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The Harvard professor who taught Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg

This teacher tells what it was that distinguished these millionaires when they were students.

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This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process. Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg don't just share that they are two of the richest men in the world. The Microsoft boss is among the Top 5 of Forbes and his fortune is estimated at 127 billion dollars , while the wealth of the creator of Facebook amounts to 103 billion . They also have in common that during their time as students at Harvard they both received classes from Dr. Harry Lewis , a professor of computer science and mathematics.

Francois Lenoir | REUTERS / Jacqui Ipp

Encounter with a budding genius

According to a 2017 Forbes article, Lewis began his professorship at Harvard at the age of 26 after completing his doctorate in applied mathematics at the same institution. Two years later she met a young Bill Gates. It was 1976 and he decided to put his 122 Applied Mathematics students to the test and make them solve a complex problem: "the pancake problem," it's called. In a pile of pancakes of different sizes, the teacher asked them to turn them over and sort by size with the fewest possible movements and with the smallest “pancakes” on top. The class ended and no one found an answer.

Needless to say, in that room was Gates, who, despite having already started working on his personal project, Microsoft, along with Paul Allen, a few days later arrived unveiled before Lewis. He hadn't slept, but he had found a solution to the problem, one other than the professor's, he recalled as he recounted the experience to Forbes. Although the answer was not revolutionary, “it was much better than what others knew how to do. He clearly had a talent and he looked at that age, "he added.

According to Lewis, Gates wrote a paper on the "pancake problem" with another professor, Christos Papadimitriou, who also taught mathematics at Harvard, so he believes the billionaire may well have pursued an academic career. Lewis described him as a determined student "who liked puzzles, challenges, he liked to show people things that they couldn't do," he told the American media.

The famous teacher also recalled a time when he found Gates adjusting a clock on the wall of the classroom, so that the session would end earlier because he had a lot of code to write. This is how they were spent.

We already know how the Gates story ended. He did not dedicate himself to the academy; Now he is the richest man in the world and that is precisely because the determination that Lewis spoke of led him to continue working on the development of personal computers when everyone considered improving the functionality and speed of large computers as a priority. Numerous authoritative voices advised him, but Gates stuck to his idea.

6 degrees of separation of a multi-million dollar project

I jump to 2002, when Harry Lewis had Mark Zuckerberg as a student in Computer Science. A couple of years later, the professor received an email from the now famous creator of Facebook asking if he could use his name on a site he had created and which was originally called: "Six degrees towards Harry Lewis". Lewis's response? "Sure, it seems harmless," said the professor.

At the time he was unaware that his name was part of a precursor project of the famous social network that launched Zuckerberg to world fame. That site "allowed students to discover how far they were from me in the network created by linking names that appeared in the same story from the Crimson (Harvard's university newspaper)," he explained.

A few months later Zuckerberg changed the name of the site to TheFacebook.com, which was intended to track connections between students. It was only a matter of time before he left Harvard and moved to Silicon Valley to start his social empire. The rest is history. Today Facebook has 2 billion monthly users around the world.

However, Lewis disagrees with those who believe that the success stories of Gates and Zuckerberg demonstrate that a college education is unnecessary. In his opinion, both “were products of the best secondary education you can get. They were both very well educated before they came to Harvard, ”he concluded. Gates attended the prestigious Lakeside School in Seattle, while Zuckerberg was a boarding member of the Phillips Exeter Academy.

For Lewis, another differentiator of this pair of geniuses from other students is that they were hungry to develop projects and interests that were not being addressed at the university at that time and, therefore, they could not direct them or guide them in their technological adventures, because the same educational precinct was behind in the subjects. They must have made their own way.

Harry Lewis, now 70, announced his retirement in early 2017 for the month of July 2020. With just over two years in the classroom, he might as well give him time to mentor one more genius and another would-be millionaire.