Skill, luck, and 3 easy lessons

by | March 8, 2013 9:47 am



  Skill, luck, and 3 easy lessons

Let me start with a story that is likely to be familiar to you.

One of the greatest computer programmers of all time grew up near Seattle. He saw an upstart company, Intel, making computers on a chip and was among the first people to see the potential of these so-called microcomputers. He dedicated himself to writing software for the new device and, by one account, “He wrote the software that set off the personal computer revolution.”

In the mid-1970s, he founded a company to sell software for microcomputers. In the early history of the company, “the atmosphere was zany,” and “people came to work barefoot, in shorts,” and “anyone in a suit was a visitor.” But the company was soon highly profitable, and by 1981 its operating system had a dominant share of the market for personal computers that used Intel microprocessors.

For all of its early triumphs, the company’s watershed moment came when IBM visited in the summer of 1980 to discuss an operating system for its new PC. After some negotiation, the two companies struck a deal. In August 1981, retailers offered the company’s software alongside the brand new IBM PC, and the company’s fate was sealed. The rest is history, as they say.

In case this story’s not familiar, here’s the ending. This pioneer of computer technology entered a biker bar in Monterey, Calif., on July 8, 1994, wearing motorcycle leathers and Harley-Davidson patches. What happened next is unclear, but he suffered a traumatic blow to the head from either a fight or a fall. He left under his own power but died three days later from the injury, complicated by his chronic alcoholism. He was 52 years old. He is buried in Seattle and has an etching of a floppy disk on his tombstone. His name is Gary Kildall.

You’d be excused for thinking that the first part of the story is about Bill Gates, the multibillionaire founder of Microsoft. And it is certainly tantalizing to ask whether Gary Kildall could have been Bill Gates, who at one point was the world’s richest man. But the fact is that Bill Gates made astute decisions that positioned Microsoft to prevail over Kildall’s company, Digital Research, at crucial moments in the development of the PC industry.

When IBM executives first approached Microsoft about supplying an operating system for the company’s new PC, Gates actually referred them to Digital Research. There are conflicting accounts of what happened