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12/22/2008
09:07 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Global CIO: Remembering Bill Gates: A Faraway Look At The Larger-Than-Life Legend

Poorly delivered jokes aside, Bob Evans remembers interviews with Bill Gates over the years and wishes him success in philanthropy and future endeavors.

In a recent blog post, I recalled a Comdex keynote given several years ago by Bill Gates, who at the time was in a pitched battle with the U.S. Justice Department over antitrust allegations. Gates walked onstage, waved to the crowd and called out, "Does anybody out there know a good lawyer joke?" He got a huge ovation for that show of feistiness, which inspired me to engage in some ill-considered feistiness of my own the following morning in a private meeting with Gates.

Bright and early, I was escorted into his suite and Gates, as always, was a courteous host and tried to bring a semblance of "normalcy" to the setting: you know, just two guys chatting. Emboldened, I asked, "Bill, are you still looking for a good lawyer joke?" He hesitated a moment and then said sure, let's hear it -- and silly me, I plunged ahead.

One voice inside my head was screaming, "Whatever you do, DON'T tell that joke!" But another inner voice purred, "Oh, go ahead, it's a great joke -- he'll like it, and he'll think you're clever, and it'll make the interview go even better." So here's the joke in all its butchered glory as told to Bill Gates, at the time one of the world's most powerful businesspeople, influential thinkers, wealthiest men, and sought-after interview subjects.

"So medical-research labs have started using lawyers instead of rats in their experiments, and there are three reasons for this: first, the population of lawyers is now much larger than the population of rats; second, the researchers found that while the lab technicians often formed emotional connections with the lawyers, there was no chance they would do so with the rats; and third, there are some things that even a lawyer won't do."

To my great horror, I realized instantly -- and not just from the puzzled/annoyed look on Gates' face -- that I'd butchered the joke in multiple places, rendering the joke completely unfunny and rendering me, well, somewhere between a fool and an ass.

Flashing a tiny hint of a grin, Gates flicked his eyebrows up in the air momentarily, sighed, and waved me toward a chair saying, "Well, that was some joke. So what are we here to talk about?"

I wish I could say I recovered nicely but the truth is I have no real recollection of that interview, although I know dutifully took notes and believe I wrote them up for a column. And while over the years I have often laughed at myself -- and many others have laughed at me as well -- for (a) deciding to tell him that joke and then (b) ruining it, in hindsight I'm now glad that I took the chance. Of course, I regret that I totally mangled the punch line, but over time I've come around to viewing that incident from the perspective that Bill Gates -- titan of industry, finance, technology, and philanthropy -- is, at heart, just a regular person like the rest of us, with emotions and insecurities and dreams and doubts.

Maybe, if I hadn't choked and wrecked the joke, it might have bridged the gap a bit between this larger-than-life figure and me, one of no doubt scores of supplicants lining up throughout that day and so many other days to ask for his opinions, seek his insights, plumb his vision, or request something or other.

In all my other meetings with Bill, he always made an effort to put his guests at ease, as I noted above: I think he knew with a kind of haunting certainty that he was not -- is not -- "like" other people, and that his fame and celebrity and influence and wealth and sheer intellect would always be there to show that gap, no matter how hard he tried to avoid projecting any such displacement. Indeed, one of the first times I met him, he answered all of my questions for close to an hour and then, as we were walking to a conference room where he'd agreed to a photo shoot, he in turn asked me a series of very detailed questions about the media business, and InformationWeek's competitive position, and our circulation strategies, and how the mix of our readership had been changing and what did that mean, and about some details in recent cover stories that he agreed with and others he disagreed with and others he just wanted to know more about.

Another time, in what I believe was his office, Bill had a basketball autographed by John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach and a master strategist himself. I asked about the ball and Bill's feelings toward Coach Wooden, but Bill just smiled and said we'd have to get to that another time.

Going back about 10 years, one of the few times I felt I had an "information advantage" over Gates was after reporter Stuart Johnston and I had a wide-ranging 90-minute discussion with Gates about the challenges of moving from the desktop to the data center. Over the next month, Stuart took what Gates had told us and dug more deeply into the details, resulting in a series of cover stories about Microsoft's plans to move up the stack. Stuart nailed three or four high-impact cover stories that broke the news about the strategy behind a forthcoming "Scalability Day" Microsoft would be holding with partners, plus the performance targets it was expecting to hit by that time, plus some pointers on where pricing information for these new products might be found, and what all of that would mean for the company's overall strategy in the next decade. But as these cover stories began to come out, according to Microsoft employees, Gates became increasingly upset about "these leaks to InformationWeek" and demanded that his marketing and PR people identify the leaker and stop the leaks. One person attending those high-intensity meetings said it was impossible to know whether to laugh or to sweat because everyone but Gates knew who the source of "the leaks" was, but nobody wanted to confront their CEO with the identity: Gates himself.

And here's an anecdote that I believe captures the two schools of thought regarding Bill Gates. In the mid-'90s, I was chatting with a brilliant friend just starting his career at Carnegie Mellon as a professor of financial theory, where he's since had enormous success. He was lamenting the functional limitations of the workstation he was using for intense mathematical calculations, saying it was great at that one chore but couldn't do anything else. I asked if he'd ever tried a new PC using Microsoft's latest applications, and he laughed dismissively. "Microsoft's products are useless in any sort of sophisticated application," he said, "because all Bill Gates ever thinks about is the desktop." I allowed as to how that was a caricature of Gates and his company, and that while its roots were unquestionably in the PC field, history indicated that Gates and Microsoft were predisposed to hammer away relentlessly on higher-end platforms and applications until it got them right. And as my friend fell off his chair laughing, I said I believed that Bill Gates would eventually be remembered as a businessperson whose accomplishments and legacy would rival that of Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie or any other American industrialist. I believe that to this day. And I wish Bill Gates great success in philanthropy, biotechnology, education, and wherever else his remarkable brain and willpower take him.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page.

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