Did Bill Gates ever really leave Microsoft?

How Gates brought OpenAI to Microsoft, and 3 other things he’s been working on behind the scenes

Since even Bill seems to have forgotten, here’s a recap:

2000 — Bill Gates steps down as CEO after a landmark antitrust ruling, but continues on as chairman of the board of directors and chief software architect. That same year, he co-founds the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

2008 — Bill leaves day-to-day operations at Microsoft

2014 — Bill steps down as chairman

2021 — Bill is ousted from the Microsoft board entirely amidst his impending divorce and rumors that he’s had an affair with a colleague. He now has no official connection to Microsoft

But did he ever really leave?

1/ Bill & OpenAI

The relationship between Bill Gates and OpenAI, as well as its founder Sam Altman, goes back much further than you might realize. He has been regularly meeting with members of OpenAI since 2016.

OpenAI's leaders conduct regular presentations for Gates at his home, keeping him updated on their progress and seeking consultation, which OpenAI spokesperson Kayla Wood has said is an ongoing procedure. Bill and Sam have been described as “good friends” by those in their orbit; “OpenAI takes his [Bill’s] opinion, and consult overall, seriously."

In 2022, Bill even set OpenAI (and Sam Altman) a challenge: create a model capable of passing an AP biology exam. He was sure it wasn’t possible. But within months, Altman was back at Bill’s house (alongside current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella) to debut GPT-4, which aced the exam. This was the first time GPT-4 had been shown outside of the company.

Gates called it "the most stunning demo I've ever seen in my life."

“The Memo”

Watching the GPT-4 demo, Bill was inspired to write a note, now so infamous within Microsoft that former executives refer to it simply as “The Memo.”

The document spelled out exactly how Microsoft should use GPT-4 — a roadmap for the future of the company, and the world. (He later published a version of the memo on his blog.) In particular, he outlined the application of AI to make personal ‘agents’, or assistants, as well as in healthcare and education.

According to executives, Gates' words were treated “as gospel”. Soon after the demo at Gates’ house, Satya held a meeting at Microsoft with people across his teams in cybersecurity, search, and Microsoft 365, challenging them to find innovative new ways to incorporate AI, particularly GPT-4, into their products. "Copilot now sounds exactly like what he wrote [in the memo]," an executive said.

2/ Guiding the Senior Team

Bill was Satya’s mentor. When he took over from Steve Ballmer as CEO in 2014, he personally requested that Gates spend 30% of his time as a technical advisor to Microsoft. In 2020, he promised that Microsoft would "continue to benefit from Bill's ongoing technical passion and advice to drive our products and services forward."

When Nadella took over, Microsoft was seen as a dinosaur of the computer age, outpaced across the board by the likes of Google and Apple. Peter Thiel even called the company "a bet against technological innovation." Nadella, who’d worked with Bill at Microsoft from 1992 until his departure, turned to him for help in righting the company and steering it in the right direction.

A Microsoft executive describes how "Satya and the entire senior leadership team lean on Gates very significantly. His opinion is sought every time we make a major change."

3/ Cheerleader-in-Chief

Satya describes Gates’ role at Microsoft as a big motivator for his staff. Having a living legend around keeps spirits—and standards—high.

"When I say, 'Hey, I want you to go run this by Bill,' I know they're going to do their best job prepping for it"

In a Wired interview, Nadella described “the moral authority of the founder” as a “critical management tool.” Though he’s not a regular at management meetings, Bill offers feedback on Microsoft’s technical progress to senior staff, including chief scientist Jaime Teevan, business-applications boss Charles Lamanna, Teams boss Jeff Teper, and cybersecurity head Charlie Bell, who all meet regularly with Gates.

4/ ‘Run it by Bill’

Gates says he spends 10% of his time advising Microsoft on “product roadmaps.” But what exactly is he steering Microsoft towards?

"Gates is very involved with product reviews and one-on-ones with executives," an executive said. And despite a checkered past, the products he’s most excited about are those in the consumer space.

"Bill G. thinks the major opportunity is consumers," an insider said. "If you look at the new consumer-AI organization, that looks like Bill's influence on Satya."

He’s even “personally involved” in hiring executives.

So what does this mean?

This year, Microsoft dethroned Apple as the most valuable company in the world as its stock market value rose above $3 trillion. When asked which would be more valuable five years from now, all 13 investment strategists consulted for a recent study said they expect Microsoft to outpace Apple. And Bing’s desktop market share has more than doubled in the last 5 years.

All that is to say, Microsoft is clearly doing something right, whoever’s really behind the wheel. But I’d prefer more transparency from the company trying to build an AI future for the rest of us.

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