Before Microsoft: The Upbringing of Bill Gates

“It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure,” says Bill Gates. Failure is something Gates would see little of during his lifetime.

Born on October 28, 1955, William Henry Gates III demonstrated his intelligence and ambition at an early age. His family was a prominent one, with a history in business and politics that Gates would later take to new heights. With his father a lawyer, his grandfather the vice president of a national bank and his great grandfather a state legislator, success ran in the family. His mother was also the first woman Regent at the University of Washington. Gates spent his early years in Seattle, Washington with his two sisters and his parents.

The family’s affluence allowed Gates to be sent to the best private schools in his hometown. In elementary school, Gates displayed a superior knack for math and science. He continued to impress his parents and teachers at Lakeside School, one of the finest private schools in Seattle known for its academic rigor.

It was at Lakeside where Gates got his first exposure to computers. In 1968, the school held a fundraiser in order to be able to purchase computer time on a DEC PDP-10, which was owned by General Electric. Immediately, Gates became inseparable from the computer, often skipping classes and failing to hand in schoolwork in order to be in the computer room and explore the new machine. At the age of 13, Gates wrote his first computer program, a tic-tac-toe game. It was in this computer lab where Gates would meet his Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and many other of the first programmers that Microsoft would go on to hire.

After Gates and his friends had used up all the allowed computer time for the entire school in just a few weeks, Lakeside entered into an agreement with Computer Center Corporation (CCC) to continue providing computer time to its students. Though they were once banned from the system for their hacking activities, Gates and his comrades could not be stopped.

In 1968, Gates, Allen and two other Lakeside students formed the Lakeside Programmers Group to try and put their computer skills to good use. In return for unlimited computer time, CCC hired the group to find bugs within their own system. “It was when we got free time at C-cubed that we really got into computers,” recalls Gates. “I mean, then I became hardcore. It was day and night.”

By 1970, CCC had gone bankrupt. In order to continue honing their skills, Gates and his friends began using the computers at the University of Washington, where Allen’s dad worked. After successfully designing a payroll program for Information Sciences Inc., Gates and Allen decided to branch off on their own. Soon after, they created Traf-O-Data, an innovative program that measured traffic flow in Seattle, and were compensated with $20,000.

In 1973, Gates enrolled in the pre-law program at Harvard University, but as in high school, found himself skipping classes in order to spend time in the computer lab. He kept in close touch with Allen, who remained eager towards the idea of creating a software business with Gates. The following year, Allen showed Gates a picture in a magazine that would forever change both their lives.

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