Sunday, March 17, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest People

Recipe For Nathan Myhrvold -- Take One Fine Physicist, Add A Dash Of Leonardo Da Vinci, A Pinch Of Paul Bocuse, And Sprinkle With Generous Amounts Of The Good Life

To: Scott McNealy CEO, Sun Microsystems Inc.

From: Tom Farrey Re: Your competition

Cc: Pacific Magazine

You're going to love this, big fella.

You know how Microsoft is scrambling these days to respond to the threat of the Internet and particularly your new software language that brings animation and a range of other cool features to the 'net, Java. As a computer executive in Silicon Valley, you've watched as Netscape and the Justice Department and just about everyone else in the Western Hemisphere tries to take down that little empire in Redmond. And I know you've heard Bill Gates prattle on about how success is a terrible teacher, that Microsoft can't afford to get soft now, that it needs to stay competitive and focused in this rapidly evolving industry.

Well, the guy might not be paranoid after all.

I have found someone who is having way too much fun to be working at Microsoft. He has far too many hobbies, remains far too committed to his family and spends far too much time in his kitchen, particularly, to possibly live up to the Microsoft credo: "I do not have a life outside of computers."

The odd part is this person is one of the company's top lieutenants - Nathan Myhrvold, 36, whom Gates last year promoted to vice president of applications and content, a group responsible for more than $3 billion in annual revenues. The group includes many of the company's most important ventures, including Microsoft Office and the recent partnership with NBC to produce interactive news online and through cable.

Just as important, this is the guy who's charged with telling Gates what the future holds for computing. As chief technologist at Microsoft, he oversees a group of 100 researchers who spend a couple hundred million dollars a year trying to anticipate and create new products that will keep the company relevant at a time when some analysts believe Microsoft is losing its iron grip on the industry.

Gates told me, "Nathan has a huge impact on the overall strategy of the company. At Nathan's level we make huge bets about where we are going to focus our innovation. Nathan has helped steer us in the right direction from the moment he got here."

Perhaps, but where's Myhrvold now? The last time I checked he was on the December cover of Wine Enthusiast magazine. You don't get on the cover of Wine Enthusiast magazine without knowing wine, and you don't know wine unless you spend time with it. Last year found Myhrvold in France, touring wineries in the Bordeaux region. The group he was with tasted 40 varieties in two days, then later were given five more wines and asked to identify the one they had already tasted, plus the name of the label. Myhrvold was the only one to get it right.

He didn't develop these sensibilities by slurping free Coke 'round the clock at the Microsoft cafeteria.

The thing is, wine is like No. 68 on his list of favorite hobbies. Nature photography, bungee jumping, formula-car racing, mountain climbing, skydiving, cosmology, fossil collecting, gourmet cooking - you name it, the guy's into it. As his brother Cameron says, "You couldn't catalog all the things that he's interested in."

You wouldn't believe his house on Lake Washington that he's renovating. Well, maybe you cyber barons would. But you wouldn't believe his kitchen, where he sometimes spends a half-day preparing a meal for friends and co-workers. He has a custom-made French stove, a baking oven with heated brick floor to simulate the old-style bread ovens, a proofer for letting bread dough rise, a rotisserie, a steam-convection oven, and a $5,000 Swiss-engineered ice-cream maker that most world-class chefs would die for.

While talking about his toys in public, he's had people interrupt and ask where they can find his restaurant.

Then he laughs - this big, cheeks-to-the-sky laugh that would otherwise disrupt the neighbors except that he sounds like Mickey Mouse.

When he isn't making Seattle's best vanilla ice cream, he can be found at the French restaurant Rover's in Madison Valley, where - hold on to your Pentium here, Scott - he works as an assistant chef. Yes, he moonlights! And do you know what he does there at night when he could be at Microsoft, helping the company become even more obscenely rich? He cuts scallions and de-bones rabbits, and if he's reee-ally lucky he gets to drip the vegetable-extract yellow and red dots on the rims of the plates that hold the masterpieces created by chef Thierry Rautureau. Not exactly glamorous stuff, but Myhrvold is just happy to be there, amid what he considers genius.

"I love great ideas and theorizing and purely intellectual pursuits, but cooking is very down to earth," he says. "It is very much about creating something. There's a joy in making something, whether you're building a deck or whatever. One of the great things about cooking is that you combine lots of arcane, interesting knowledge, and planning, and selecting the right ingredients. But you also have to be right down to the second. You can't just sit there and sort of puzzle it and undo it. People are waiting for dinner, and you're cooking like crazy back there, so there's certainly a performance aspect. It's the most ephemeral of the performing arts."

