Recently I told the story of my one product review with Bill Gates, and I said that there was one other terrifying encounter I had with him (well, really, his world) but it would have to wait for another day. As luck had it, I was talking with someone a couple of nights ago who works in Bill’s extended universe and ended up relating my second story, so I thought I’d go ahead and share it here too.
Those with long memories may know that I wrote a book on Visual Basic that came out around the time of Visual Studio 2003. Here’s a picture of it, from Amazon:
If you look up there at the top of the book cover, you’ll see a teeny quote that reads:
Visual Basic is a cornerstone of Microsoft’s development tools–and this book is a key language reference for Visual Basic. — Bill Gates, Chairman, Microsoft Corporation
How exciting! Bill f**king Gates read my book! Well, not really. Here’s what happened…
It all started when my publisher said that they were going to be meeting with Steve Ballmer to discuss the .NET book series that my book was a part of. They said that they were going to ask if maybe Steve would be willing to write a forward for my book since BASIC has such a long and storied history at Microsoft. I said that sounded great and then it hit me that I was friends with Bill Gate’s technical assistant at the time, and so I said that, hey, maybe I could see about getting a forward from Bill himself (since of course, BASIC was his first product!). They thought that was a great idea, of course, so off I went.
My friend directed me to Bill’s writer (the guy who did speeches, etc.) and I had a nice chat with him through email. He said there was basically no way that Bill would do a forward since, as you can imagine, he was getting millions of requests to write forwards and they just had a blanket policy of saying “no.” In talking a little, he did say that he thought it would be OK to do a quote for the cover, assuming that everyone understood that: a) this was a one time thing, and b) not to go around talking about how Bill gave me a quote for my book, since they didn’t want to open the floodgates or anything. He thought it was a small enough thing that I could just come up with the quote, he’d wordsmith it and approve it, and we’d be done–no need to get Bill involved in something so small. Great! I told my publisher and they were ecstatic.
Then one morning I come into work and I’ve got an email in my inbox from someone in my VP’s office saying, “I need to talk to you about a quote your publisher is getting from Bill? Do you know anything about this?”
You see, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about powerful people, it’s that they tend to have an “external immune system” made up of people who’s job it is to filter out the avalanche of requests, demands, pleadings, and just plain crazies who want to get some part of them. It’s just a fact of life. And, furthermore, if you’re dealing with a powerful person you do not want to trip this immune response because it can get pretty tense pretty quickly, especially when you happen to be working for the company that they run. Which it became clear pretty quickly was exactly what I had done.
What had happened was that someone high up at my publisher had met with Bill for some reason or another, and in conversation had thanked him for providing the quote for my book. At which point, Bill apparently said, “What quote?” And BOOM! the immune response started gearing up, trying to figure out exactly where this “quote” had come from and who exactly it was who was claiming to speak for one of the richest men on the planet. Within hours, I was in conversation with senior people at my publisher, with Bill’s personal assistant, with my VP’s personal assistant, with my VP himself, and with Bill’s writer (who, understandably, was not pleased that I had managed to screw up this favor he did me). In the end, I profusely apologized, the quote was vetted a bit more, the immune response quieted down, and the book got published. But it was very tense there for a moment. I really didn’t want to be known to upper management only as “the guy who tricked Bill Gates into giving him a quote for his stupid book.”
Suffice it to say, time has gone on. I moved on from VB, Bill’s moved on to other pursuits (as has my old VP), and the book, while it did OK, was never updated past 2003. But just reading the old emails, which I did in preparation for writing this, got my heart going again just a bit. Not something I think I’d ever want to repeat…