March 29, 2005
Bill Gates' 'Think Week' — 'World's coolest suggestion box'
Every six months Bill Gates retreats by himself to a secure, undisclosed location on the Pacific Northwest coastline.
There, he reads scores of internal company papers stamped "Microsoft Confidential" in a focused, uninterrupted series of 18–24 hour days.
So intent is he on covering as much material as possible that he had a bathroom built and refrigerator installed in his upstairs study so he wouldn't have to interrupt his flow by going downstairs.
I found Monday's front-page Wall Street Journal article by Robert A. Guth on Gates's "Think Week" easily the most interesting thing I read all day yesterday.
Guth was the first reporter ever allowed to visit Gates at his hideaway, and only on the condition that he keep the location secret.
No one — friends, family or employees — may intrude.
Gates's record is 112 papers read and annotated during a seven-day stretch.
And these papers run 100 pages or more long apiece.
On Gates's thoughts, opinions and judgments of the material he reads depends the future of Microsoft and its employees.
For example, it was material submitted for his Think Week in 1995 that inspired Gates's paper, "The Internet Tidal Wave," caused a radical redirection of Microsoft into the online arena, and led to the ultimate crushing of Netscape by Internet Explorer.
I'm reminded by Gates's Think Week of my smaller-scale version, called by me since forever a "PowerRead."
A PowerRead consists of my going down to Barnes & Noble, selecting perhaps 50 magazines from a wide variety of genres, then going to a quiet corner of the store and plowing through them, uninterrupted except to get up to use the bathroom, for up to five or six hours straight.
I love doing it because I come across tons of stuff I'd never find any other way.
I take notes on the subscription cards that flutter out of the magazines.
I try to do a PowerRead every couple months.
Afterward I'm kind of exhausted, so I usually just watch a movie at home on DVD.
Gates has being doing his Think Weeks since the 1980s.
One way he and I are not alike, I will confess, is that for breaks he allows himself five minutes to solve a daily online bridge problem.
To say that's not my idea of a break is somewhat of an understatement.
One thing I found of great interest in the article is Guth's description of how the material Gates will read is selected.
"Two months before Mr. Gates's February seclusion, his technical assistant, Alex Gounares, collected papers from every corner of Microsoft and culled what he thought should be Mr. Gates's priorities. It's an open call that lets employees of any level reach the top with their ideas."
In my opinion, Alex Gounares is the third most powerful person at Microsoft, behind Gates and Steve Ballmer.
I mean, this guy culls and decides what he thinks "should be Mr. Gates's priorities."
Who is Alex Gounares, and how did he come to occupy so crucial a position?
Maybe he reads bookofjoe and will tell me directly.
Here's the Wall Street Journal article.
- In Secret Hideaway, Bill Gates Ponders Microsoft's Future
He Reads Dozens of Papers In Twice-a-Year Ritual; Security and Mapping Ideas
Grilled Cheese, Orange Crush
One way to peek into technology's crystal ball last month was to take a winding road into a cedar forest in the Pacific Northwest to seek out one of tech's top thinkers.
A sunny Thursday afternoon found him waiting alone behind the gate of his secluded cottage.
"Hi, thanks for coming," said Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, appearing eager for company after four days alone at the waterfront cottage.
He was there for his "Think Week," a seven-day stretch of seclusion he uses to ponder the future of technology and then propagate those thoughts across the Microsoft empire.
It's a twice-yearly ritual that can influence the future of Microsoft and the tech industry.
A Think Week thought can give the green light to a new technology that millions of people will use or send Microsoft into new markets.
One week in 1995 inspired Mr. Gates's paper, "The Internet Tidal Wave," that led Microsoft to develop its Internet browser and crush Netscape.
Plans to create Microsoft's Tablet PC, build more-secure software and start an online videogame business were also catalyzed during Think Weeks.
Mr. Gates's retreats are famous in the computer industry, but what happens in them has been a tightly held corporate secret.
Mr. Gates agreed to show his hideaway to a reporter, the first journalist to visit in the many years he's been holding Think Weeks, on the condition that the location be kept secret.
The week typically starts with Mr. Gates, 49 years old, taking a helicopter or seaplane to the two-story clapboard cottage on a quiet waterfront.
It's a tidy, relatively modest place with a small bedroom for Mr. Gates.
During the week he bars all outside visitors -- including family and Microsoft staff -- except for a caretaker who slips him two simple meals a day.
He starts the morning in bed poring through papers mostly by Microsoft engineers, executives and product managers and scribbling notes on the covers.
Skipping breakfast, he patters upstairs in his stocking feet to read more papers.
Noon and dinnertime bring him back downstairs to read papers over meals at the kitchen table, where he has a view of the Olympic Mountains.
Thursday's lunch was grilled cheese sandwiches and clam chowder. His main staple for the week, he said, is a steady stream of Diet Orange Crush.
Four days into this Think Week, Mr. Gates had read 56 papers, working 18 hours straight some days.
His record is 112 papers.
"I don't know if I'll catch my record, but I'll certainly do 100," he said.
Among the unread papers: "10 Crazy Ideas to Shake Up Microsoft."
What had he read of interest this week?
"Actually, let's go upstairs real quick and I'll show you, because that's where I spend all my time," he responded, as he popped out of his chair and bounded up the stairs two steps at a time, landing in his upstairs study.
Facing the windows with a water view stood a desk with two Dell personal-computer monitors.
To the side was a bookshelf lined with "The Great Books" series of literature classics.
A portrait of Victor Hugo hung on the wall.
A bathroom and a small refrigerator, stocked with Diet Orange Crush and Diet Coke, were added to the office in recent years, Mr. Gates said, so he could maximize his reading time by not having to go downstairs.
Papers in bright orange covers littered the floor, their pages stamped "Microsoft Confidential."
Standing at his desk with ink-stained hands, Mr. Gates flipped through a 62-page paper titled "Virtual Earth," covered with his notes.
It described future mapping services that deliver travel directions with live images of destinations and details on traffic conditions and other information.
Some of the ideas he later dismissed as "overly Jetsons," but he prefaced the comments he would send to its authors with a ringing endorsement: "I love the vision here."
Mr. Gates settled behind the PC monitors, which displayed a database of nearly 300 papers for this week.
Among the topics: the growth of Internet video, hard-drive capacity and the diminishing advances in microprocessor "clock speed," historically the driver of PC-market growth.
Other paper topics include trends in digital photography, computing trends in 2005 and ways for software to better handle languages like Vietnamese.
"There's one here on security that's just a breakthrough," Mr. Gates said, tipping forward in his chair and clicking on a paper titled "Can We Contain Internet Worms?" from Microsoft's research group in England.
Tellingly, 31 papers on the list -- the largest category -- were on software security, a critical problem for Microsoft.
The worm paper describes a new way Microsoft might stop the spread of a type of destructive code that has plagued the Internet lately.
Think Week's reading and thinking spawns a flood of e-mail and comments from Mr. Gates.
A paper might inspire an e-mail to dozens of employees around the world.
Employees anticipate the week with hopes that their projects will get a green light or influence the company's direction.
"It's the world's coolest suggestion box," says Stephen Lawler, a Microsoft general manager of the MapPoint group.
Working until the wee hours the night before, Mr. Gates had begun spreading his thoughts on the worm paper around the world.
In an e-mail to Microsoft executives, he mused that the approach seemed almost too good to be true and might have a flaw.
But if it doesn't, he explained out loud, "we've got to deploy this thing." By morning, he had e-mail responses from as far away as Cambridge, England.
Mr. Gates has held some form of Think Week since the 1980s, first as a quiet time to visit his grandmother while reading and strategizing.
Think Week's material has evolved from heaps of paper reports to a computerized library that has fields for Mr. Gates to enter comments and links to related documents -- backed up by paper versions.
Two months before Mr. Gates's February seclusion, his technical assistant, Alex Gounares, collected papers from every corner of Microsoft and culled what he thought should be Mr. Gates's priorities.
It's an open call for papers that lets employees of any level reach the top with their ideas.
Some papers make pleas for more people and money but most are focused on technology trends and development.
Mr. Gates says he finds the latter "more relaxing" to read.
"They're rarely saying, 'We're doomed. Give me $100 million and we won't be doomed anymore.' "
Mr. Gates got a head-start reading over the weekend, arriving at his retreat Monday.
But he was already worried about his pace the next day.
"I had worked so hard. I had worked 24 hours" yet he had only finished a dozen papers.
One of them was a 120-pager titled "The Book of Xenon" that details plans for Microsoft's next videogame machine, codenamed Xenon, and posits a videogames strategy for the next 20 years.
He soon hit his stride, reading the 80-page "Education Product Strategy at Microsoft" on how to hone the company's appeal to the education market.
He responded to the authors online, promising that "we're going to get some progress" toward the paper's recommendations, adding that it would be a "tragedy" if the project's funding ended, one author said later.
Mr. Gates said he e-mailed a note telling Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer to read the paper.
Working through midnight Tuesday, Mr. Gates was feeling punchy.
Reading a paper titled "Speech Synthesis," he says he began reading aloud words like "anger," "boredom" and "playfulness," pronouncing each in the emotional tone it evoked.
"It was two in the morning so I was being goofy," he said.
For breaks, Mr. Gates allowed himself five minutes to solve a daily online bridge problem.
On Wednesday, he donned shoes for the first time and left the cottage to stroll the beach for 30 minutes.
"I just walked outside thinking about, actually, video on the Internet," he said.
As the sun set over the lake Thursday, Mr. Gates vowed to read 24 more papers by bedtime.
"Tonight, because I'm pretty well slept now, I'll go until like two or three," he said.
By week's end, Mr. Gates would read 100 papers, send e-mails to hundreds of people and write a Think Week summary for executives.
He would send his top executives a reading list, including papers on software security and the growing power of cellphones.
The effects of this Think Week are rippling through Microsoft.
Yusuf Mehdi, vice president in the MSN online group, says he lugged a 6-inch-thick printout of Mr. Gates's Think Week comments on a business trip.
In the Office-software division, one group says it used Mr. Gates's comments to change direction on whether to team up with or acquire certain companies. (They won't say which way.)
A team member was soon in Europe meeting potential partners.
In the MapPoint unit, source of the "Virtual Earth" paper, Mr. Lawler, the general manager, called a meeting to brainstorm on Mr. Gates's comments.
Mr. Gates put the kibosh on certain ideas.
But word of his endorsement of the paper's overall vision had spread across Microsoft, and several other groups including Microsoft's research arm are now involved in the project.
Craig Bartholomew's spirits lifted when he opened an e-mail with Mr. Gates's comments on his group's education-strategy paper.
Mr. Bartholomew, the group's general manager, quickly instructed his team to factor the insights into product plans and posted Mr. Gates's comments on an internal Web site to solicit input from the group.
Before Think Week, there was "hope but there wasn't belief" that the team's plans would fly, he says. "People in my group are optimistic now."
In the weeks since returning to his regular schedule, Mr. Gates has settled into a stretch of follow-up meetings spawned by Think Week, including two, he says, on security strategy.
Last week he huddled for two hours with the Virtual Earth team helping plot the group's next move.
Mr. Gates is well aware of the potential impact of his comments and doesn't take writing them lightly.
"If I write a comment that says, 'We should do this,' things will be re-orged, engineers will move," he says.
"It's not like I can just read this paper and say, 'Hey, cool, looks good.' They'll assign 20 people to it then."
March 29, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink
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Dear Microsoft Think Tank,
How do you make a suggestion to your company?
Where is your suggestion box... I had to go to Google to find a way to write to you?
Yes of course I was all over your website. Crazy
How do we the public simply write you?
I think you are the best thing that ever happened to the computing industry. But that is history... how do you compete today... isolate yourself or lisson.
I think that in 20 years+- that you could/would have improved your spell checker. Yes it is cool how it works with in the different programs, but I have to go to Google to check my spell checking or to find the correct way to spell a word. Google finds useally with in the first try.
Note: I have many friends and alway tell my employees to go Google to check spelling and how to spell the correct word in the correct content... (intesting)
I think your dictionary is very limmited vocabulary and was writen for 30 years ago.
Yes, I addmite I have a learning disablity and do not see the spelling of words well, as my professors at Berkey said, I would never be able to spell well.... that is what a spell checker is for.. to help people like me... about 1/2 the population of the world..
but you the smart people at Microsoft do not have a clue... the true needs of many of us not so balanced people who can not see or remember how to spell, of words we use everyday.
I'm 52 years old, a business owner and write, e-mails, memo's, letters, patents, web pages and sell millions of dollars of products, every year.
My suggestion, if you do not want to get run over by Google than you have to do as well or better than your competor.
Your spell checker (sucks)
*****Please broden your vocabuary and the way you your spell checker suggest words to be spelt...
We need more words to choose from in suggestion list. Your spell checker is too foccused... get some bad spellers to help you.....
Maybe if their is an issue with word program you should link to MSN spell checker.... hummmmmmm.
**** Note: This is not the first time I writen Microsoft about this issue... is anybody home.
Thank You ......... (Bill)
Best of intentions, keep up the good work.
Posted by: Michael P Young | May 30, 2006 5:17:55 PM
microsoft is doing a very wonderful work and it
is a boon in this 20th.century.Cheer up Bill Gate
move on for more wonders to be added in this technology to bring the people of the in a small
Equally challenging contribution you can share for the insurgent infected victims of Nepal for which I am carryingb the responsibility to relieve to some extend.Your constant prayer is requested.
Bhim Kumar Yakthumba
Posted by: Bhim Kumar Yakthumba | Oct 28, 2005 6:05:50 AM
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