AN ABRIDGED EXCERPT FROM JOHN EMMERLINGS INTERVIEW OF BILL GATES DURING THE SUMMER OF 1990, CONDUCTED IN PREPARATION FOR EMMERLINGS BOOK ON CREATIVE IDEAS.
Q. HOW DO YOU PROMOTE CREATIVE INNOVATION AT MICROSOFT?
BG: Well the most important thing is to hire the right kind of peopleyou know fairly smart, broad people who have interests in a lot of areas but are willing to work intensely on our stuff. Because of the way we go about it, it just ends up we have a lot of young people who come in and like to look at things in new ways, like to challenge things. We have a lot of people come in for the summer, last nights eventthats why that crazy tents therewe had all the summer people there and they would come up and say, "Hey, the project Im working on should be done this way, should be done that way."
Q. WHATS THE CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT? WHAT SKILL SETS DO YOU LOOK FOR?
BG: Youve got to have people who have jobs where they have time to think about these things. We give everybody their own office, that's fairly unusual. We look hard for people who have skills in different areas and that's really a tough challenge in the technology companies. We want somebody who is very interested in the market and the usersand yet understands the technology enough to be able to see what's possible that we are not doing, to see short cuts for doing new ideas.
Q. WHAT ABOUT BRAINSTORMING? WHAT TECHNIQUES DO YOU USE FOR IDEA GENERATION?
BG: Its best to have close friendships with developers so that they are in close proximity over long periods of time. In fact, its a measure of those people if they really develop close brainstorming rapport with development equivalents. Or you can get a developer and get him interested in the market. Sometimes competition is the way to get peoples juices flowing again. You realize, "Hey, these guys are ahead of us. Were behind...." So, we give them a keen sense of competition. Have them use those products Have them realize we have less people to get the job done than the competition does. Just using the business-as-usual kind of "brute force approach" isnt going to get us there. Theres some pretty heavy cleverness that will have to come in. Or else, youll just be overwhelmed by the thing.
Q. HOW QUICKLY CAN CREATIVITY BE REALIZED IN THIS INDUSTRY?
BG: In the software industry you can come up with a new idea and in two or three months you can have it running. Demonstrate it to people and it can be in a product thats shipping a year later. Eighteen months from the time you had your idea, you read the review, go see your corporate customers, and you get a keen sensewas that good? So you have very much of a feedback loop. That makes it a lot more fun to come up with ideas then in most environments. Were in this growth market where we are making it fun for people to use the stuff.
Q. AS CEO OF MICROSOFT, WHAT ARE THE THINGS YOU MUST DO?
BG: The main one is to communicate the vision of what were doing and to make sure that all the parts fit together and make sense and that people are excited about that. Thats leadership and vision, thats number one. Number two is to make sure the people we are hiring to do this stuff are great people and that the way its organized and the way they work together make sense. And then as you get to be a large very successful company the sense of "Hey, you individually can have this huge impactand heres a problem that you can work on." If anybody gets the notion that "Hey, Im doing the same thing that has been done before," I can give them something else to door a clear understanding of how hard weve tried and havent achieved what we want to achieve.
Q. IS THERE ONE STRATEGY OR VISION FOR MICROSOFT?
BG: Were trying to write this software that will put "a personal computer in every home and on every desk." Actually there are two ways to state it. Theres a "personal computer in every home and on every desk" thats more of a vision, thats not a target. A target has to do with what we call "information at your fingertips" you sit down and any information you are interested in is very easy to see and so thats just referred to shorthand as "information at your finger tips" and all our software is really focused on that goal. Thats what all our software is trying to do. That means a lot of types of information. It means documents, it means spreadsheets mail, schedules, news, prices... everything is there.
Q. AT MICROSOFT, WHAT KIND OF ACCESS DOES AN EMPLOYEE HAVE TO THE CEO?
JE: If I just joined you and Im a 28-year-old software designer and you pay me $43,000 a year can I send you a message?
BG: Sure, you just type "mail BG"
JE: Isnt my boss going to come to me and say, "Why the hell did you send a message to Bill? Youre not supposed to do that!"
BG: No ones going to tell you that. If your message is about a product, its great. But if its, "Why don't I have a bigger desk or something..." (laughter)
Q. WHO ARE YOUR CREATIVE SUPERSTARS?
BG: The highest level of creative and technical talent are the so-called architects who basically work directly for me. There are seven of these guys and they each have their area of expertise. Making sure they have a common vision, and that they agree with each other, and that they are being careful about how they work with other peoplethats my job. But each of them is a very talented guy. Also the university environment is where a lot of the good ideas in this country are coming from. Of the top 13 universities in our field we hire at least someone every year who can come in and say, "Didnt you know that this is a graphical approach or a rule-based approach? Weve got this ongoing rapport with all the professors and we try to expand that outside of the U.S., especially in Japan.
Q. HOW IMPORTANT IS ELECTRONIC MAIL HERE?
BG: Everything runs by a certain clock and you can say, "Well, you can do anything without electronic mail." But you wouldnt. Its just too much effort to find somebody, and make sure theyre free, and sit down and maybe they are not interested, so you try another guy. Electronic mail is pretty fundamental. Were so used to it.
JE: Im this 28 yr old kid and I just had a good idea and Im going to e-mail it to you. Six months from now is somebody going to take credit for my idea?
BG: People keep e-mail around so you can just look it up. And there is plenty of credit around, its not like we are fighting for the last morsels of credit for stuff. People get a kick out of having young guys in a group who come up with ideasand there are so many ideas. Take a product like Excel. There are at least a dozen people who, its well known, have made very, very creative contributions to that product.
Q. IS THERE A POINT IN THE PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT CYCLE WHEN YOU TELL EMPLOYEES TO "STOP HAVING MORE IDEAS?"
We dont have a rigid processthats one thing that other companies get into which is all the ideas are supposed to come in this phase and then when we reach the next phase you are not supposed to have any more ideas. But thats pretty ridiculous. Some of the best ideas come as you get down the path, you think, "Oh, it would be easy to make this thing a little more general," or you just realize you have a new idea that you have never thought of. So you cant have a very rigid process, (to be creative) youve got to stay flexible.
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