Minding Paul Allen

The Microsoft co-founder’s philanthropy may be more revealing than his new autobiography.

Deep in his new autobiography, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and chairman of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, recounts a visit he paid in the late 1990s to Paul McCartney’s studio near London. The singer recorded for a while and gave Allen a tour of the studio before inviting him to look over some photographs for inclusion in a Beatles anthology. As McCartney “considered which ones he liked best, he became pensive,” Allen recalls. “Then he said, ‘Everyone wants to talk about John, John, John. You know, I wrote some songs, too.’”

Allen describes the strange feeling of “trying to cheer up a Beatle who was still trying to compete” with the late John Lennon. But it is impossible to read the passage without thinking of the parallel to Allen’s own life: the story of a man who receives great recognition and riches, but who always feels like his contributions to a partnership of equals are seen as secondary. Allen doesn’t remark on it, so we are left to wonder how conscious he was that McCartney’s lament echoes his own fraught relationship with Bill Gates.

That relationship dominates the first half of Allen’s memoir, Idea Man. Paul Gardner Allen was born in Seattle in 1953, the son of a university librarian and a teacher turned stay-at-home mother. They paid for him to attend the prestigious Lakeside School starting in the seventh grade, and it was there, three years later, that he first met the younger Gates, “all arms and legs and nervous energy.” The two were among the most obsessively dedicated members of what essentially became the world’s first high school computer club. With funding from a parents’ organization, the school in 1968 began leasing a Teletype terminal that accessed an off-site General Electric mainframe.

Allen, Gates, and their friends taught themselves how to program in long unsupervised hours in the Lakeside computer room. Soon they were spending their afternoons, evenings, and weekends at a Seattle company that gave them free run of its computer terminals after hours in hopes that the teens might stumble across bugs that needed fixing. When that company went belly-up, the increasingly fanatical students started lurking around the University of Washington’s computer lab in the wee hours of the night. It was in these corners of Seattle—Lakeside, the computer company, the university—that Allen and Gates put in the thousands of hours of coding practice that made them credible programmers.

Their switch from hobbyists to professional programmers was swift. In 1970, an Oregon firm hired the high schoolers to design a payroll program. During the summer after Allen’s freshman year at Washington State University, he and Gates wrote class-scheduling software that Lakeside had commissioned; Gates rigged it so that he would be the only boy in an English class of over a dozen girls. For a while, Gates and Allen worked for the aerospace company TRW on a large electrical-grid project. The duo also launched their own company, Traf-O-Data, to analyze automobile traffic for local governments.

Allen’s account is engrossing in part because of his portrait of this period in the history of computing. Nowadays it seems as if we all have some friend or relative who programs computers. (Indeed, according to the National Science Foundation, American colleges and universities conferred almost 400,000 bachelor’s degrees in computer science between 2000 and 2007—a figure that doesn’t encompass the millions of American programmers with other or no credentials.) But in the 1960s and 70s, before the era of personal computing that Allen and Gates would help usher in, programmers were much rarer birds, and Allen offers us a sort of field guide: there were laid-back, plodding corporate software engineers with job security and no desire to take risks; there were talented and serious programmers who would mentor and sometimes tease Allen and Gates; and there were legends, like the systems programmer whose prodigious memory allowed him to read and memorize the structure of vast programs in a day.

Allen and Gates quickly proved their own chops. The mental exertion involved in their programming work—“sustain[ing] the big structural picture while hammering out the details of a small subroutine,” spending hours or days searching for elusive bugs—was physically exhausting. To keep himself going, the young Gates would pour orange Tang powder on his hand and lick it off for the sugar high. When sleep could no longer be fended off, Gates would pass out at the keyboard, wake up two hours later, and, after blinking at the screen, resume coding where he had left off. To unwind, they went to see hundreds of movies together—they especially enjoyed early ’70s “blaxploitation” films—or Allen would go off to play his guitar.

Gates is the most vivid character in Allen’s memoir. The two men have that peculiar kind of lasting bond formed only by intense periods of draining exertion in close proximity at all hours of night and day; they learned one another’s strengths and weaknesses; they fought and fought. It was from this marriage of work and love and loathing that Microsoft was born, uniting Allen’s vision (“I was the idea man, the one who’d conceive of things out of whole cloth”) with Gates’ business acumen.

