The billionaire Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates helped build Microsoft into one of the world’s most valuable companies. But between the hard work it took to get the company off the ground and the pressure to succeed against fierce competition, Gates wasn’t always such a nice guy to his employees.
Gates, much like fellow tech icon Steve Jobs of Apple, was known to push employees to the limit during his tenure atop Microsoft. In a recent interview on the “Armchair Expert” podcast, Gates admits that his own intense work ethic as the CEO of Microsoft often made him extremely tough on any of his employees’ mistakes.
In fact, while discussing his sometimes harsh demeanor as Microsoft’s CEO, Gates even agrees with Shepard’s comparison of Gates to Michael Jordan. The NBA Hall-of-Famer’s famously intense work ethic is often credited as one of the reasons why Jordan is considered possibly the greatest basketball player ever.
Jordan’s intense drive made him extremely tough on himself as well as on his teammates, whom he expected to work just as hard as he did to strive for greatness. That type of intensity has parallels in the business world, as well, with countless stories surfacing about founders and CEOs with seemingly impossible standards.
During the “Armchair Podcast” interview, Shepard brings up ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” the popular docuseries about Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty that aired in April. Gates calls the series “fantastic.” He also agrees with Shepard’s assertion that there are similarities between Gates’ leadership style in Microsoft’s early days and the famously harsh demeanors of the NBA Hall-of-Famer and the Apple co-founder Jobs.
One aspect of Jordan’s personality as a teammate that Gates says “I think you can say for Steve or myself” has to do with the fact that their high expectations for their colleagues and employees were only extensions of their own incredibly high standards for themselves.
“I never asked [Microsoft employees] to work any harder, or be tougher on their mistakes, than I was on myself,” Gates says, comparing himself to someone like Jordan or Jobs. “It doesn’t completely forgive it, but at least it shows where you’re coming from, that at least you’re projecting your own values and trying to get everyone to be hardcore like you are.”
If any employees didn’t feel they could thrive in that type of intense environment, Gates adds, no one forced them to stay at Microsoft — just as Jordan’s teammates on the Bulls could have sought a trade or left for another NBA team, he says.
As the 1993 Gates biography “Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire” previously recounted, Gates had a notorious temper during the early days of Microsoft, which he launched with Paul Allen in 1975. Gates often sent “critical and sarcastic” emails, which employees referred to as “flame mail,” to workers in the middle of the night criticizing their work.
Some programmers would receive late-night notes from Gates informing them that their work contained ”‘the stupidest piece of code ever written,‘” and many of Gates’ Microsoft employees described working under the then-CEO as “demanding” and “intense,” according to the book.
For his part, Gates fully admits that he was a harsh boss. “When I was at Microsoft, I was tough on people I worked with,” Gates wrote in 2019. “Some of it helped us be successful, but I’m sure some of it was over the top.”
In the podcast interview, Gates says he definitely tried to push his employees as hard as he pushed himself. “If you push yourself super, super hard, and you’re so tough on [yourself] when you made a mistake … you definitely project that onto other people, particularly if you’re trying to move at full speed,” he says, noting that in the early days of Microsoft, every moment was crucial in out-maneuvering the company’s many tech competitors.