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October 25, 2005

The Gates Foundation

There was an article in The New Yorker this week about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (I read these long articles so you don't have to--just another service this blog provides).

The Foundation is arguably the most powerful charity in the world. It's vision--ridding the world of disease--is breathtaking, and even more astonishing is the amount of progress that it could make towards that goal. The foundation presently has about $30 billion in its endowment, and the money can have a huge effect. $1 billion doesn't buy you much: part of a runway, 10 airplanes, a few miles of monorail, a Las Vegas casino. But put it to work fighting disease and it could easily save a million lives (and if you really do want to help save the world, the Foundation is hiring).

A quote from Gates: "You think in philanthropy that your dollars will be marginal, because the really juicy obvious things will all have been taken...When somebody is saying to you we can save many lives for hundreds of dollars each, the answer has to be no, no, no. That would already have been done...We go to events where people are raising money for various illnesses where lives are being treated as if they were worth many millions of dollars. And here we were learning that you can save even more lives for a few hundred each. We really did think it was too shocking to be true."

I can't think of a better use for Bill's Microsoft money, and I'm proud that the success of Microsoft has enabled this. How many people-years has the aggregate workforce of Microsoft put in since 1975--maybe half a million? 12 of those are mine. So if the foundation gives $50 billion to charity, you could argue that $1.2 million of that is from my time there.

The article points out that there is some criticism of the direction of the foundation, specifically in the pursuit of technological solutions (such as vaccines) over lower-tech but working solutions (such as distributing insecticide-treated mosquito nets to combat malaria). The foundation, possibly in response to such criticism, recently gave a $35 million grant to Zambia to fund nets, existing drugs, and insecticide. But Gates, with the best of intentions, is sincerely committed to the pursuit of technology as the main solution.

One would assume that Gates approaches Microsoft with the same attitude, and therefore favors sweeping technological visions over incremental measures--WinFS over Spotlight, to give one real example. The difference is that when Gates interacts with the world of medicine, he is not coming in as the Chief Software Architect (he is of course coming in as the Chief Grant Funder, but I will give him credit for not playing that card). The doctors and researchers he meets are not directly beholden to him, and therefore more likely to tell him that he is wrong (While reading the article I thought of this comment). And of course Gates cannot claim that something is the stupidest idea he has ever heard, or threaten to do it himself over the weekend, as he is notoriously rumored to do in software discussions.

Posted by AdamBa at October 25, 2005 10:02 PM

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Does Gates still write code in his spare time? It would be interesting to find out what he thinks about, say, MSH, or LINQ etc

Posted by: Senkwe at October 26, 2005 12:25 AM

He certainly doesn't write product code. Does he noodle around with the Indigo API in the evenings? I would doubt it, although who knows. I would suspect instead that his technical assistant writes sample code and perhaps show it to him. With all he does at Microsoft, plus the Foundation, I don't think he would have time.

But he's certainly aware of what is going on with MSH, LINQ, etc. We've demoed Monad (not me, but people on the team) to Bill.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at October 26, 2005 10:47 AM

I personally wrote to Bill about how his foundation can truely help the developing countries...not by saving people from disease like malaria, aids and other infectious diseases but by being improving basic sanitation, clean water, nutition, reducing hunger and opportunities of livelihood thru microloans, sustainable animal husbandry, organic farming and such...things that would improve lives over long run. no response! You know what the money is pipelined to profit driven pharma and vaccine industry. I really do not call this exactly self-less giving.

Posted by: Karen at November 8, 2005 05:42 PM