Microsoft 71-year-old billionaire Charles Simonyi still goes to work

Key Points
  • Charles Simonyi, 71 and a billionaire, has been working on an app called Microsoft Whiteboard.
  • Earlier in his career Simonyi, led the development of Microsoft's Word and Excel programs.
U.S. billionaire Charles Simonyi speaks at a press conference outside Moscow in Star City on April 10, 2009.
Dmitry Kostyukov | AFP | Getty Images)

Charles Simonyi is a 71-year-old billionaire who has been to space twice. He still goes to work.

Simonyi helped Microsoft launch major software products during two decades at the company. He left to build a start-up, which Microsoft acquired nearly three years ago.

Now, he's one of the most decorated figures among the 151,000 people Microsoft employs today.

"I came from work here," Simonyi said at a meetup in Seattle on Wednesday. "And I'm going back to work tomorrow. So I am working. That gives meaning to me. It gives meaning to my existence. And I think I'm working on something where I can contribute a lot, where I have a lot of experience, and I will continue it."

He said he's been building an application called Microsoft Whiteboard, a digital version of a whiteboard where several people can draw and write.

"It's not quite as good as it will be," he said.

A fellow audience member at the meetup asked Simonyi how he chooses what to focus on. He talked about the importance of being passionate about a subject and becoming an expert. He brought up his current preoccupation with whiteboards as an example.

"I know a fair amount, and I'm fairly well prepared, so that's what I'm focusing on," said Simonyi, who is a technical fellow running the Intentional Exploration group at Microsoft, according to his LinkedIn profile. The group is part of the Experiences and Devices organization that includes Word and Excel, and a part of Windows.

"Is it the most important thing in the world? Probably not. Is it important that we all do the most important thing in the world? I don't know," he said. "I'm sure I'm not good at many other things."

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Simonyi, a Hungarian immigrant whose net worth is estimated at $3.9 billion, joined Microsoft in 1981, a year before he became a U.S. citizen. He flew on the International Space Station in 2007 and in 2009.

At Microsoft, he led the development of two of Microsoft's most popular applications, Word and Excel, both now part of Microsoft's Office software suite, which had 1.2 billion users as of 2016.

Before arriving at Microsoft, Simonyi helped build Bravo word processing software at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, the lab known as Xerox PARC that gave birth to the graphical user interface and other technologies.

He recognized that a computer revolution was coming, and he was convinced that Xerox would not be the one to make it happen, he said.

"Don't ask me how. But I had had lots of experience with the environment there, and then I met Bill [Gates], and it clicked," Simonyi said of his decision to join Microsoft.

Simonyi left Microsoft in 2002 and founded Intentional Software, a start-up that worked on technology that could help develop new productivity applications. Microsoft bought Intentional for an undisclosed sum in 2017, bringing Simonyi back into the fold.

During Wednesday's discussion he briefly touched on intentional programming, a software-development concept that he has espoused for decades and is well-known for. It's a concept he thinks will be used more broadly in the future.

"I hope the notion of the technologies I mentioned, especially the one where you express your intent declaratively — I think it will have a wider effect, and that certainly would mean I'd like that to be part of my contribution," he said.

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