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Bill Gates used to memorize employee license plate numbers to see who was working the longest

Published Feb 1st, 2016 11:35PM EST
Bill Gates Memorized License Plate Numbers

In a refreshingly candid and informative interview with BBC’s Kirsty Young, Microsoft founder Bill Gates spoke openly on number of interesting topics, including his rivalry with Steve Jobs and how he initially met and began courting his wife, now Melinda Gates. But perhaps the most interesting and quirky tidbit from Gates’ interview centers on the famed tech icon’s insatiable demand for excellence from his employees.

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While Gates today projects an image akin to a kindly and welcoming neighbor, don’t let the smile fool you. Back in the day, Gates was a notoriously ruthless competitor who had a lot more in common with Steve Jobs than most people often realize. And much like Jobs, Gates devoted his life to his work and, in turn, expected employees to do the same. In a tidbit which encapsulates Gates’ mindset back when he was in charge, the Microsoft CEO recounts how he used to memorize the license plates of employees in an effort to keep tabs on who was coming and going.

“I worked weekends, I didn’t really believe in vacations,” Gates said. “I had to be a little careful not to try and apply my standards to how hard [others at the company] worked. I knew everybody’s licence plate so I could look out the parking lot and see, you know, when people come in. Eventually I had to loosen up as the company got to a reasonable size.”

Also interesting is that Gates seemingly looks back at the cutthroat environment under which Microsoft thrived with rose-colored glasses. When asked if he was ruthless as CEO, Gates delivers a somewhat bizarre response.

No, only if you define having super-low prices as ruthless. It’s hard to compete with somebody who’s betting on the volume and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to have… these super-low prices.’ That’s very intimidating and in that sense, yes we were aggressive.

Aggressive would be putting it mildly. From Microsoft’s dealings with Apple in the 80s to the whole saga involving Internet Explorer in the 90s, it’s hard not to laugh at Gates’ assertion that he was only ruthless insofar as he championed super-low prices. I suppose time has an interesting way of tempering how one views the past.

Gates’ entire interview with Young is about 45 minutes long and can be listened to or downloaded over here.

Yoni Heisler Contributor

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large for over 15 years. A life long Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW. When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.