Myhrvold spent three weeks last year at La Varenne, the Parisian cooking school for professional chefs. My intelligence shows he also makes regular side trips when on business to some of the best restaurants in the world. From Switzerland he drove a half-day into the lake district of Italy, just to have lunch at a restaurant known for its foie gras carpaccio (marinated in olive oil and served with walnuts and chopped apple). He found it so good he literally dropped his fork in sheer bliss.

Scott, this is clearly someone who uses all five senses, not just those required to interact with a computer. Can you imagine?

NOW, I SUPPOSE IT'S hard to say whether this Renaissance Man lifestyle prevents him from getting his job done. He writes about 200 e-mails a day, and we're not talking simple answers here but long, thoughtful analyses. As Gates told me, "I once asked an executive why they didn't write many memos pointing out the value of some of Nathan's memos. His response was that he was too busy trying to catch up on reading all the things Nathan had written."

Gates seemed humored when he related that story, but I'm not sure he knows the content of all those memos. For instance, check the Oct. 2, 1995, edition of Fortune magazine. He went to New York to talk to the editors of the magazine about software, but they got sidetracked and ended up publishing a hilarious, magazine-length memo that he wrote to co-workers on . . . his two-week trip through Montana in a Hummer! You know, one of those military jeeps made famous in Desert Storm.

And I suppose Gates figures Myhrvold poured all of his energies last year into helping write "The Road Ahead," the book they co-wrote with journalist Peter Rinearson.

Indeed not. When he wasn't keystroking memos or books, he was preparing for meetings with the National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council, the private-sector advisory committee that helped shape President Clinton's communications agenda. Or he was recruiting to his research division an array of famous, creative talent, such as computer scientists Gordon Bell and Butler Lampson.

If Gates isn't careful, the company might actually gain a reputation in the industry for innovation, rather than just marketing and business acumen/bully tactics. Myhrvold's already earned the respect of Digital Era intelligentsia who otherwise argue that Microsoft has done little with the information highway except capitalize on it.

Rarely has the company developed anything as compelling, for instance, as Java, which makes it easy for weather reports and news events and a full range of other information to scroll across a computer screen.

"Microsoft is behind in basic research," said Nicholas Negroponte, director of the renowned Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "They have taken more from the field than they have given back. Nathan is very likely to correct this. Just look at the people they have attracted in the past year!"

Myhrvold's diversity of life experiences helped draw these people, said Linda Stone, a children's librarian and multi-media developer at Apple before joining Microsoft at Myhrvold's request.

"Nathan scratched this (research) division out from nothing and he's attracted a range of people who never would have thought of going to Microsoft," Stone said. "He's shown he's interested in doing things in ways Microsoft doesn't ordinarily do things."

Translation: Not every project is evaluated through the lens of a bean counter.

CONSIDERING HIS background, it figures that Myhrvold would head a unit where the pursuit of knowledge is paramount. Born in Seattle but raised in Santa Monica, Calif., he literally grew up on the information highway - or as close as there was to such a thing in the 1960s. On the same street as his home was a branch library, where he spent a lot of time as a child while his mother, a swimsuit model-turned-schoolteacher, tried to make ends meet for the family.

"After I exhausted that branch I had to go to the main library in downtown Santa Monica," he says. "Eventually I exhausted that, too, and I would take the bus for an hour and a half to the main library in downtown Los Angeles."

"He would come back with as many books as he could carry," says his younger brother Cameron, now a Microsoft programmer. "It was not uncommon for him to have 50 to 100 library books out at one time."

Nathan's curiosity was voracious. He built a radio telescope to find black holes, and a catapult to launch rocks 100 feet, and a parafoil kite that was strong enough to lift their dog, a cockapoo. He made a model rocket powerful enough to drive it several feet into the ground, and a super-8 movie with home equipment. One time he and Cameron took apart mom's Chevrolet Monte Carlo, then put it back together again, just for the heck of it.

For a while Nathan was fascinated with fungus. Then he got into hydroponic plants, to see how large he could grow tomatoes - and tomato worms. At other times it was reptiles, or rare breeds of tropical fish, and later, painting. He got quite good with watercolors and egg tempera, the two-dimensional, gold-leaf style of painting popular in the 14th century.

He graduated high school at age 14 after persuading the principal to waive a requirement that students take driver's education. Then he got five more degrees, at the University of California at Los Angeles and Princeton. Obviously still undereducated, he took a postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge University in London to work with Stephen Hawking on research in cosmology, quantum field theory in curved space time, and quantum theories of gravitation.

