February 26, 2004

Microsoft Guru Offers Tips for Success

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As a crowd of 600 became silent last night, a spectacled man with brown hair and a relatively short, lanky stature approached Call Auditorium’s podium — a man who looked like one of the wealthiest men in the world. Yet audience members were deceived — it was President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77.

Lehman proceeded to tell a story about how he has been mistaken for Microsoft chair and chief software architect Bill Gates not only in Shanghai, China, but also in Honolulu, Hawaii, Philadelphia, Pa. and even here in Ithaca.

“The point I want to make this afternoon is the reason why Bill Gates is recognized around the world, and recognized even when he is not there, is that he’s changed our world,” Lehman said.

Much of this change and influence Lehman alluded to were addressed in Gates’ 50-minute lecture entitled “Software Breakthroughs: Solving the Toughest Problems in Computer Science.”

Making his third stop on a five-college tour, Gates spoke about the impact of breakthroughs in computer science over the past 30 years — starting with his own beginnings after dropping out of Harvard during his junior year to create software for microprocessor-based systems.

“This idea that the PC would become the most empowering tool we’ve ever created … wasn’t widely anticipated,” Gates said.

It was not until the late 1990s when “the wild period” — or the beginning of widespread Internet use — began, according to Gates. Yet, he emphasized that software will provide an even greater impact on the world in the future even though many are underestimating its further enhancement.

“Certainly if we look at the PC today, as great as it is, it’s clear there’s a lot more to do,” Gates said. “I think we’re a third of the way of achieving the original vision that Microsoft had — this is a vision about empowering everyone with this tool.”

According to Gates, faster microprocessors, larger storage space, higher-resolution screens and other improvements have undoubtedly advanced the computer’s evolution, although he also said that the push also needs to come from vast software improvements — a facet which will fulfill many hopes for technological advances.

Even Gates, however, is not immune to some of the negative aspects of computer technology. The Microsoft chair showed several pictures to the audience of spam e-mail he has received, including one offering to help him “Get Out of Debt” and another to earn a free “University Diploma” — something the college dropout might need. Gates received the most laughs when the third e-mail he showed offered to fix his “legal concerns” — a reference to Microsoft’s antitrust case.

“Whoever sent me that [message] has very good targeting software,” Gates quipped.

In providing a partial glimpse of the future, Gates presented the SmartWatch, a wrist piece 10 times more powerful than the original IBM PC and able to download programs, report stocks and receive messages.

Making the case for the study of computer science, Gates said it is “the most fun and interesting field” which is constantly ever-changing. The creator of the Gates Millennium Scholarship which benefits minority students in a variety of fields, including over 50 students at Cornell, Gates addressed his concern about the recent decrease in enrollment in computer science.

“I think we need to do more to get the word out about the opportunities and the range of things that go on,” he said.

A consistent theme throughout his speech was Microsoft’s involvement with the University. In addition to scholarships, Gates has given more than $6 million to initiatives such as the Cornell Theory Center.

But the relationship between the two is more personal for Gates. In 1993, Steven Sinofsky ’87, a technical assistant to Gates at the time, was snowed in while visiting Ithaca. While poking around campus, he saw that students were heavily using high-speed networks to connect to the Internet. Later, Sinofsky sent Gates an e-mail, with the subject heading “Cornell is wired.”

“When I heard Steve talk about what was happening in Cornell, I began to take the Internet quite seriously,” Gates said in his 1995 novel The Road Ahead.

Appreciation for Gates’ contributions to the University and students were seen during the question-and-answer session, in which he was thanked by two Gates Millennium Scholars to an enthusiastic applause.

One of the students, Grant Stansbury ’04, proposed to create an alumni association for the scholars — an idea Gates indicated he would support. Stansbury said that the purpose of the organization would be to allow scholars to meet each other on a more consistent basis and keep in touch in the future.

“[The scholarship] was very helpful,” Stansbury told The Sun. “It’s helped me to get through college and that’s the most important thing.”

Other student questions ranged from computer security to working with Linux to even Gates’ heavy involvement with AIDS prevention and research. In response to the Linux question, Gates said with feigned ignorance, “… Linux?” — to a chorus of laughter.

Gates will finish his college tour today in Boston, visiting MIT and Harvard. Prior to coming to East Hill, he visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Carnegie Mellon University.

“My impression was that Mr. Gates was very impressed with what he saw,” Lehman said. “It was wonderful to have him on campus.”

And even though Lehman might not exactly be Bill Gates, he might be correct in his assessment of the Microsoft icon’s influence on campus. One of the many ideas that Gates has contributed is the Tablet PC — a gadget that has become important in some students’ lives.

“My entire life depends on it,” said Jason Kwan ’04.

Archived article by Brian Tsao