The media have been awash with stories of Bill Gates’ ‘Last Day’ as a full time employee of the company he started 33 years ago, so it’s only suiting for me to chime in with my own reflections. I have already blogged about Bill on several occasions: ‘Unavoidable Pain’ (May 08), ‘Hiring Failures by a Retiring Success’ (Feb-08), ‘Luck and Skill’ (Jan 07), ‘Deliberate Mistakes’ (Sep-06), ‘Lousy Teacher’ (Jul-06), ‘Embracing Failure’ (Nov-05).

One of my most prominent posts was ‘The Bill-Steve Leadership Partnership’ (Jun 06) in which I speculated about a complementarity between Bill and Steve’s Strategic and Operational concentrations of focus. I does seem that in this well anticipated step-down, Microsoft have replaced those skills with not one person, but three. Craig Mundie and Ray Ozzie inject long-term strategic focus, while COO Kevin Turner has intensified a nearer term (quarterly) concentration on operational excellence

Bill has had a range of good-bye’s in what has become his farewell tour this past year, but one of the most poignant was the company’s internal ‘Town Meeting’ held on the very last day itself. It turned into double-act chat between Steve and Bill reflecting on times as far back as their childhood and looking ahead to the future of Microsoft and Bill’s work with the foundation. In the theme of this blog here, embracing failure, Bill once again reflected quite philosophically about the positive outcomes that have come from many failures endured…

“Microsoft is such a hard core company, we are always thinking about what we need to do better and thinking about the future. It’s not really in our culture to just sit around and think about what we’re achieved and what we’ve done well…Yes, we make mistakes and we know it, but we come back and learn from those things and a lot of our best work is a result of that…Do we think in our own office that this software is perfect?…No, not perfect. You know one of the newspapers had some email that I sent about how maybe Windows could have been better at something and they said, ‘This is a shocking piece of email…shocking!’ And I said, ‘What do you think I do all day?? Sending email like that, that is my job. That’s what it’s all about. We’re here to make things better.”

Then in the Q&A, “What was your biggest screw up at Microsoft and how did you learn from it?” Bill responded, “Our biggest mistake comes when we don’t see where software might go in the future. Where we’re working on it early. By the time something is really popular, it’s really maybe 3 or 4 years after you’ve done the work to get there and so when we got it right betting on graphic interface even though we told our competitors that they should, we tried to get them to do it, they didn’t. By the time it was clear it was a mistake, they were in deep trouble because we had done the work and we were there. So in software you’ve got to anticipate the turns in the road…But there are many (turns) that we missed. The search and advertising thing, they way that has grown up to be so important, that’s probably the one you’d pick right now and say ‘Geez, that’s a big mistake.’ And it’s going to be harder. If we had started 3 years earlier and seen how important that is, that would be a lot easier than having to do it coming from behind. When we miss a big change and we don’t get great people on it, that is the most dangerous thing for us…and it has happened many times. It’s okay…but the less the better.”

Steve Ballmer added a bit later, “In the old days, Bill and I used to have a list of our biggest screw ups. We stopped that after the list got too long…And if I think that we were to make it today, it would amount to hundreds of pages.”

These comments characterise one of the most prominent qualities of Bill…his sincere and constant humility. He leaves Microsoft one of the greatest business successes the world has ever seen, and yet his parting comments talk insightfully about his failures.