Monday Book: Nerd against the world

BUSINESS @ THE SPEED OF THOUGHT BY BILL GATES (WITH COLLINS HEMINGWAY), PENGUIN, pounds 18.99

EVERY SO often in this book, the true voice of Bill Gates breaks through the blanket of bland business-speak. describing the importance of "electronic-based intelligence", a classic piece of business-book jargon, the real Bill suddenly interjects: "I'm not talking about anything metaphysical or some weird cyborg episode out of Star Trek." Ah, now we know what sort of person is talking to us.

To be fair, it is hard to think of many books by top businessmen that offer a rattling good read. The interest is not in the content so much as the light they can shed on their author. We don't care what Bill thinks about how to create a paperless office - one of his top priorities, to judge from the prominence he gives it here - so much as what the richest self-made man in the world is like. What does he have that we do not, apart from bucketloads of money?

As the occasional aside reveals, Bill is still a teenage nerd at heart. He has been dressed up in an expensive suit and tie for the cover photograph, and his thoughts have been clothed in grown-up language, but it is clear that here is somebody most at home in front of his computer screen when he is not watching science fiction on TV, spooning ice cream from the tub.

The other thing that is obvious about Bill is that he worries. He has a whole chapter about the importance of getting bad news quickly. He fears the worst all the time. he cites approvingly the book by Andy Grove, head of computer chip-maker Intel: Only the Paranoid Survive.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that, in such a fast-moving industry as computing, the industry leader should be looking over his shoulder all the time. Ken Olsen, once head of Digital Equipment Corporation, famously pronounced in the late 1970s that nobody would want a computer in their home. Talk of PCs, upstart challengers to the kind of small mainframe computers DEC produced, was banned. He was cataclysmically wrong.

Bill Gates recounts here the story about how Microsoft was left behind by the rapid growth of the Internet. It was, he says, "the biggest unplanned event we ever had to respond to". Bill obviously does not like unplanned, but he gives credit to Microsoft employees who spotted the importance of the Internet and shifted it from the company's fifth or sixth to its top priority.

As we know from the anti-trust case under way against Microsoft in the US, the response, when it came, was aggressive. Netscape, its rival and market leader in Internet browser software, found its position under sustained assault from what turned out to be (according to the Justice Department case against Microsoft) profoundly anti-competitive strategies. Bill threw money, time and energy into capturing the Internet, just as he had into dominating the market for PC operating systems. He writes: "If we go out of business, it won't be because we're not focused on the Internet. It'll be because we're too focused on the Internet."

Focus is obviously the key to Bill's success. Each chapter of the book concludes with a list of supposedly practical "business lessons", but these are remarkably vague, even platitudinous. "Reward worthy failure - experimentation." Or "Personal initiative and responsibility thrive in an environment that fosters discussion."

Any two-bit management consultant could come up with this sort of advice. Rather, what we need to take away is the secret of any entrepreneur's success: "Be completely obsessive about your business, fret about the competition at all times and work really hard."

That is actually a fascinating insight into how one of the business leaders of the information age thinks about information. Bill makes much of empowering employees, but anybody who has read just a little of the unfriendly literature about Microsoft will find it hard to believe he means it. Indeed, it turns out that he thinks the point of empowering workers is to ensure information flows within the company to its most productive use. Likewise, he praises a hotel chain with a policy of not charging any customer who makes a complaint, no matter how trivial - not for its intrinsic commitment to customer service, but rather because it is a clever way for head office to track any hotels with management problems.

In short, Bill wants to know everything. For knowledge is power, and money. It is also the social currency of all nerdy types. It makes them indispensable even if they are hopeless at football and shy with girls. It gives them control in a hostile universe.

There are lots of Klingons out there, but they are not going to defeat Bill Gates.

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