Remembering Bill Gates


Today is Bill's last day at Microsoft, and I thought it would be fun to go back and trace some of my personal moments with that company. I have a handful of memories I'll carry with me to the grave, and in going over them, I'm kind of surprised that most of the truly big ones have something to do with Microsoft, and one of the biggest with Bill Gates himself.


So walk with me down memory lane for a moment.


My First Really Bad Business Decision


I don't know how many people do this, but I tend to remember my big life mistakes. When I first came out of Long Beach State University in the late '70s, I was recruited by the company that would later become Microsoft. It wasn't much at the time and I'd already accepted a job in my family's business. My grandfather, who had been a powerful CEO in the oil business, was outspoken about his opinion that I was making the wrong choice.


I sure proved him wrong. I mean, working for family is so much less stressful and so much more lucrative than working for a company like Microsoft. Founder stock at Microsoft? What's that worth when taken against the life lessons one gets from working with family? It makes for a much more memorable experience if the people you are working for are total ... Good thing I'm not bitter.


But, as a result, I followed Microsoft before it was ever my job to do so, and it gave me a connection, albeit a very tenuous one, to the company that goes back to its beginnings. And my butt has a mark from putting my own boot up it for years because of that decision.


My First Microsoft Competitive Impression


I was one of the leaders of a team at IBM tasked with spinning out IBM software. I had access to the largest research budget I'd ever been given (more than $4,000 in the early '90s -- real money). The result of all that research was that IBM could not effectively compete against Microsoft because hardware prevented the software unit from gaining the required multi-vendor economies of scale.


At the time, we were larger than Microsoft, but projections suggested that, if this economy-of-scale problem weren't fixed, Microsoft would pass IBM -- which it later did -- in a few short years. Of course, our own executives countered all this negativity with brilliant plans such as giving away OS/2 with cereal -- because we all know people will load and value operating systems if they compare the product to the crap you get for free in cereal boxes. The fact that they forgot they still had to pay Microsoft a license fee for every copy made the experience, well, special.


At the final go/no-go presentation, we were overruled because hardware didn't think they could survive without a dedicated software unit -- and the rest is history. I would later joke with Steve Ballmer that had we spun out, we would have kicked his butt. He has never thought that joke to be particularly funny, even though imagining someone who thought cereal was a good software-promotion model that could beat Microsoft should have been hilarious.


How Bill Gates Saved My Job


Just prior to Windows 95 going RTM, a major news service called and asked my opinion about launch of the product. They indicated they were going to violate a non-disclosure agreement to scoop the world. Without thinking (a practice I try to avoid these days) about it at length, I called Microsoft, concerned that such a breach would land us in what later would become the Martha Stewart memorial suite. This would result from the SEC going medieval on our collective butts. Microsoft stopped this news service; it then called and formally complained directly to the CEO of Dataquest, who subsequently moved to have me fired.


I love doing these things because they add that little extra spice to life. I mean, how often do you get fired by your CEO in person? Bill Gates, upon learning of my fate, wrote a personal letter explaining how I'd kept everyone out of jail by my actions. I later got an apology note from the reporter, who finally realized he and I likely would have been sharing a jail cell had this gone down as he had planned.


Since then, Steve Ballmer has twice gotten me into hot water and twice bailed me out. Every time I saw him, as a joke, I would convey my wife's gratitude that I still had my job, something he also didn't find particularly funny. I came to understand that Steve Ballmer, while a nice guy, has no real sense of humor.


My Most Amazing Day at Microsoft


The launch of Windows 95 was one of the most memorable days of my life. It didn't start out well, though. Microsoft had asked me to be in a video that would be played at the launch. Evidently, the firm it hired didn't know how to do blue screen work. They put me on a moving platform so the clouds on the backdrop would appear to be moving slowly behind my head as I talked. Then they asked me how Windows 95 -- and I kid you not -- was going to affect my sex life. Fortunately, Bill Gates himself killed that video or I would never have lived that down. I was a geek, so it was going to make my sex life so much better? I mean, the time Windows takes to boot gave me that extra time to actually have a sex life.


The event was perfect, the clouds at Microsoft looked exactly like the clouds on the Windows 95 box, and the excitement was as if we were at a major political rally or sports event. It was actually more powerful than most of the Apple events and the only Microsoft event I've ever been to that came close to what Apple does regularly in terms of building excitement. Every aspect of the event I saw was Steve Jobs perfect -- and that is something. I left knowing I had likely participated in something I would never see again. Of course, this was topped by an ex-IBM employee who, working for Microsoft, decided to busy out the support lines so that the large number of people calling in for help would have a "special" experience. Certainly, listening to the busy signal was just so much better than listening to hold music, and it did make the support statistics look so much better.


Wrapping Up


Since Windows 95, I've followed Microsoft very closely and still wonder how much my life, and Microsoft itself, would be altered had my initial decision been different. I think I might have brought a little more fun to the company and probably then gotten myself fired for it in the first several weeks. Who knows, Microsoft Bob might have been named after me!


Bill is still with us and I thought it would be good to express my gratitude for his help in making me what I am today and saving my butt when it needed saving. My experiences with Microsoft and Bill will be with me always and we often forget to share that until someone is gone. I hope I'll see Bill again, but until then I wanted to express my gratitude for his meaningful part in my life. And someday, if fortunes are with me, Steve Ballmer will smile at one of my jokes. Yes, I too dream of the impossible.


Good luck, Bill!