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Thoughts on a transition

Say what you will about the role Bill Gates has had in the software industry. Mike Gunderloy admires his decision to step back and focus on a higher calling.

I was planning to write about the curious case of the .NET 3.0 renaming today, but that will keep. I'm fairly sure that my membership in the Society of High-Tech Pundits requires me to devote this column to the recently-announced changes in the working life of Bill Gates.

Of course, every online and offline publication from CNN to your local newspaper will be writing about the impact of these changes on the Microsoft stock price (it will go down, and up) to whether the company will be able to keep shipping software (it will). Being neither a stock analyst nor a business analyst, I have the luxury of being somewhat more reflective.

I owe a good deal of my own career success to Bill Gates, even though I've never met the man, simply because the great majority of the software that I've depended on over the years, and a big chunk of the industry that I work in, was directly built by the company that he co-founded 31 years ago. If you're reading this, the same is likely true of you. Oh, the hardcore open source advocates will say that there would be just as many PCs and just as many programming jobs if Microsoft had never existed -- but I doubt it. Given the major influence of Microsoft in our lives, and the major influence of Bill Gates at Microsoft, it's natural for us to focus first on the somewhat scary part of this announcement: Bill is leaving! Will anyone be able to fill his shoes? Will the spark go out of the company? Is it time to learn Linux? What about the stock price?

But it's not like the man is vanishing into thin air. The announcement is not of a retirement, but of a transition: Bill Gates is going to devote more of his time to the daily work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. If you're hazy about what the Foundation does, perhaps you should spend a few moments browsing its Web site. There you can read about just over ten billion dollars in grants to support schools, develop HIV and malaria vaccines, provide public access to computers, fight African sleeping sickness, support other non-profits, keep libraries open...the list goes on and on. Doing good work with large sums of money is just as complex -- and arguably more important -- as running a software business.

More on Gates' departure

From SearchVB.com: Gates reduces role at Microsoft; Ozzie, Mundie move up

From SearchWinIT.com:Bill Gates' IT legacy: What will it be?

Certainly Bill Gates could have spent the rest of his days working at Microsoft and actively trying to increase his wealth. But he's now ready to move on to his other passion: trying to do some good with all the money that he's already accumulated. This, of course, is in the great tradition of philanthropy -- and it will be very interesting to watch what happens as the Gates Foundation continues to take a more active role in the areas that it's interested in.

More importantly, I think, this transition can serve as an opportunity for the rest of us to consider whether we're really doing the important things with our own lives and wealth. Sure, we don't happen to have an extra $30 billion hanging around, or the luxury of decades of not needing to work in which to supervise it. But if you can read this online, you're most likely well above the poverty line, and vastly above the global average income level. I don't always agree with Bill Gates' politics, but I certainly admire his passion and his determination to do something good with the resources that he has. That you and I have fewer material resources does not excuse us from the moral requirement to make the world a better place.

So, Bill, congratulations on following your passion. Thanks for enabling my current career, and thanks again for caring enough to spend your money on something other than 400-foot yachts. Maybe you'll inspire others to do the same.

Mike Gunderloy is the Senior Technology Partner for Adaptive Strategy, a Washington State consulting firm. You can read more of Mike's work at his Larkware Web site, or contact him at MikeG1@larkfarm.com.

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