Gates, having matriculated at Harvard in 1973, convinced Allen to quit college and move to Boston so they could keep working together. When Allen saw the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics announcing the Altair 8800, the “World’s First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models,” he recognized a perfect opportunity. He and Gates, by now experienced programmers, could develop a version of the BASIC programming language that would work on this new minicomputer, making the machine much more attractive for hobbyists. “We were looking,” Allen realized, “at the first commercial personal computer.”

In a reversal, it was now Allen prevailing upon Gates to quit college so they could work full-time on their new venture (named “Micro-Soft” because it made software for computers running on microprocessors). Over a half-decade, they sold software to a range of computer makers. In 1980, they received a contract to provide the operating system for a machine from the big blue whale of the computer world: IBM. The resulting “PC,” a commercial hit, was the direct forefather of the vast majority of today’s desktop and laptop computers. Even as IBM lost market share, Microsoft’s fortunes continued to grow. The company provided software, and eventually the Windows operating system, to a rapidly expanding base of computer manufacturers.

Despite the company’s many successes and promising future, Allen grew dissatisfied at Microsoft. In Allen’s telling, Gates was driving, domineering, deeply competitive, and inclined to claim the work of others as his own. The men’s long friendship did not keep them from fighting; rather, it made their professional disputes sting all the worse. After a blowup in 1980, Allen writes, “something died for me . . . one day I’m out of here.” By early 1982, he recalls, “our partnership was living on borrowed time.”

Allen received a “wake-up call” in September 1982: he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the body’s immune system. It was caught early enough that it was treatable with radiation. But the illness, combined with still more friction with Gates, convinced Allen that he should leave Microsoft in early 1983. That pivotal moment half a lifetime ago—radiation, remission, and resignation—marks the halfway point in Allen’s memoir. The rest of the book consists of chapters dedicated to each of his various post-Microsoft business and philanthropic endeavors.

After Microsoft went public in 1986, Allen’s attorney told him, “This wealth should enable you to do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it.” He would soon be a billionaire, and then a billionaire ten times over. A longtime basketball fan, Allen bought the Portland Trail Blazers in 1988. He recounts the mistakes he made as a rookie owner—“it’s fine to be friendly with your players and to care about them,” he writes, but if you get too close to them, “it may come back to bite you when it’s time to renew a contract or weigh a trade.” (Michael Jordan, whose Chicago Bulls beat the Trail Blazers in the 1992 NBA finals, was the only person Allen had ever witnessed who compared to Bill Gates—both Jordan and Gates “stood apart for raw competitiveness,” wanting “not only to beat you but to crush you.”)

In 1997, Allen bought the Seattle Seahawks, becoming one of a handful of individuals to own more than one professional American sports franchise. He helped pay for a new stadium for the team—CenturyLink Field, formerly Qwest Field—after leading a victorious campaign to secure majority public financing. (After the referendum passed, he writes, “I could see how people got addicted to electioneering.”) Not a lifelong football fan, buying the Seahawks was originally just a “civic chore” for Allen, since his hometown team was in danger of being moved to California. But after one Super Bowl and more than a decade of ownership, Allen reports that he has “gotten hooked on the weeklong buildup to Sunday.”

Allen was 14 years old when Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced was released in 1967. He was hooked for life. Allen lovingly reconstructs his first impressions of the album’s sound and lyrics—swooping, swirling, shimmering—and describes the criticism of those elders, such as his mother, who hated hearing Hendrix. Allen taught himself the guitar so that he could play Hendrix’s songs, and he describes a 2007 Dallas concert with his band in which he “damned the torpedoes and went with ‘Purple Haze,’” bringing the audience to its feet with “a more than decent version of an incredibly challenging song.” In a grand tribute to his hero, Allen in 2000 built the Experience Music Project in Seattle, a museum dedicated to Hendrix (a Seattle native) and to “exuberant and fearless” rock music. He hired architect Frank Gehry to design a building that suitably swoops, swirls, and shimmers.

Strangely, Allen’s memoir is wholly silent on the subject of another museum he established in 2004, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. Housed in the same Gehry-designed building, the museum attested to Allen’s lifetime of reading the genre. (The science fiction and rock museums have since merged.) Allen’s years of reading about alien life also primed him for Carl Sagan’s pitch in the 1990s that he help fund the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute; today, the institute’s massive telescope array under construction in California has been named in Allen’s honor.

