How Bill Gates has changed how you work

Today is Bill Gates’ last day as a full-time Microsoft employee. He’ll continue on as Chairman of the board, but it seems like a good day to reflect on the impact that the PC revolution, Internet revolution, and Mobility revolution have had on our everyday lives.

Back in November 1979, Paul Henson, Chairman of United Telecom (the company that would become Sprint) gave a speech to the Midwest Research Institute. The full speech is available here. Reading through Mr. Henson’s description of the work environment at a telecom company in the late 1970s gives us a pretty striking picture of how dramatically our work has been changed by PCs, the Internet, and Mobility.

Here are a few excerpts:

  • “You all know, and probably utilize, the time-honored practice of dictation with a secretary typing the letter after it has been drafted a couple of times and you have done some editing.”
  • “You may not realize that only 28% of all business calls are completed to the intended person on the first attempt. … We could solve that problem by sending hard copy, instantly, to the desk of somebody you want to communicate with – after you’ve tried your call, of course. If you don’t find your party in or available to talk, hit another button and have the hard copy transmitted. We’re working on it!”
  • “One wonders why in the world American business has tolerated this level of productivity in the white collar sector… I suspect it’s probably because some of those of us who call ourselves managers never thought it appropriate for us to learn how to use a typewriter or a cathode ray tube so that we could correct correspondence, speech drafts, and other hard copy material instead of asking secretaries or assistants to do so.”
  • “What will emerge is the so-called ‘office of the future.’ … It is going to revolutionize the way we do business, the way we communicate with our branch offices and our other business associates. We will be using a typewriter keyboard or reading information displayed on a cathode ray tube instead of dictating and typing those letters and mailing them out in neat little envelopes, wondering if they ever will be delivered!”

The revolution that Chairman Henson predicted is exactly what has happened over the past thirty years. Today, we can’t imagine dictation or typewriters or even cathode ray tubes in our offices. We can’t imagine “sending hardcopy” at a touch of a button as a futuristic concept that is hard to describe. We can’t imagine a world without voice mail (a capability also enabled by computer technology). And yet, it was reality not too long ago.

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