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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie