Paul Allen has written a memoir that is already violating the rules of "Seattle Nice." He has dared say some angry things about his former business partner Bill Gates, a man never shy about exhibiting his own contempt for the weak in the Darwinian world of business.
Some commentators have tut-tutted about the tone of Allen's work, Idea Man, excerpted in the latest Vanity Fair. Brier Dudley, the respected Seattle Times tech columnist, calls Allen's dishing "catty," saying "Allen risks going down in history as the world's richest disgruntled employee — the guy who stomped out of the building with $20 billion, thinking he deserved $25 billion." He describes the Allen excerpt as reading like a "vendetta."
But what right-thinking journalist would want anything different? Allen has been notoriously reclusive and hostile to reporting on his private life. I spent the better part of the 1990s directing coverage of Microsoft and the local tech world at Eastsideweek and Seattle Weekly, and incurred the wrath of Allen's people on several occasions, such as when one of our reporters visited the address of his foundation and it proved to be his sister's home, or when one of his aides shrieked at me on the phone for having sent Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jerry Gay to get a picture of the Allen compound on Mercer Island from a public right-of-way. This is a man who has been compared to Howard Hughes as a protector of his privacy, and I was scolded more than once for violating it.
Microsoft and Bill Gates have often been just as bad, threatening local reporters with cutting off access for coverage that made them unhappy, making it almost impossible for local media to break through the gates around Gates to get something meaty, spontaneous, unscripted. Calls to Microsoft have routinely been routed through PR people in Portland who would not connect you with anyone but other spokesdrones who would respond to pre-determined topics or questions.
And then there's the Microsoft wall of silence when it comes to dishing on the guy who made you rich. There has been an unspoken rule among former Microsoft big-shots not to bite the hand that gave you options. If Microsoft or Bill Gates put you on easy street, then you'd better keep your mouth shut. Microsoft has been famous for its ubiquitous non-disclosure agreements ("If I told you what I'm working on, I'd have to kill you"), but the best silencer has come in the form of wealth, a kind of hush-money for former senior executives. Ex-Microsoft execs have sometimes been chastened by their peers for even minor violations of the code. Smile, stay quiet, spend your money.
So, why would we encourage Paul Allen to be moderate in his honesty? Or his feelings? He has things to tell us about himself, and his role in business and tech history. He was the partner of a younger man who became the richest man in the world, a world he helped to revolutionize with the simple notion of getting a computer on everyone's desk. Allen tells us of the role he, Allen, played with a kind of intimacy that no one else could duplicate. His version of his life and its ups and downs, the extraordinary ride he took as son of a librarian to billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, collector, developer, rock-enthusiast, etc., can only have an upside for inquiring minds.
Allen's memories and observations about the early years with Gates ring true. The teletype computer printer that clacked away in a closet-sized room at Lakeside is now on display at the school. I think it should be on display at the new Museum of History and Industry as an icon for what that now-antique piece of technology spawned. Allen's description of Gates' prickly and competitive personality, his brilliance, his ruthlessness, are not a surprise, being well-documented in other books and court records. But they mean more coming from someone who worked with Gates so long, who, like all your high-school and college buddies, has seen the best and worst of you while you were still in the making.
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