I recently became engrossed in the many obituaries of H. Edward Roberts, founder of Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems (MITS), who died April 1. Roberts invented the MITS Altair 8800 in the mid-1970s, often characterized as the world’s first personal computer.
It wasn’t so much that Roberts beat both Apple and IBM to the punch with his pioneering PC that interested me. Nor was it the fact that he walked away from the industry he helped create to spend three decades as a country doctor in Georgia. (A colorful man, no doubt). What struck me was the fact that both Bill Gates and Paul Allen—whose company, Microsoft, was based on the programming language product they wrote for the Altair 8800—so quickly and publicly acknowledged Roberts as their mentor.
The New York Times obituary provided detail of Gates’ reconciliation with Dr. Roberts in the final months of his life, including Gates’ visit to Roberts’ bedside in Georgia eight days before he passed away. In a joint statement on Bill Gates’ Web site, Gates and Allen said, “Ed was willing to take a chance on us—two young guys interested in computers long before they were commonplace—and we have always been grateful to him.” That’s some pretty powerful stuff.
After thirty-one years as a business historian, I’m embarrassed to admit how little attention I’ve given to the impact of mentors and mentoring in shaping the course of my clients’ histories. Not that I haven’t witnessed great examples of guidance throughout the years. I once conducted a series of oral histories that included two succeeding CEOs, whose tenure spanned almost thirty years of the organization’s greatest growth and profitability. Each CEO described a point in his career when, frustrated with his progress, he very seriously considered leaving the company. In each case, a respected senior member of the leadership team approached the CEO—almost magically, each recalled—and provided the personal encouragement he needed to stay the course. I don’t think either of the CEOs ever shared this story with the other. And I’m fairly sure no one else in the organization knows about the unsung hero who I believe fundamentally impacted the course of the company’s history.
Why don’t people know this story? Why doesn’t every corporate history book have a chapter on great mentors in the organization’s history? Moving forward, I plan to incorporate questions about the influence of a mentor in each oral history I conduct. After all, how can organizations celebrate great mentors in the workplace if no one knows who these individuals are?
Fortunately for the IT industry, Bill Gates and Paul Allen have set the record historical straight.