Bill Gates's First Job

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Lakeside School Archives

Our November issue features a lengthy interview with Bill Gates, who discusses with James Bennet the future of clean energy and his hopes for human innovation. In this portion of the interview we printed as a sidebar, the wealthiest human on the planet discusses his first job:

My first job—other than being a page in Congress, which isn’t a real job—was doing a computer-software project for Bonneville Power Administration, which is a quasi-governmental entity that controls the power grid in the Northwest. We were computerizing the power grid. And the company that BPA had contracted with, TRW, was behind, so the people there scoured the country to see who really knew how to do a certain type of programming, and they found me, because I was sort of infamous as a boy wonder of a certain type of programming.

They said, “Have we hired everybody who’s really good at this stuff?” and somebody said, “Well, we haven’t hired Gates.” “Wait, there’s a guy we haven’t hired? Gates? Go get him!” And they said, “Well, nobody’s ever met him. They say he’s quite young.” And the boss says, “Go get him!”

So I go down for this interview—and I did not look 16 when I was 16; I looked 12 when I was 16.  My parents drove me down. I didn’t have my driver’s license. And so they were like, “God, we are really in desperate straits. We are hiring children.”

It was a seminal experience for me, because TRW had brought its very best programmers to program there. So I came in and got assigned this stuff, and people saw that I was willing to work 18 hours a day and do hard stuff. So I would write code and these super-smart guys would look it over and tell me, “Hey, this isn’t very good, this isn’t very good,” so my whole programming skill during the year I was there went a whole notch up.

And they were so nice to me. I mean, they got a kick out of my energy. The only problem was, they got it into my head that I should skip undergraduate and go straight to graduate school, which my parents vetoed.