2011, Penguin, 358 pages
“The entire conversation took five minutes. When it was over, Bill and I looked at each other. It was one thing to talk about writing a language for a microprocessor and another to get the job done…. If we’d been older or known better, Bill and I might have been put off by the task in front of us. But we were young and green enough to believe that we just might pull it off.”
Paul Allen, best known as the cofounder of Microsoft, has left his mark on numerous fields, from aviation and science to rock’n’roll, professional sports, and philanthropy. His passions and curiosity have transformed the way we live. In 2007 and again in 2008, Time named him one of the hundred most influential people in the world.
It all started on a snowy day in December 1974, when he was twenty-one years old. After buying the new issue of Popular Electronics in Harvard Square, Allen ran to show it to his best friend from Seattle, Bill Gates, then a Harvard undergrad. The magazine’s cover story featured the Altair 8800, the first true personal computer; Allen know that he and Gates had the skills to code a programming language for it. When Gates agreed to collaborate on BASIC for the Altair, one of the most influential partnerships of the digital era was up and running.
While much has been written about Microsoft’s early years, Allen has never before told the story from his point of view. Nor has he previously talked about the details of his complex relationship with Gates or his behind-closed-doors perspective on how a struggling start-up became the most powerful technology company in the world. Idea Man is the candid and long-awaited memoir of an intensely private person, a tale of triumphant highs and terrifying lows.
After becoming seriously ill with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982, Allen began scaling back his involvement with Microsoft. He recovered and started using his fortune–and his ideas–for a life of adventure and discovery, from the first privately funded spacecraft (SpaceShipOne) to a landmark breakthrough in neuroscience (the Allen Brain Atlas). His eclectic ventures all begin with the same simple question: What should exist? As Allen has written:
To me, that the most exciting question imaginable…. From technology to science to music to art, I’m inspired by those who’ve blurred the boundaries, who’ve looked at the possibilities, and said, “What if…?” In my own work, I’ve tried to anticipate what’s coming over the horizon, to hasten its arrival, and to apply it to people’s lives in a meaningful way…. The varied possibilities of the universe have dazzled me since I was a child, and they continue to drive my work, my investments and my philanthropy.
Idea Man is an astonishing true story of ideas made real.
Paul Allen is the billionaire technologist and philanthropist who cofounded Microsoft with Bill Gates. He is the chairman of Vulcan Inc. and founder of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He also owns the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers, and is co-owner of the Seattle Sounders pro soccer team. He lives on Mercer Island, Washington.
A few months ago, me and JS were chatting at work about what we can learn from good role models. I mentioned Warren Buffett and Elon Musk. From Buffett, I learned of optimism. For example, when asked how I’m doing, like Buffett, I answer, “Never better.” It gets the conversation flowing in the right direction. From Musk, I learned how important it is to be a showman when promoting your ideas. Great ideas need great presentation. There was a Tesla AGM a few years back. The issue with electric cars was that they take too long to charge. Musk came up with the idea of Tesla service stations where they would swap out your battery. On the big stage, he had a mock-up of a service station. An actor drove up a Tesla for a battery swap. On the video screen, he had another actor pull up to the fastest gas pump in LA to fill up an Audi. He set it up as a competition. While the Audi was being filled up, the first battery swap was complete. Then the second Tesla rolled up…then the third…the crowd went wild. That’s showmanship!
JS then mentioned his influences. One of them was Paul Allen, who had recently passed away (October 15, 2018, aged 65). JS suggested that we read Allen’s book Idea Man and compare notes. He had been impressed by Allen’s role as one of the founding fathers of the digital revolution and his subsequent ventures into the arts and sciences. I picked up a copy at the library and started reading. By the way, the library is the best resource in the world!
What can I say about Paul Allen’s character? Much of his success can be attributed to his perseverance. He spent three years talking to Bill Gates about the personal computer concept before convincing him to create a BASIC code for the Altair 8080 (in the 70s, the personal computer wasn’t such a sure thing: the standard model was for large institutions to rent out computing power to clients). Another of Allen’s strengths was that he was a good communicator. Till his last days with Microsoft, he would wander the halls and chat with programmers to work out solutions with them. Allen spends much of the book talking about his fascination with ideas, and this is perhaps his strongest characteristic. It is his fascination with ideas that motivated him to revolutionize how we use computers. It is his fascination with ideas that motivated him to launch the SpaceShipOne venture, one of the first private attempts at spaceflight. It is his fascination with ideas that motivated him to team up with Carl Sagan to fund SETI. It is his fascination with ideas that motivated him to launch the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Allen reminds me of Goethe’s Faust, who defines himself by continually striving. Allen is like Faust, who, up to his dying day, can be found working on monumental projects such as reclaiming land by building a series of dikes to push back the sea.
Allen had his strengths, but he also had his weaknesses. He is not as dominant a personality as his peers and colleagues, such as Bill Gates and Clyde Drexler. As a result, one feels that sometimes he could have done better in negotiations. He comes across as learned, but he does not come across as someone fascinating. Innovators such as Musk, Jobs, or Gates come across as fascinating. Allen seems more down to earth. A good way to put it is that he surrounds himself with people more fascinating than himself. I’d have a beer with Jobs or Musk. But I’m not so sure if I’d like to have a beer with Allen.
Now the book is 358 pages long, and you can say quite a bit in 358 pages. There is one peculiar and glaring omission: nothing about his love life or relationships with women. He’s close with his mom, and quite close with his sister (who also takes leadership roles in his philanthropy projects), but there’s nothing about romantic relationships. From reading the book you’d think that all his life he’s either coding or playing guitar or pursuing space travel. That’s hard to believe. Remember that even Descartes, who locked himself in an attic to come up with the irreducible human axiom upon which to base all philosophy (which turned out to be “I think, therefore I am”) managed to get his maid pregnant. Perhaps his credo could have been modified to read, “I reproduce, therefore I am”? It would have been interesting to have read about Allen’s romantic relationships, and to learn about how they affected his thinking.
The takeaway from this book? Allen teaches us to pursue our ideas. He teaches us how powerful childhood is: it is during his childhood that he developed a fascination for programming, AI, space travel, and the hidden workings of the mind. He talks about mortality in the book (two brushes with cancer), and the book reminds me of my own mortality. His breakthrough year when he started programming BASIC to run the Altair was 1974, the same year I was born. Now Allen is gone. The time to want it all and to do it all is right now. This is something we can all take away from this book.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.