IN OTHER WORDS, he knows a bunch of things we don't.

Like, how computing isn't nearly as advanced as perceived. He says, "Computer science is where physics was 200 years ago. If you're a physics student, by the time you get an undergraduate degree you're up to the 1930s, you've learned quantum physics. You don't get into the present day until you get into graduate school. It's a very deep topic. But in computer science you can be at the state of the art very rapidly. The field's only a few years old - 25 years, 40 years maximum."

And yet, he says, "Computer science is the closest the world has ever come to magic. If the classical notion of a magician or sorcerer is someone who by counting a few spells or procedures imposes their will on the physical world - bolts of lightning flash, people levitate and things happen - well, computing is the smallest distance between an abstract thought and a tangible reality. All you have to do is think it up, and if you grit your teeth and write it down in an anal-compulsive way (i.e., programming code) and you test it and get the bugs out, then suddenly you've created something enormously tangible, something that can affect the lives of millions of people!

"And that's very cool. That's something physics doesn't have."

Scott, Myhrvold is the Internet. Talking to him is like surfing the Web, clicking from one information-rich site to another. It's doubtful that the words, "I don't know the answer to that," have ever fallen from his mouth, and not necessarily because he's arrogant. He simply has a depth of knowledge on an extraordinary array of subjects. Even more important, as reflects his physics training, he knows how things work, how they got the way they are and where they're going because he understands their fundamental properties.

The guy isn't perfect. A few years ago he helped position Microsoft behind interactive television, and, instead, the Internet became the Next Great Thing. But he learned a few things in the process. Only time will tell if his current take on the future of online news pans out, but he's certainly had to do a lot of thinking about it as part of the deal that created MSNBC, the Microsoft-NBC joint venture.

"Ultimately, the online medium is as different as radio and TV or as either one of those are from print, or as different as a daily newspaper is from a weekly news magazine," he says. "The goal for us isn't cannibalizing the old media. The goal is providing something that you couldn't get before. TV didn't kill radio or print, but it provided something it never had - moving pictures right there, on the scene. Cool, but different. Online, and I believe totally in its future, MSNBC and these other companies will only be successful and hit their stride insofar as they provide things people couldn't have gotten any other way. They need to create the sense that, `I gotta have this.' "

MYHRVOLD, WHO MOVED to Redmond in 1986 when Gates bought out a small company he had started, is often called the smartest guy at Microsoft. But you'll be glad to know that the company captures no more than 10 to 12 of his waking, thinking hours each day. Instead of being myopic about software, he's at home cooking buffalo-meat dinners for his twin boys during Native American heritage week at school, or jumping out of planes in the Swiss Alps, or bungee jumping for United Way, or helping his team win the world championship of barbecue.

I almost forgot to tell you about that one. Several years ago he got excited about barbecue and tried to order a custom-made, stainless-steel cooker from renowned pitmaster John Willingham. But Willingham wouldn't make it for him because stainless steel, although necessary in Seattle's weather, doesn't hold heat as well as iron.

"But how much would it cost, if you made it?" Myhrvold said to him at the time.

"I don't know, $8,000 - but I'm not going to make it for you," Willingham responded, in his Deep Southern drawl.

The next day, Willingham got a check for $2,000 in the overnight mail and a phone call that night from Myhrvold. But Willingham still wouldn't agree to build it.

The next day, another $2,000 check arrived. And another phone call.

The day after that, another $2,000 check. And another phone call.

Upon receiving his fourth check in four days, Willingham finally gave in, but with one caveat: that Myhrvold come to Memphis to learn how to use the cooker. Next thing Myhrvold knew, he was wearing an apron and standing on a barbecue trailer at "Memphis in May," a competition that draws up to 250,000 spectators to the banks of the Mississippi. As a member of the team Willingham had assembled for the event, he was put in charge of the "pasta" category, and Myhrvold came up with "Coffee Pot Fettucine" because he cooked it in a 63-year-old coffee pot belonging to Willingham's parents. He also assisted on an ostrich dish that won the "anything-but-pork" category.

"The judges came unstuck," Willingham told me. "They couldn't believe they were eating fettucine and ostrich."

First prize to the computer guy. HOO-boy, now how 'bout that!

Makes you wonder if he can beat a good cup of Java.

Tom Farrey, a former reporter for The Seattle Times, is now an editor at Starwave Corp., which publishes ESPNET SportsZone. Harley Soltes is Pacific Magazine's photographer.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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