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11/18/2005
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Q&A: Bill Gates On Supercomputing, Software In Science, And More

Bill Gates talks to InformationWeek about how work done at Microsoft Research can apply to science, medicine, and engineering; how more powerful desktop processors can improve user interfaces; and his evolving role at Microsoft.

InformationWeek: What would you say the percentage of hires today in the research and development part of Microsoft is from non-computer science or non-computer engineering disciplines? Do you see that proportion changing over the next few years?

Gates: Well, you're never going to be very statistical about that, because the very brightest people often study in multiple fields. I never took any of the computer science classes at Harvard that most people take, because I'd had exposure to computers before I got there. I never went near the people; I was like, "Hey, I already did that stuff years ago." So I was taking physiological psychology and economics. I never got a degree, but if you look at my course sign-up, you wouldn't think I was a software person at all. And often there are very great people who want to look at these different areas. Nathan Myhrvold, who founded our research group, was more of a physicist, but he's a brilliant software person. Now he's like a patent lawyer. But he's multifaceted.

We hire tons of people like Horvitz and Heckerman. In fact, we're always on the lookout for somebody who loves software but knows it so well they're seeing how it can be applied in different ways. In an interview process, it's one of the best things to ask somebody about some problem that they're working on that they're passionate about, to see their depth of understanding and how they go about it, rather than asking them some very specific questions. You take the area where they have let themselves put a lot into it, whether it's a big computer problem, or some problem in the sciences that they think software can apply to. More and more, because personal computing is available and they have these departments, the majority of our people who actually come in and write code have some type of computer science degree. If you go back historically, a lot of computer schools didn't even have computer-science degree. In fact, it's still kind of confusing, is it the department of engineering, or is it mathematics--where does it all fit? I'd have to ask Jim Gray, but did he ever take an astronomy course, or did he just start reading the books? I never thought of him as an astronomer, I thought of him as a database guru pretty much. But supercapable people are often like that.

InformationWeek: Maybe I can shift gears a little bit and talk about coming computing trends. To what extent is this high-performance computing development and outreach a play for the technical market, and how would you balance that in importance compared with this world in which multiple cores on a chip will be important to getting advances in mainstream computing power?

Gates: Those two things really go together. There's the ability to use lots of computers at different levels of granularity. Inside the very microprocessor itself, we're going to have more and more cores. We're at two to four right now, and seven years from now we'll be more at the 16 to 64 level of cores, often with many threads. So a lot of these techniques that come from supercomputing will be applied, certainly in the server, but even in a desktop-type machine. We got into technical computing because it's a big enough field for us, in terms of the software opportunity, to justify that alone. It's very exciting for us, because a lot of the issues around automatic management and developing software that can be more easily parallelized come along with it. But there are plenty of servers out there being used for compute clusters to make that a worthy business focus for us.

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