When people find out I work at Microsoft, they always ask the same question: Have I ever met Bill Gates? The answer is yes, but it was only by accident. My office is just across the street from Bill Gates’, but it might as well be across the globe because I never see him there. I know, I know. He’s a busy guy. He’s in Redmond one day and Japan the next. But you’d think after a few years, day in and day out, I’d at least get a glimpse of the guy as he walks out to his Ferrari or orders a cappuccino at the cafeteria. It hasn’t happened.
But about a year ago, I was at a software show in Seattle and the place was packed. Feeling a little claustrophobic, I headed over to a place I knew no one would be: the keyboard display. Now I don’t mean to belittle the fine people who design and create keyboards-I’m sure keyboards are an interesting technology unto themselves. But let’s face it, most PC users don’t think about a keyboard until it stops working. Sure enough, only two guys were standing at the keyboard display. It just happened that one of the guys was Bill Gates.
At first, I thought it might be a Gates clone, no shortage of which are roaming Seattle. Guys who think that they, too, will become richer than most countries if they wear thick glasses and refuse to comb their hair. But no, this was Gates himself. The glasses, the hair, the voice. Especially the voice. As he fired a few technical questions at one of the guys working the booth, I noticed beads of sweat forming on the booth worker’s brow. I saw him lick his lips like a fourth-grader hoping to come up with the right answer, and I felt his anxiety. How would I like it if my boss to the sixth power started questioning me about the technology I write about? I’d be cool, right? Wrong. I’d say my name, my team’s product, and then start shaking like Ralph Kramden trying to answer the $99,000 question.
Which is precisely what happened. Not with the booth worker, but with me. When the other patron at the booth tried to impress Gates by asking the booth worker a question of his own, I noticed a crowd forming around Seattle’s favorite celebrity, and I decided it was now or never. I made my move.
I sidled up closer and said, “Bill?” He turned to me with a look that was hard to read. It either meant “Hello, I’m Bill Gates and I’m pleased to meet you” or “I have a gun and I know how to use it.” I offered my hand and he instinctively shook it. Once he perceived that I wasn’t a threat, he got my name, my team’s product and then pointed at the “.NET” logo on my shirt and said “Keep working. We need that.” It was my moment in time. He then turned back to the subject at hand, and it was a good thing, because I just wanted to get out of there fast. I had met Bill Gates without making a complete idiot of myself and I was smart enough to quit while I was ahead.
Since then, I’ve told the story dozens of times to friends and relatives, and it never ceases to impress. I’m not completely sure why, but some of it has to do with the way our society deifies the rich and the famous.
My incidental meeting with Bill Gates doubtless had a greater effect on one of us than it did on the other. I’m fairly certain that Gates didn’t go home that night and say, “By the way, Melinda, you’ll never guess who I shook hands with today: Ken Circeo, the tech writer!”
But I can live with that. As one quickly learns in a company like Microsoft: anonymity is often preferred.