Despite stepping down as CEO in 2000, Bill Gates continues to be seen as the face of Microsoft. His journey to success is quite remarkable and has encouraged generations of people across the globe to learn computer programming. As a Harvard law school drop-out, people often question how much involvement Bill had during the early days of Microsoft. Did he get involved in the nitty-gritty coding, or was he merely the mastermind behind his friend’s work?
Yes, Bill Gates can code extremely well. He first taught himself to code in 1968 at the age of 13, and 7 years later went on to write a programming language of his own, a BASIC interpreter for the MITS Altair 8080 microcomputer. Nowadays, Bill still plays around with code, mainly C, C#, and BASIC, albeit “not as much as he’d like too.”
Due to widespread internet access, the children of today have the world at their fingertips. One query will return thousands of search results. But the internet didn’t exist when Bill Gates started teaching himself how to code, so how did he do it? Keep reading to find out!
Learning to Code
Bill Gates was somewhat of a troublesome child – he liked to be in control and struggled to accept the authority of his parents. This desire for control is what drew Gates to computer programming:
As a child Bill was enrolled at Lakeside School, a private boys school in Seattle. Luckily for Gates, it was one of the first institutions in the country to get a computer. It was here that Bill’s love for programming was ignited.
“The machine was huge and slow […] but I was hooked. My friends and I would spend hours creating new programs and plugging away in BASIC”, he wrote.
Gates’ first attempt at programming occurred at the age of 13 when he produced a script for playing tic-tac-toe written in BASIC. The teletype computer he used didn’t have a screen, so players had to type their moves on a keyboard and wait for the computer to print the sequence out.
It was also at Lakeside that Bill Gates met future Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. In 1972 their friendship culminated in ‘Traf-o-data’, a program written in Fortran aimed at analyzing Seattle traffic volume.
The duo went on to make $20,000 from the program and Allen has since said: “if it hadn’t been for our traf-o-data venture, you could definitely argue that Microsoft might not have happened”.
By the time Gates enrolled at Harvard, he had a wealth of programming experience to his name. In December 1974, Gates picked up a copy of Popular Electronics magazine, which featured an Altair 8800 Computer on the front cover.
The computer, which was developed by MITS, did not come with a terminal so most had to connect an external one in order to use it. Having previously worked with BASIC, Gates and Allen saw an opportunity to create an interpreter for the MITS machine.
After signing a deal with MITS, Gates and Allen went on to form a partnership under the name ‘Micro-soft’. The deal was that Gates would write the runtime stuff, Allen the non-runtime stuff, and their friend Monte Davidoff the mathematical code.
Gates continued to be a lead coder on Microsoft projects until the mid-80s when he stepped up to a more managerial role. Throughout this period, he worked on BASIC, TSR-80, Xenix.
As Microsoft grew bigger, Gates and Allen employed people to do the coding for them. Though there are rumors that Gates would still personally review every line of code.
“I wish I got a chance to write more code. I do mess around. They don’t let my code go in shipping products. They haven’t done that for about 8 years now.”, Gates said during an interview in 1997.