Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

My nerd crush on Paul Allen

The second guy is always more interesting. At least, that's what it seems like when two people get together to form a company. Typically, there's a business guy and a tech guy and maybe it's just my inner nerd crying out, but the tech guy is a lot more fun to study. Bill Hewlett (HP), Steve Wozniak (Apple), Marc Andreessen (Netscape).

Maybe the argument breaks down when looking at Paul Allen, but I'm pretty sure he's never been on the cover of Time with Bono so at the very least, he's the lesser known of the two Microsoft founders. He's more interesting to me than Gates because of what he did at the beginning of the company he founded and what he did after he ended his involvement with it.

In the mid 1970s minicomputers, as they were then called to describe just about anything that didn't take up a whole room, were largely the stuff of hobbyists. There were lots of smaller players in the market, but Altair began to surface as a leader in the fledgling industry around 1975. At that time, Gates and Allen were students together at Harvard and decided to try to found a company by making a BASIC interpreter so that people could more easily program their minicomputers and avoid having to learn assembly language. It was a great opportunity.

However, if you are going to write software for a computer system, it's generally a good idea to have one of your own to see if it works. Gates and Allen didn't. Instead, they wrote their interpreter by hand and on punch cards not knowing if it would work. And they did it in 8 weeks.

So Paul Allen gets on a plane (according to legend, he was picked because he was old enough to rent a car and Gates wasn't) to Albuquerque, where Altair was based, to give a demo of their untested product. Imagine what that would be like for a moment. You carry with you a stack of punch cards that can instantly take you from being a bored college student to running your own business in a new industry. You have no idea if your little programming language interpreter will work because you didn't have a computer to run it on and even if it does work, should you drop the stack of cards and get them out of order, you'll never know. How exciting and nerve racking must that have been?

Of course, it all turned out in the end. Allen didn't drop the cards, the BASIC interpreter did work when he ran the cards through a reader and into the Altair's memory, and Microsoft became the official maker of Altair BASIC. An empire was born.

If I were ever a multi-billionaire, the other reason I like Paul Allen is because I'd like to imagine I'd do the same kinds of things he's done. In 1986 (long before Gates did something similar), he established a charitable foundation that doles out $30 million a year. In 1988, he purchased the Portland Trailblazers and in 1997, he bought the Seattle Seahawks. Chairity, NBA franchise, NFL franchise. That would pretty much be my list of "to do's" too.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 10:55 PM   1 comments


At 10:35 AM, Blogger Liz said...

Don't forget Paul Allen's ginormous yacht too...the boat is, I believe, the largest privately owned yacht in the world. I would buy one of those if I had that kind of cash! Paul Allen rocks.


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