As a child, Mark Zuckerberg idolized Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, he said at a TechCrunch event in San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon.
The remark came after TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington asked Zuckerberg whether he thought Gates would return to Microsoft as chief executive now that Steve Ballmer is stepping down. Zuckerberg demurred, but then added, "When I was growing up, Bill Gates was my hero."
Arrington feigned surprise. "Really, Bill Gates?" he asked. "He's like Darth Vader. He's not Luke Skywalker—he's the bad guy!"
Zuckerberg pushed back. "No he is not. He built and ran one of the most mission-driven companies I can think of. Right now it's less mission-focused than it used to be. But when I was growing up, Microsoft had this great mission: to put a computer on every desktop, in every office" and home. There are companies, Zuckerberg added, that define themselves by their way of doing things, like Hewlett-Packard. And then "there are companies that define themselves by making a concrete change in the world. Microsoft did that. I have an incredible amoung of respect for them doing that. And he pushed that. ... It was an incredibly inspiring company."
Gates, he concluded, is "one of the greatest visionaries that our industry has ever had." Unfortunately, he added, the company has "lost focus over the years."
Arrington's initial surprise is understandable. Born in 1984, Zuckerberg grew up in the 1990s, a time when Microsoft was the dominant force in the tech world but was viewed by many as a corporate behemoth using its monopolistic power to smother innovative upstarts like Netscape. On the other hand, the precocious Zuckerberg might well have formed an attachment to the company at a young age, when it was still in the midst of its rise, and when Gates was just emerging as the prototypical billionaire-nerd-hero. Zuckerberg's admiration for his fellow Harvard dropout might also explain why the Facebook CEO has recently taken up the ambitious goal of getting everyone in the world connected to the Internet.
Besides, did anyone really expect Zuckerberg to be the type to root for the underdog?