My Two Hours With Bill Gates
Posted on Jun 27, 2008 by Tom Fragala
This is a story of how I once spent two hours sitting with Bill Gates and his wife Melinda. Since Bill retired today as a full-time employee at Microsoft, I thought I would finally recount it here. It was not a Microsoft event. There were no PR people or other staff around. I simply had a unique opportunity to observe Bill and Melinda by themselves.
This took place around the time Microsoft's anti-trust problems were just erupting. In hindsight, what I observed that day has even more significance.
It was a splendid day in May 1998. I was in San Diego to attend the graduation of a friend from University of San Diego. The event took place outdoors. There were three sections of seats in front of a stage, a large one in the middle, and two smaller on either side. I was sitting in the smaller section stage right, in the second row. The first row was empty and had a small "VIP" sign on it.
Sitting in the sunshine waiting for the festivities to begin, I saw to my left a man and woman walking towards the front row. I immediately noticed the man was Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft. Having been employed by Microsoft in Ireland a few years prior, and working in the tech space for years, I was pretty excited. Stepping towards their chairs, Bill sat down immediately in front of me. He was so close I could tap him on the shoulder without moving in my seat. It was just the two of them, no one else sat in the VIP row with them.
Prior to their arrival, I was frankly expecting the next couple of hours to be quite boring. But now I was delighted to have the chance to observe an industry titan, the world's richest man (or, close to it, in those days) and his wife. It felt like an exclusive opportunity--no one seemed to know he was there except me. I leaned over and whispered to someone near me "that's Bill Gates" but the blank stare told me he had no idea who it was. I looked around and no one else appeared to care either.
Bill was wearing a decent business suit, not flashy (Bill Gates ain't a flashy guy), and carrying a huge book. Melinda was resplendent wearing a flowery dress and one of those classic summer hats (think Pretty Woman at the polo match). When I saw her I thought "Hey, ole Bill did pretty well for himself!"
Something about Bill caught my eye--he had rather bad case of dandruff. Little white specks were all over his shoulders. Also, his glasses were a wreck. The plastic sheath that goes over the ears was hopelessly tattered. On both ears, plastic was hanging off in several long pieces. I couldn't help but think, "The guy's a billionaire and he doesn't have decent pair of glasses."
Immediately after sitting down, Bill opened the massive book and started reading. He read non-stop, barely moving, except perhaps to cross his legs, and never lifting his head. He didn't speak a single word the entire ceremony. He just stayed buried in that book. After maybe 15 minutes, I started to wonder what the hell this book was that would keep him so glued. I craned my neck to see the title to no avail. A few times I pretended to drop my program, so I could have a reason to peer up to see the book title. But damn! the book had no dust cover. The title was only on the spine, which I couldn't see. Leave it to Bill Gates to dispense with something as inefficient as a dust cover.
Ever since they had arrived, Bill hadn't moved. A half-hour passed, and then another, with Bill hunched over the tome. And I continued to fail in my quest to discover the title.
Meanwhile, Melinda was the perfect lady. Sitting upright, she paid rapt attention to the proceedings, always politely clapping at the right time. She seemed genuinely interested in what was being said. She was as classy as could be and had an air of intelligence (she was high school valedictorian and has an MBA from Duke). I bet that afterwards she could have given a detailed, enthusiastic summary of the entire graduation.
Bill continued his reading undisturbed for maybe 90 minutes, then something uproarious happened. It was while diplomas were being handed out. Streams of students had lined their way up to the stage. I noticed that one of the students returning from the stage changed his course and came walking towards us. Clearly this was the guy the Gates were here for. Melinda rose to greet the young man. Melinda fired a glance at Bill but he remained engrossed in his book. Realizing he wasn't moving, she bent down, cocked her arm and gave Bill an almighty whack in the ribs. Bill leaped up, dazed and startled, and while I laughed out loud, he and Melinda shook the student's hands.
Before jumping up, Bill had put the book down on the ground. It was leaning against his chair leg. Seeing my chance, I quickly bent down and observed the title:
TITAN: THE LIFE OF JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, SR, by Ron Chernow.
Although I did find it somewhat ironic, at the time, that he was reading about Rockefeller, I didn’t realize until much later how remarkable it was that he was reading that book at that time. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil and became the world's richest man--just like Bill. And Standard Oil was convicted in Federal Court of being an illegal monopoly--just like Microsoft*. In fact, the case against Microsoft by the U.S. began in May 1998. So here we had the founder and CEO of Microsoft reading a book about the founder and CEO of Standard Oil, just a few months before his deposition to the Justice Department in August 1998.
And read this excerpt from a New York Times book review published in, get this, May 1998:
''Titan'' has an eerie timeliness. Today's Standard Oil, Microsoft, is under investigation by the Justice Department for its alleged monopolistic practices in the software industry. One strategy the company has pursued, as detailed in The New Republic, amounts to emulation by Bill Gates of Rockefeller's unparalleled instrument of competitive cruelty: ''Microsoft,'' the journalist David Shenk writes, ''was able to establish MS-DOS and subsequently Windows as the standard PC operating system by exacting a royalty for every PC sold regardless of whether its operating system was installed.'' In words echoing those of the Cleveland refiner crushed by Standard Oil, Andrew Shapiro, a fellow at the Harvard Law School's Center for Internet and Society, told Shenk, ''The basic model in the industry today is to be bought by Microsoft or to go out of business.'' The 20th century is ending as the the 19th century did, with the representative corporation of the age seeking to escape the untamable risks of competitive capitalism.
"Eerie timeliness"? I'll say.
Now, what did I take away from my two hours? Well, in some ways, Bill Gates was certainly still a geek. It was clear he has an incredible ability to deeply focus. Of course, there was the serendipity of him reading a book about Rockefeller at that time. But my final, and most profound, take away is that William H. Gates III, billionaire and CEO of the world's largest software company had, indeed, married "up." Good for him. •
* The conviction was overturned on appeal and Microsoft later settled the case with the DOJ.
Tom Fragala is the CEO and founder of Truston. Truston is dedicated to protecting people from identity theft and improving their credit without requiring their personal information. The company has a white-label partner-ready online platform for membership marketing companies, identity theft service providers, banks, and credit card companies. Truston's consumer direct service was awarded 4 stars from PC Magazine in 2007 and its Software-as-a-Service platform won a 2008 Product Innovation Award from Network Products Guide. Truston also received a 2008 Hot Company award, was named one of the 2008 10 Companies to Watch by the Pacific Coast Business Times and identified as an industry leader by Javelin Strategy & Research in their December 2007 identity theft market report.