The Bill Meetings

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Earlier this year, Bill Gates appeared on the popular Comedy Central program “The Daily Show” for an interview, during which he touted the benefits of Vista and described a future in which TV will be more interactive. The appearance was made all the more awkward by its ending: As host Jon Stewart held up Gates’ product and thanked him for appearing (a point at which the guest usually sits there and smiles, nods and maybe talks to Stewart as the audience applauds and the show goes to commercial), Gates just stood up and left, walking backstage. Stewart exclaimed, “He’s leaving! He can’t just leave!”

Aside from making one wonder whether the richest person in the world has ever seen a talk show, the slight gaffe merely adds to Gates’ reputation as being somewhat aloof. But Gates has another reputation, one that’s referenced less often but is far more interesting and insightful on the point of just how he became so rich — he’s apparently confrontational to the point of being verbally abusive.

In a 1994 interview with Playboy, Gates was told, “We hear you’re brusque at times, that you won’t hesitate to tell someone their idea is the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s been called management by embarrassment — challenging employees and even leaving some in tears.”

Gates answered, “I don’t know anything about employees in tears. I do know that if people say things that are wrong, others shouldn’t just sit there silently — they should speak. Great organizations demand a high level of commitment by the people involved. That’s true in any endeavor. I’ve never criticized a person. I have criticized ideas. If I think something’s a waste of time or inappropriate, I don’t wait to point it out — I say it right away. It’s real time. So, you might hear me say, ‘That’s the dumbest idea I have ever heard’ many times during a meeting.”

The interviewer then asked, “What do you mean when you say something is random?”

Gates answered, “That it’s not a particularly enlightened idea. [Sarcastically] So, how do you have a successful software company? Well, you get me and Microsoft executive vice president Steve Ballmer, and we just start yelling.”

How fun! Ballmer confirmed as much in a 1997 interview with National Public Radio’s Moira Gunn in which she remarked, “Now, we all know about ‘Bill meetings’ … just like, this is the ‘Bill Gates meeting,’ and you work on it for months because you’re going to have the ‘Bill meeting,’ and then Bill acts out at the meeting. And it has a huge effect on the organization, and not everyone is crazy about that behavior.”

In response, Ballmer noted, “Somebody described it as a roller coaster ride: Sometimes you like it, and sometimes you don’t. You’re always glad you did them when you’re done but not always while you’re in the middle.”

A couple years after that, it was an uncertain time for Microsoft. The company was experiencing Internet-related growing pains as employees within the company openly wondered whether the Web would render Windows obsolete, as well as whether companies such as Sun and Netscape represented the real future of computing.

The 2001 book “Breaking Windows” by David Bank describes a “Bill meeting” during this uncertain period, in March 1997: When presented with a proposal to begin writing programming for the Web in general, rather just Windows, Gates thundered at his employees, “Why don’t you just give up your options and join the Peace Corps?”

The position was clear: Microsoft was standing behind Windows.

Nevertheless, the manner of articulation of this position sounds unpleasant, and Windows apparently lost senior management because of Gates’ outbursts regarding this issue. But with the benefit of hindsight, his position makes sense — he was reacting to a faction within his company that wanted to expand Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser into a platform that could run on operating systems other than Windows.

The potential result of this course of action easily could have been the disappearance of Windows itself and, of course, that hasn’t happened, likely — perhaps entirely — because of Gates’ pugnacity.

A decade later, we have Vista sweeping the market (for good or ill) and Gates on “The Daily Show,” handing Jon Stewart a shrink-wrapped copy of the latest incarnation of his precious operating system. Only Gates can’t sit in a chair long enough for Stewart to finish plugging it.

Daniel Margolis, dmargolis@certmag.com

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