The two teenage boys were students at Lakeside High School and members of the fledgling Lakeside Programmers Group. The group was granted free computer time on various machines in exchange for writing programs.
At the time, 1970, city and county municipalities conducted traffic surveys by stretching a rubber hose across a highway that triggered a roadside counter every time a vehicle passed over. Air pulses generated by the passing vehicle would punch a hole in a roll of paper tape in a 16-bit pattern which would then be “read” by private contractors. The data about traffic patterns would be used by highway planning departments to plan road improvements and adjust traffic signals.
Those two teenage boys thought there could be a better way and set out to design a computer system that could read and interpret the paper tapes. Using the computer at the University of Washington, whose librarian was the father of Paul Allen, the other young man produced traffic flow charts.
The name of that other young man was Bill Gates and the boys called their company Traf-O-Data.
While Gates and Allen were competent at writing programs they knew nothing about hardware. They enlisted the help of Paul Wennberg who told them about Wes Pritchard who introduced them to Paul Gilbert who built the computer. Eventually Paul Gilbert was invited to become a partner.
When the county representative came in to see the machine, however, it didn’t work. But the trio persisted and did indeed create a device that would analyze and interpret the collected data.
But in a relatively short while, the State of Washington offered free traffic processing services to cities and ended the need for private contractors. All three partners moved on to other projects. One of them came up with DOS and founded a small company called Microsoft (you might have heard of it).
Paul Allen said that “Even though Traf-O-Data wasn’t a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing us to make Microsoft’s first product a couple of years later. We taught ourselves to simulate how microprocessors work using DEC computers, so we could develop software even before our machine was built.” (emphasis mine)
Two things stand out to me.
One is that what happens now is critical to what happens then. Life is lived from beginning to end and the principle of integrity (I am not referring to character in this sense) is that we are one large entirety. We might like to separate this part from that part, but in reality everything works together to manifest one unit that is you.
A close friend sat on a sofa going through a photo album with her grandchild. The book held a brief history of the friend’s life. One photo after another showed her in one setting or another – real estate school, flower arranging school, in a Tupperware business, and more. Her grandchild asked about each to which Grandma replied that she never quite finished the course or completed the business. Then she said something remarkable and very telling.
She said, “That’s not like me. I always finish what I begin.”
The truth is she seldom finished anything! The album bore testimony to the truth – she was a great starter, full of enthusiasm and determination but lacking the quality of persistence.
Starting is easy.
Sticking to it is not.
The second thing that stands out in the Traf-O-Data story is Paul Allen’s insight that “we could develop software even before our machine was built.” What happens today will have a connection with tomorrow. We can insert our own nouns in that sentence:
“We could develop _______ even before ______ was built.”
Indeed, superlative leaders know that lots of things, lots of aptitudes, lots of attitudes, lots of connections, lots of just about everythings have to be found, developed, enhanced, constructed, altered, amended, even abandoned before something else is completed.
Notice that neither Paul Allen nor Bill Gates is still in the Traf-O-Data business and there is indeed a time to move on. But the things they learned and practiced made their ultimate successes possible.
Another decades long overnight success story
Some look at Gates as having fallen into success at Microsoft; that he was just in the right place at the right time. But people honest with themselves avoid such easy and faulty analyses. Like Eric Hoffer said – “They who lack talent expect things to happen without effort. They ascribe failure to a lack of inspiration or ability, or to misfortune, rather than to insufficient application. At the core of every true talent there is an awareness of the difficulties inherent in any achievement, and the confidence that by persistence and patience something worthwhile will be realized. Thus talent is a species of vigor.”
Here’s another quote from Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States – “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “Press On” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
This past August I participated in the National Leadership Conference of SCORE, the volunteer branch of the Small Business Administration staffed by experience business people who offer free mentoring to small business owners. At the event’s annual awards gala, they bestowed an Entrepreneur’s Award on the small business person who “had an idea and just would not let it go.”
Seminal in Allen and Gates is that same spirit. They had an idea to process necessary data easier and at a cheaper cost that would output the data in a form more useable to its recipients and do so at a cheaper cost.
What’s your idea? Don’t answer that with the things you do. Answer that by extracting the same principle as I did in the above paragraph. Then, once you’ve distilled the things you do down into their essence, don’t give up because “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” – Benjamin Franklin