Science fiction inspired some of his other investments in space. This is an interest Allen shares with other computer entrepreneurs: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and PayPal creator Elon Musk both started space-launch companies, while video game pioneer Richard Garriott and Allen’s Microsoft colleague Charles Simonyi have both visited the International Space Station. Allen, who says he “wanted to do something in rocketry that no one had done before,” founded a company with Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer who spent decades in the Mojave Desert developing some of the world’s most innovative aircraft. With Allen’s support, Rutan designed and built SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first spacecraft not built by a government to successfully reach space. Allen and Rutan’s team also won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a competition to put a private manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. A year later, SpaceShipOne, with Allen’s name painted on it, was hung in the main gallery of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “I haven’t had any days prouder than that one,” Allen said. He has since stepped back from active involvement in the private space industry, as Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has taken the lead in adapting Rutan’s technology for the purposes of commercial space tourism.

Yet despite Allen’s impressive achievement in opening manned spaceflight to commercial enterprise, his most important post-Microsoft legacy may be the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Its ultimate goal is to help researchers cure neurological disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s to ALS to autism; its method is to understand the relationship between genes and the brain. Allen began work on the project in 2002, hosting 21 eminent scientists on his superyacht for a brainstorming session. His mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2003 gave him added impetus. “I saw the horrors of Alzheimer’s up close, and I was devastated,” he writes. “If there was anything I could do to spare others a similar fate, I was determined to try.” That year, he launched the institute with $100 million in seed money.

The institute’s best known projects are its “atlases” of gene expression in the mouse and human brains, although several other projects are also underway. The data resulting from all these projects are freely accessible online. Perhaps decades will elapse before the institute’s work results in anything of practical therapeutic value, but it has already transformed neuroscience. As one neurobiologist told the Associated Press, speaking of the institute’s website, “we can’t imagine life without this tool anymore.”

Largely left unmentioned in the book is Allen’s commitment to unconventional Pacific Northwest nonprofits, especially in the arts, such as a house for writers in Seattle, a theater company in Alaska, and a literary organization in Portland. “Compared to the cacophony of press accounts celebrating the Giving Pledge [which Allen has signed],” writes Jeffrey Cain in Philanthropy Daily, “it is striking how the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has quietly and effectively gone about its business of focusing on local and regional philanthropy in the Northwest.”

Taken as a whole, Idea Man is an oddly impersonal memoir. Allen is notoriously private, and he remains so even after more than 300 pages of autobiography. He casually invokes the names of the many celebrities he has met or worked with in some capacity, from McCartney to Bono to Mick Jagger to Kevin Spacey to Peter Gabriel, but does not describe a single close friendship at any length. A fiancée from the 1970s and a European girlfriend from the 1980s each receive fleeting mention, but no other romantic interests are acknowledged. (By contrast, they are discussed in prurient detail in Laura Rich’s unflattering, uncharitable, and unauthorized 2003 biography of Allen, The Accidental Zillionaire.) Even Allen’s sister, Jody—a trusted confidante who runs both his investment firm and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation—is reduced to a ghostly presence in the corners of the book.

Bill Gates is the only intimate acquaintance portrayed in Idea Man, and the only person who seems capable of arousing any passion at all in his erstwhile partner. The two men have patched up their relationship, and Gates was a regular visitor when Allen was undergoing chemotherapy for a new bout of cancer in 2009 and 2010. Allen’s recollections, sometimes bitter, of Gates’ foibles, risks, and years of callousness chiefly serve to make the legend of Gates blaze brighter.

Idea Man also offers little insight into Allen’s success and his approach to business and philanthropy. He is a natural assimilator, someone who researches a subject and makes it his own, like the programming manuals that he used to read and digest as though it were a metabolic impulse. He has done that here, with his own life as the subject. But aside from a few offhand observations—“I find regional and local philanthropy truly gratifying because you can see how one well-placed grant can make a difference”—Idea Man is strangely devoid of an overarching assessment of his giving.

To understand Allen’s philanthropic vision requires understanding the man—but, paradoxically, the surest way to get to know this very private man may well be by studying his philanthropy. His charitable giving is to all appearances intensely personal. It derives not from utopian dreams or abstract notions of improving the human condition, but rather from the things that intrigue and inspire him. From rock music and science fiction to space exploration, Allen’s personal interests have shaped his philanthropy. Even his investments in brain science touch close to home. Allen becomes less of an enigma if we study what he does, and his approach to philanthropy becomes much clearer once we consider who he is.

Adam Keiper is editor of the New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.