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April 18, 2011

Bill Gates and I: 60 Milliseconds on 60 Minutes

Billg was berating a group of us. "Somebody's confused. Somebody just doesn't understand. You guys are all wrong. I'm not going to use this thing!" The camera cuts to me looking dour, then back to Bill. The episode is part of a 60 Minutes interview (I'm at 6:50 into it) with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and is meant to illustrate that billg had an aggressive management style. Actually, this was a pretty mild illustration; he didn't even say "this is the dumbest f..ing thing I've heard since I've been at Microsoft."

Friends were nice enough to phone, email, and post on Facebook that they'd seen me on 60 Minutes. I don't remember the incident or whether or not I was responsible for the offending product but I do know how it happens that CBS has this video and can certainly remember plenty of episodes like this

Paul Allen says immediately afterwards that you had to stand up to Bill when he shouted; he's right. If you were wrong, best to say so and not try to bluff or make excuses. If Bill kept on shouting, you had to tell him that you get it and there's more stuff to cover. If Bill was wrong, you had to tell him that – not easy to do but no choice. There was no respect and ultimately no career for those who knuckled under. There was also no immediate praise for standing up to him – but that's how Microsoft careers were made (as long as you were right most of the time).

The tape was shot during a period when reporter Connie Chung had permission to tail Bill on the Microsoft campus. The company was just getting big and successful enough to attract negative publicity and the PR firm convinced Bill that he could get good PR in this way. At first he loved it; Connie flattered him and asked softball questions. We had ways to meet without the cameras but she got plenty of good footage. Once she had all her footage, she came into Bill's office with her camera man and started to ask really tough and hostile questions, ambush journalism at its best. Apparently Bill got upset, knocked over a chair, and ordered her away – all on camera.

I happened to be with Bill a couple of days later when he was bemoaning this and wondering why the press was so hostile. "You can make them less hostile if you want," I said.

"How?"

"Stop winning all the time. Success invites attack." He didn't take my advice. Losing isn't part of his personality. I'm sure he's also grown a thicker skin over time. Done a lot of great things, too.

More Microsoft memories:

Microsoft Memories

Microsoft Memories – Sleeping with Telcos

Microsoft Meetings

How MAPI Beat VIM (an historical footnote)

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