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July 20, 2002

Dinner With A Billionaire

I boarded the Greyhound bus at 5:45 in front of Microsoft Building 16. There were only about 10 of us, and that's including two VPs who were invited. The bus left around 6:00, less than half full, bound for a church parking lot at an undisclosed location. The reason for this was to provide a security checkpoint where we were asked to empty our pockets before undergoing a hand-held metal detector scan. Cameras, backpacks and purses were forbidden, and any questionable items were confiscated by security, to be returned the following day at work. Luckily for me, I thought ahead and left my Swiss Army Knife key chain at home.

From the security checkpoint, we boarded smaller shuttles along with other interns who had arrived from separate parts of campus (there are about 35 buildings on main campus alone). These shuttles took us down to a waterfront neighbourhood and to a large wood and metal gate flanked by security guards. After radioing in the ok, the gate opened we proceeded down a long winding driveway. Dense forest surrounded either side, and we all looked out for the house. We could not see it. I did notice what looked like several skylights on the ground on either side of the driveway. The house was underground? Then we crossed a bridge (this guy has a bridge as part of his driveway!), turned a corner, then we saw the house. Well, some of it. It's really too big to get all in one eyeshot. The reason we couldn't see it from the driveway is because the house it built into the hill. The 1% of the house I could see was made of wood and the parking lot could easily hold two dozen cars.

We disembarked and dreamily wandered down a long flight of solid wood stairs. It must have gone down about 3 levels because I remember passing two washrooms, a garden and a TV room on my way down. And what a TV room. Dexter's Laboratory was playing on a screen that took up much of the wall. I looked around and saw a Monet on a large wall-mounted LCD screen. All the pictures I saw hung up were electronic. But I couldn't stand there and just stare; the interns behind me wanted to get in too.

Ok, maybe I should explain who was there and why. All graduating interns (in other words, interns who would have graduated come next summer) plus selected VPs. Since there were over 700 interns this term (to put things into perspective, Corel had 800 employees when I worked there), the BBQ was spread over 3 days: July 17, 18 and 30. There were between 100 and 150 interns present at the BBQ along with me. Now back to the story.

I walked out into the light of the setting sun (and its reflection in the bay) and onto grass so green and cut so short, I thought I had walked out onto a putting green. I was standing in a courtyard surrounded by bushes and security guards. Round white tables were spread out on the lawn as were buffet and drink tables. There was also a DJ mixing background music. I walked over to a drink table and asked for a Heineken. The woman there was all too happy to give it to me. I walked down a small set of steps towards the bay and found myself on a tiny sandy beach overlooking Seattle. Several motorboats cruised by, undoubtedly full of picture-takers (I'm only guessing since the glare of the water prevented me from getting a better look). On either side of the beach was a dock. Now imagine a bayside dock for a minute: old unsanded wood covered in barnacles, right? Not at Bill's place. Varnished wood with brass knobs. It looked brand new. A dock!

Unable to bear the sun any longer, I went back to the courtyard and met up with some other interns I knew. That's when the lids came off the buffet steam trays. What exotic, possibly endangered animals had been grilled for our dining pleasure? Beef burgers, marinated chicken breasts and veggie patties. I grabbed a plate and helped myself. There were several kinds of salads and every burger topping known to man. I know what you're thinking, "Even guacamole?" Yes, even guacamole. I returned to my seat and began stuffing my face when I noticed a small group of people huddled around the doors to the house. Then I noticed who was in the center of the donut of interns: it was Bill himself! And he was drinking a FRESCA! I like Fresca! I guess I'm not all that different from the founder of a multi-billion dollar software company.

I decided it best to finish my food before approaching Bill. He would be there all night, the food wouldn't. I guess I'm a pragmatist at heart. That, or a glutton.

The intern coordinator then ushered everyone back to their seats and Bill gave a nice speech about how much he likes the internship program, and how he wants us all to be hired. Good for the company, good for the student. Then they brought out dessert, and once again he was mobbed by curious interns. I grabbed some delicious cake and brownies and fruit and mousse. We were joined by a VP and he talked to us about his past experiences with the company. I was more interested in finishing my dessert and then joining the throng of interns, than listening to the VP.

With my second beer in hand, I pushed my way into the donut of Bill fans. I managed to get right beside him. As in mere inches from his 40-billion-dollar head. I could see sweat beads slowly roll down his neck. I know if I breathed too hard he would have felt it. I started to listen to him answer questions about the future of the company, his time at Harvard, how he started the company, etc. I also heard some people ask the most dumb-assed questions I could imagine. Here's a sampling:

"If you could be any kind of cheese, what kind of cheese would you be?"

"What is the dumbest question you've ever been asked?"

"Who do you think is the most influential person in history?"
His answer to this was classic:
"History is a long time. I dunno... Jesus?"

A server broke into the donut to offer Bill a cold fresh Fresca on a silver platter. Damn!

Bill was also asked some good questions about the future of computer interfaces and how he deals with spam. The answer: Microsoft Exchange rules, filters and an assistant. He apparently gets over 3000 a day, but only about 300 reach him. Man, I feel special when I get messages from Cron on my Linux box (CS nerd joke, in case you're not laughing).

The whole time I was in the Donut of Homage, I was desperately trying to think of a question that (a) wasn't dumb, (b) wouldn't bore Bill, and (c) I was actually interested in hearing the answer. By the time I had formulated a question, and was ready to say "Excuse me, Mr. Gates,", and announcement was made over a loudspeaker. It was the last call for the buses. I was presented with a choice: go home by bus, or get thrown out by security. I chose the former.

Walking back to the staircase, I ducked into a lavish washroom. For a souvenir, I grabbed a length of toilet paper (3-ply. This guy knows how to live!). I washed my hands, smelled the soap (lavender), the proceeded up the stairs (the elevator was full. Seriously. He has an elevator in his house.) I got back on the shuttle, and we headed back to the church to be transferred onto buses headed for the office.

All in all, I had a great time. I wish I had gotten my question out, but it was good to hear Bill talk anyway. He handled himself very well considering he was surrounded by punk kids trying to trap him with dumb questions.

By the way, I've ordered 10 cases of Fresca. I'm convinced that's the real secret to his success.

00:00 | Misc Rambling

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