What do Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Scott McNealy have in common? They’re lucky.

Tim Danton
1 Jul 2009
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Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Scott McNealy like you've never seen them before

If you’ve ever wondered why it’s the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, Scott McNealy and Eric Schmidt who are the successful ones who end up creating and running a hugely successful technology company and not you then I have excellent news – it’s not your fault. In fact, it’s an accident of birth.

I was reminded of this while browsing through Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and generally considered to be a very clever bloke) as part of my research, such that it was, for next month’s Prolog – that is, the editor’s column in PC Pro.

I actually read Outliers a few months ago and was scanning through the pages looking for the reference to why education in the summer holidays is pivotal to the development of children – we’re working on a huge “Give your kids the IT edge” feature, published mid-July – when my attention was caught by the name Bill Gates.

As you can probably tell, Outliers is a wide-ranging book, and one of Gladwell’s key arguments is that raw ability and hard work aren’t enough. You need to be born at the right time and then have the right opportunity.

So let’s consider the pimply* youth that was Bill Gates. When he was growing up, he was fortunate that a school group raised enough money to buy a time-sharing terminal so the children could access a local university’s mainframe computer – an incredible advantage for the geeky Gates. And bear in mind this is 1968.

Throughout the rest of his childhood he was gripped, and took every opportunity to stretch his programming skills. While hard work and ability played a huge part in his development, he would never have become the programmer he was without spending thousands of hours in front of a computer screen testing and honing his coding ability.

Look into the background of virtually all the big names of the IT industry – Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, Scott McNealy, Eric Schmidt – and you’ll almost certainly find the same story. You’ll also find something quite remarkable: all five of these industry gurus were born between 1954 and 1956.

Those dates are crucial. Any older, and upon graduating they’d have been hoovered up by the likes of IBM and trapped into the mainframe way of thinking. Any younger, and Gates et al have got their first.

Of course, hundreds of thousands of other children were born at this time too. What lifted Gates and the rest above all others was a combination of opportunity, hard work and ability. But without luck, and timing, neither he, Jobs, Ballmer, McNealy or Schmidt would have risen to their current dizzy heights.

*I admit that I have no evidence that Bill Gates was a pimply youth. I just like to believe it's true.