After flying in space twice, Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi follows his passion: whiteboards

Charles Simonyi
Microsoft’s Charles Simonyi takes a deep dive into software naming conventions during a Hacker News Seattle Meetup. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Billionaire software executive Charles Simonyi spent tens of millions of dollars on trips to the International Space Station, but something completely different gets him up in the morning nowadays: going to work at Microsoft to create a better digital whiteboard.

The 71-year-old Microsoft veteran confessed his love of whiteboards on Wednesday evening during a Hacker News Seattle Meetup.

“Is it the most important thing in the world? Probably not,” he told the standing-room crowd. “Is it important that we all do the most important thing in the world? I don’t know.”

Simonyi’s work on whiteboards is an outgrowth of his Intentional Software office productivity venture, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2017. Microsoft Whiteboard is the first app scheduled to come from the team that Simonyi now heads, which is called Intentional Exploration. (They’re hiring, by the way.)

Even though his net worth is estimated at $4 billion, Simonyi said he still goes to work every day. It’s obviously not that he needs the money. Simonyi told the Hacker News Seattle audience that it’s important for him to keep following his passion  in software development and in other matters.

Simonyi’s current stint at Microsoft brings his passion around full circle. He’s credited with creating some of Microsoft’s most successful products, including Word and Excel. In 2002, he left the company to found Intentional Software in Bellevue, Wash. And in 2007 and 2009, he took time off to travel to the space station as a private spaceflight participant. (One of the Russian Soyuz capsules that he rode to and from orbit is now on display at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery.)

Space and software aren’t Simonyi’s only interests: Over the course of 10 years, he contributed $100 million to charitable causes ranging from the Seattle Public Library to New York’s Metropolitan Opera and New Jersey’s Institute for Advanced Study.

Several times during Wednesday’s presentation, attendees asked Simonyi for advice on creating successful software startups. He said he’d probably focus on something other than a whiteboard if he were starting out today. “If I were young, I would look into AI, and I would look into quantum computing,” he said.

In his view, the important thing is to find a passion, learn everything possible about that passion, and then be ready to go after a business opportunity when it presents itself. “Preparation meets opportunity,” he said.

But he also advised entrepreneurs to know their limits, The classic saying about persistence — “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” — can take you only so far.

“Try twice, and then try something else,” Simonyi said.

Check out the Facebook video stream from the Hacker News Seattle Meetup.

Meetup Livestream — Billionaire space tourist creator of Microsoft Word and Excel Charles Simonyi ????

Posted by Timothy Kitchen on Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Organizers of the monthly Hacker News Seattle Meetup include Vlad Mkrtumyan, CEO of Logic Inbound; Jasper Kuria, managing partner of The Conversion Wizards; and Timothy Kitchen, co-founder of Thunderpenny. Full disclosure: Back in 2007, GeekWire’s Alan Boyle wrote a tour guide for Simonyi’s first spaceflight as a freelance project.

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