software company executive. The two aren’t always the same, God knows. Have you had to adapt your management style to the exigencies of the nonprofit world and international development, and is energy funding different again? How has your experience as a software executive and visionary translated into your post-Microsoft career?
Well, I’ve had to learn a lot of new things, which I enjoy. I didn’t understand much about vaccines or immunology or how they got delivered, or how they got funded. So I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people. There’s a more political aspect to this in terms of the money that rich-world governments give and in terms of how well governed the recipient countries are and how they make things either easy or hard. We didn’t have that complexity at Microsoft. The one thing we have that’s great is that everybody has the same goal: saving the children’s lives or improving their health. So you really don’t have competitors in a sense. You get a level of cooperation when you can get everybody in the malaria community together and have them share their best ideas when there isn’t a market for the vaccine. Same for TB. It’s different from Microsoft. In some ways it’s more like when Microsoft was 400 to 500 people. The foundation’s about 700 people.
You and Charles Simonyi created a software factory, this multigenerational software enterprise, where nothing like that had ever really existed before. It was a place where big programs could be developed and launched and maintained and managed over many decades. You were a kind of meta program manager at the center of Microsoft. But now you have to work with enormous numbers of people over whom you have no direct authority. You have to convince people, you have to work by persuasion, by a whole variety of different techniques. How many of the management techniques you learned at Microsoft are still useful to you?
I think it’s all useful. As Microsoft got larger, I couldn’t threaten to code things over the weekend. I had to convince people and take the scenario I wanted them to do something with and articulate it in a very clear way, so I had to get good at doing that. I think over time I’ve gotten better at working with large groups and not being as impatient about cases where people only see part of the picture, and yet they’re an important part of things. But it’s very similar. It’s working with smart people. Now, when I go up to northern Nigeria and meet with the Emir of Kano and enlist him in getting the religious authorities to promote the polio vaccine–now that’s a different thing. At Microsoft, I didn’t happen to go see the Emir of Kano for any software products. I view it as great preparation. If you said to me I could have any current advance that would expose me to a lot of things–failures, successes–I don’t think I’d pick anything else.
How has being a philanthropist broadened you in a way that your career as a software engineer did not?
Well, I’m not trying to make any moral judgment about one versus the other. Believe me, when somebody’s in their entrepreneurial mode–being fanatical, inventing new things–the value they’re adding to the world is phenomenal. If they invent new technologies, that is an amazing thing. And they don’t even have to know how it’s going to help people. But it will: in education, medical research, you name it. So I was one of those fanatics in my 20s where I didn’t know about poor people or even government budgets much at all. I worked night and day on software. I thought a lot about software. I said, “Hey, I’m a software fanatic. What is that about?” Even some of the marketing and sales things that I eventually learned, I said, “Hey, if the software’s good enough, how far do you have to go?” Well, we certainly didn’t build an IBM-style sales force; most of our customers we never met. We didn’t duplicate the old model, but the truth of what we had to do was not quite as pure as I started out thinking. It wasn’t “Hey, here’s the software.”
So that’s a great mode to be in, but throughout the Microsoft experience, whether it was piracy or privacy, policy, or whatever would come up, I got down the learning curve because Microsoft was in a position to hire incredible people. I got to see how they did things. They wanted me along because they thought I would be paid attention to and could be articulate about the software. So in my 20s I was almost just a developer and a fanatic; in my 30s, I got exposure to management, although I was still writing some of the code; then in my 40s, the majority of what I was doing was large-organization management and picking some strategies, but I didn’t write any code that shipped in products. Now, in my 50s, I’m in a role that’s kind of like that. I like that my relationship to some of these development teams is like a smaller Microsoft, because for better or for worse, when you have all the TB experts in the world in the room, the room is not very full. That’s about 10 or 12 people that you’re sitting and talking to about the TB vaccine.