Paul Allen, the Quiet Billionaire with Fingerprints All Over Seattle, Shows the Hometown Crowd a Bit of Himself

4/25/11Follow @curtwoodward

Even in his hometown, Paul Allen can seem like an enigma. His influence is everywhere, from sports teams to politics to real estate development. But because of his famously private ways, Allen is only occasionally seen and very rarely heard.

That made last Friday’s long public interview at Town Hall an interesting event. It was part of the publicity tour for Allen’s new autobiography, “Idea Man,” which already has garnered significant national press coverage. With that backdrop, many in the audience surely had a good idea of the headline material from the book itself: High school and startup days with Bill Gates, and semi-shocking tales of his co-founder’s ruthlessness in business.

So perhaps the most revealing thing about this appearance was the sense you could get of Paul Allen as an actual person, not some impossibly rich abstraction who builds crazy-looking museums, owns enormous yachts, and loses vast sums of money on investments.

“As everybody knows, I’m a pretty private person and I don’t do a whole lot of this. So I may not be here next year,” Allen said with a faux-sarcastic tone, drawing laughs from the audience.

I did sense that people weren’t quite sure what kind of guy he’d be at the beginning. Would he be stilted and geeky? Off-putting and too private? But the audience warmed up to Allen pretty quickly, helped along by his humorous asides and generally relaxed bearing.

Seattle is forever stuck with a little-brother mindset, not wanting to rocket past its slower small-town roots but also carrying a chip on its shoulder about not quite measuring up as a great American metropolis. People who live here want their representatives to be world-class, iconoclastic, giving, and not too stuffy. I thought Allen gave them some of what they were looking for.

The main message that came through, one that others have found in the book, is that Allen sees himself as a big-picture creative thinker—I guess the title “Idea Man” gives that away pretty quickly. In his Microsoft days, he portrays that quality as the necessary leavening element to Gates’ hard-driving, relentlessly focused business sense and work ethic.

“I basically get very, very excited about the creative process and creating things and having ideas,” Allen told interviewer Todd Bishop, of GeekWire. “When you see those ideas realized, it’s just a wonderfully rewarding thing.”

Although the autobiography is pretty clearly aimed at getting more credit for the success and innovations of Microsoft’s early days, Allen acknowledged that big ideas aren’t much use without the right team of people to make things happen. He also said there was a bit of luck involved in Microsoft’s genesis, given the development in the 1970s of cheaper microprocessors, software languages and kit computers. But he did emphasize the idea part of the equation, which is where he sees his own strength.

“The first thing you start with is the idea,” Allen said. “To get to the idea, my approach has always been—this may seem a little random, but it’s just to stuff your brain with as much information … as your brain can stand. And then I’m just lucky enough to, once in a while, see a connection between two things like microchips and software. And in this case, the BASIC language, which is what Microsoft’s first product was.”

Allen said he doesn’t delve into programming anymore, but still finds ways to seek out the creative elements that he enjoyed from that work in music, investments, philanthropy, or even writing the autobiography.

“Do I miss it a little bit? Sometimes. But just doing the book, it brought me back to that craftsmanship, that wordsmithing and everything. There’s a real singular reward and joy. Are there any programmers here?” Allen asked the crowd. When a few hands shot up, he let out an enthusiastic “Hey!”

“It’s a lot of fun. And when it’s three in the morning, and you’re bleary-eyed, and you finally find that damn bug that’s been screwing everything up for months, with your manager breathing down your neck—or your partner. Just kidding, just kidding—It’s really rewarding.”

Asked what kind of advice he’d have for Microsoft today, Allen offered a line of thought that critics of the Redmond, WA-based behemoth have mentioned many times.

“The PC was a new platform. So when these new platforms come into existence … you have to recognize those and jump on the opportunity and be competitive as fast as you can. And I think Microsoft is trying its best to address those now, but they are trying to creep up and match the competition that’s already got a very strong presence in the iPhone and Google’s Android,” Allen said. “These new platforms are key, and you have to have the agility. You can’t miss the opportunity and let others own that opportunity. I think Microsoft is pulling out all the stops now, as far as I understand from talking to people there, to try to recapture those opportunities.”

Asked about his yachts, Allen jokingly said: “They’re too big and there are too many of them. Do I need to say anything else?” He then described something most people won’t ever experience: Being surprised by the enormity of his custom-made mega-yacht, the Octopus.

“The biggest yacht that I have basically accommodates a submarine. And what these guys do, these captains, they’ll say, ‘Paul, we know you want to build a bigger boat. And here’s a model.’ It’s about this big,” he said, indicating about the size of a loaf of bread. “And the submarine goes in the back here. And it’s going to be pretty good-sized. And then they start building it, and you go to Germany and you see it, and you go, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s really big.’ No, no—it’s enormous.”

Perhaps Allen’s biggest applause of the night came when he described what it was like to dive in the ship’s submarine—a line that certainly appealed to his fellow children of the ’60s. “It turns out if you go 1,000 feet down in the ocean, it’s really dark. And the animals are really strange. But if you put on some Pink Floyd, it’s fantastic.”

Allen described himself several times as someone who likes to look ahead for what the future of computing will hold for the world. One of his key recent projects, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, furthers that goal by using the convergence of computing power and medical research to unlock secrets about the brain and find new treatments.

After helping to change the way modern life is conducted with Microsoft, it sounded like Allen is aiming for a second major mark on history with brain research—something close to home, as his mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

“I remember, when the millionth PC shipped, I just thought, ‘There’s a million people out there maybe using my code.’ And it was such a rewarding feeling,” Allen said. “You just hope that [with] something like the Brain Institute, 20 to 50 years from now there’s earlier treatments for disease, we could really understand how the brain works. Some of these things are hugely interesting and rewarding to think about.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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