A Bill Gates Story

I ran into a story about Bill Gates today that I thought was funny and brilliant. I’ve reproduced it below:

” When I was an assistant professor at Harvard, Bill Gates was a junior. My girlfriend back then said that I had told her: “There’s this undergrad at school who is the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

That semester, Gates was fascinated with a math problem called pancake sorting: How can you sort a list of numbers, say 3-4-2-1-5, by flipping prefixes of the list? You can flip the first two numbers to get 4-3-2-1-5, and the first four to finish it off: 1-2-3-4-5. Just two flips. But for a list of n numbers, nobody knew how to do it with fewer than 2n flips. Bill came to me with an idea for doing it with only 1.67n flips. We proved his algorithm correct, and we proved a lower bound—it cannot be done faster than 1.06n flips. We held the record in pancake sorting for decades. It was a silly problem back then, but it became important, because human chromosomes mutate this way.

Two years later, I called to tell him our paper had been accepted to a fine math journal. He sounded eminently disinterested. He had moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico to run a small company writing code for microprocessors, of all things. I remember thinking: “Such a brilliant kid. What a waste.”

-Christos Papadimitriou.

Sometimes, we overlook the incredible intelligence it takes to build something like Microsoft. And the amount of self-belief it takes. And how non-linear, how unpredictable success is in the minds of the one pursuing it, and the ones observing his pursuit. And we underestimate the wealth creation phenomenon Bill Gate’s company has been. The truth is, there have been many incredible companies in existence, but there are very few companies that are quite like Microsoft.

Bill Gates is a living legend. And, as of today, is still the richest person alive. I wonder what his professor thinks about that.


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