As everyone has already jumped the gun and spent all week posting about Bill Gates retiring from his role at Microsoft I’ll jump in too. I was going to post this on Friday but hey whaddya gonna do.
I joined Microsoft as a contractor in April of 1994, and was hired full time by the company in January of 1995. So I’m of the Microsoft era where Bill really tipped from being the 60% technological/40% business, to 60% business/40% technological as the company ramped up and exploded in all directions with products and technologies. Oh and went from a small company to a ginormous one. (it’s a word!)
Back in those days Microsoft had about 12,000 employees, but even then the presence of Bill was often felt in everything you did. Even when you’re an entry level support engineer in a satellite site (we weren’t even really called a "Campus" then because we leased two buildings). Bill was famous in the company for his unforgiving nature of mistakes.
Product support had a really outsized role in the shipping of products for Microsoft. Back then, the processes and procedures for shipping software meant that the developer team handed off a release candidate to support, and support would "Sign off" on the build. That "Sign Off" was an actual formal document where support said "We’ve documented the known issues and we agree that this product is supportable and we will be on the hook to support it and the associated costs". So after getting an RC build, support would then spend days "bug bashing it". Anything we felt was a bug that would impact customer satisfaction or dramatically increase support costs was filed and support would withhold sign off (meaning release could not happen) until it was fixed. In the end a contentious sign off process always got escalated to the development and support VP’s to reconcile if development thought support was being over cautious or support thought development was being blinded by ship fever.
Well, a bug was found during testing of a side technology of a product which in this story shall remain nameless.
Development balked as it felt the product issue was an edge case, it got escalated, and the product ended up shipping, but not before we in support studiously documented our projections on impact and our rationale for getting it fixed.
That particular product experienced a record number of support costs due to issues involving this particular technology, way beyond projections. Of course, that type of thing reaches Bill and he called a meeting of the support and development people.
With laser like intensity Bill lit into the support people. How could this happen? Who was responsible? What kind of way was this to run a support business? The support folk, well armed with the documentation from the sign off process, handed it over to Bill. Bill looked it over.
He then pivoted his chair over to the other side of the table and lit into the development people. "How could this happen? Who was responsible? What kind of way was this to run a development process?" Needless to say the dev people had no documentation, and no defense. The support people felt good after that meeting. The Devs, not so much.
Not many people have had practical experience with just how overwhelmingly smart Bill is. He can take a completely new technical situation and dive to the deepest part of it quickly to find out things you never thought of.
When the vulnerability that resulted in MSRC security bulletin MS03-026 was reported (the vulnerability that criminals exploited with the Blaster worm) we determined this was one of those we wanted to make sure the executives were fully briefed on. Mike Nash, then Vice President of the Security Business Unit, wrote up an email summarizing the vulnerability, fix plan, communications plan, etc. to Bill and the executive leadership. That mail was sent on a Sunday afternoon and I was on the cc line as the technical contact/MSRC owner for the bug.
45 minutes later Bill replied to the email (I confess I let out a geek squeal of excitement. Bill replied to an email that I AM ON!). The jist of the email was "I’ve read the technical breakdown and understand it. One question: What happens if [detailed technical scenario involving attack that none of us had considered]"
Bill had, just in a few minutes of reading some high level exec summary stuff, uncovered a deeply technical edge case we missed.
I kind of turned pale(r). My cell phone rang, it was Mike Nash. "He’s right isn’t he?" Mike said. "Yeah." "But as I understand the scenario, the fix still blocks it." Mike said. "Yeah, it does. But I wish I’d thought of it in the vectors section of the mail." I replied.
Mike laughed, "Do you want to reply?" "Uh no Mike, I’ll let you tell him."
So Mike replied and told Bill he was right but the fix addressed that and the scenario didn’t affect our timelines to get this out ASAP. Rochelle came into my office cause she knew I was working this thing and I just sat there gobsmacked. And tried to describe to her that someone eight levels above me was engaged enough at the technical level to turn a problem inside out like that so fast.
You hear Bill is smart, but rarely do you realize the level at which he’s smarter than almost everyone who works for him, at almost every level in the company.
The last thing I will say is that when you’ve been a long time Microsoft employee from the pre-Steve Ballmer presidency, you kind of take for granted at how approachable Bill is. People are often shocked by it. Couple of years ago I was looking into getting a SPOT watch. I liked the idea, and the screen, but it just seemed so clunky and heavy to have on the wrist. Then it hit me late one night reading about them, hey what if you made a SPOT watch that was a pocket watch? The form factor works much better, and the screen could be a bit larger and perhaps you could even integrate touch to it. So knowing Bill was a huge booster of SPOT watches I sent him an email. "Have we looked at doing SPOT watches in the ‘Pocket Watch’ form factor?"
People kind of freak out when they hear that, "you just what, emailed the CEO? Out of the blue?"
You could do that. Not some long winded email about convoluted topics, but a quick idea involving something of interest to the company.
Bill replied almost immediately (at night!) saying yes indeed they looked at the idea, but not enough partners wanted to make them, pocket watches being a niche market, and he cc’d the SPOT watch market research executive to give me more info if I wanted it.
And that was Bill, first and foremost he was a lover of technology. He loves interesting ideas and never wants to wall himself off from them.
I could say I’m going to miss his influence at Microsoft, but that would be remarkably shortsighted. His work at the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is going to end up changing the world in far better ways than his work here did.