Bill Gates Says He Didn’t Have to Drop Out of Harvard to Start Microsoft

In a Q&A at Harvard this week, the tech pioneer says he could have finished his degree without changing the course of history.

Bill Gates must have given everyone in the audience at Harvard a smug sense of vindication—certainly he’s delighted the news media—by sheepishly admitting that the “Ctrl+Alt+Del” keystroke we use to log into Windows “was a mistake.”

Gates was speaking at the kickoff event for Harvard’s new capital campaign when David Rubenstein, co-chair of the fundraising effort, rather bluntly asked him the same question your perplexed mother likely asked you when you taught her to log into her computer for the seventh time:

“Why, when I want to turn on my software and computer, do I need to have three fingers: control, alt, delete?” Rubenstein asked. “Whose idea was that?”

Gates shifted a bit in his seat before getting down to it:

So we could have had a single button, but the guy who did the IBM keyboard design didn’t want to give us our single button. And so we had, we programmed at a low level that you had to… It was a mistake.

That last part got cheers from his audience.

It wasn’t all mea culpas though. Gates gave an hour-long, wide-ranging Q&A with Rubenstein, where he also discussed the advantages Microsoft gained over Apple in those early years by licensing their software to other hardware companies like IBM rather than building the computers themselves. IBM may have forced ctrl+alt+del on them, but it also allowed Windows to become the default software worldwide.

He also revisited the decision to leave Harvard a year early to found Microsoft. It’s a story that’s become semi-mythical, especially when compounded by the success of fellow Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg. He defended the decision, saying it seemed in the moment that that his idea for a company was time-sensitive and he needed to start it right away. But he did admit that in retrospect, that calculus probably didn’t matters as much as he imagined:

It turns out that the urgency we felt, that if we hadn’t started in 1979, if we’d waited and started in 1980 or 1981, because of the way we thought about the problem, because we were so software oriented and most companies weren’t focused on software. People did software sort of as a side deal, because they had to. But hardware was what you paid all the money for. Software just came free. So we, in fact, although we felt like we had to do it that day, an extra year would have been okay. It wouldn’t have changed the course of history to hang out another year.

That said, given the way things worked out, it doesn’t seem like he has too many regrets about leaving us early. If you’ve got an hour this weekend, definitely give the talk a watch: