My five minutes with Bill Gates

After a three-month campaign to get a word with the world's richest man, a writer gets all he had hoped for.

By Gary Rivlin
July 6, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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You don't just get an interview with Bill Gates. You ask Microsoft PR for time with His Billness and then you listen to the polite but firm lecture they deliver even to the media's heaviest hitters: Oh, the demands on Bill's time. The barrage of demands from inconsiderate reporters, so often in pursuit of the frivolous. The random and nasty things they write when we do get them in to see Him. Only then, when you've been duly shamed, is the consolation prize offered -- time with others inside the company. That's when the scheming begins.

Admittedly, the make-do interviewees often have more direct knowledge about the topic at hand than Gates himself. But who's kidding whom? The media game is to bag the big lion. My purpose -- even as I was granted access to top-tier people at Microsoft, names such as Nathan Myhrvold -- became divining those issues I would touch upon in the book I was writing ("The Plot to Get Bill Gates") that no one on this earth could possibly answer but Lord Gates himself.

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Let me confess up front that I personally didn't place much stock in an interview with Gates. There was a time when a writer in conversation with Gates had a shot at discovering a revealing fact about the man (like the time he practically confessed, during an interview with Playboy, to dropping acid), but that was an earlier version of Gates that had long ago been upgraded. Every word uttered by the current version, Gates 3.1, has been carefully scripted. Still, I wanted the interview. There was a question of fairness and also a matter of credibility. You write a book with Bill Gates' name in the title and the first thing some people are going to ask you is whether you interviewed the man himself. So I made up my mind to embrace the task with all the overbearing Microsoft-like aggressiveness I could muster.

My nemesis proved to be Pam Edstrom, who has been spearheading Microsoft's PR efforts since 1982. Our first talk, in January 1998, proved typical of the dozen-plus conversations we'd have over the next 12 months -- a gossipy marathon, intimate and revealing, in turns friendly and combative. Edstrom exhibited a light-hearted sarcasm as she shared blow-by-blow accounts of the missteps of Microsoft foes who had allowed themselves to be distracted by a personal animosity for Gates, but her sunny good cheer turned to an instinctive defensiveness when detecting even a whiff of a criticism of her boss -- or an imposition on his time.

"Bill?" she snorted when I asked about a sit-down with Gates. "You and everyone else." She listed the media outlets requesting time with Gates that she had recently turned down (including CNN, Business Week, Newsweek, the Washington Post), and then told me a story about a man she described as a "well-known editor at a prominent business magazine."

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Like Indiana Jones bushwhacking his way into the inner temple, this editor-writer had prevailed in his quest for time with Gates but then supposedly made so many mistakes in the resulting article that Gates felt compelled to pick up the phone to complain. "For this guy it was this great badge of honor," Edstrom hissed. "Bill had yelled at him because he had been so stupid, but he's bragging about it to everyone like, 'I took on Bill Gates and survived, I must be quite a man.' I had to call him up and ask him to shut up." I can't say precisely why Edstrom shared that story with me only an hour into our first conversation. Was it to scare me? To shame me? To solidify the relationship with a bit of insider gossip? Or simply to get me feeling sympathy for Gates, whom everyone seemed to want to bend, shape or mutilate into his or her image?

It's no wonder Microsoft PR bristles every time a reporter calls. To read through the clips about Gates is to learn he's a foul-breathed, dandruff-spewing, teen-like creature who, as he's ripping out a competitor's still-beating heart, fidgets as if suffering from Tourette's syndrome. A favorite Gates e-mail is one he wrote to the Wall Street Journal's Jim Carlton, after he had read Carlton's book about Apple. He enjoyed the book, Gates wrote, but felt he was "treated unfairly on Pages 27 and 326." Those are the pages on which he is described as the "Great Satan" and a "cold-blooded killer."

Another Journal reporter, G. Pascal Zachary, freelanced a piece for Upside magazine that depicted a spineless Gates sending best-buddy Steve Ballmer to broach the topic of a pre-nup with Gates' betrothed. Zachary later confessed that he might have gotten the
story wrong, but said that when writing about a character like Gates,
larger than life and therefore terribly overexposed, reaching a higher truth sometimes means fudging the facts. "You can't be interesting about Bill Gates," Zachary told me, "unless you leap from the literal and move into something more symbolic."

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Two months after my initial interview request, I visited Microsoft's campus -- accompanied by Edstrom. In person Edstrom is a small woman with sharp features, standing barely 5 feet tall with cat-like eyes and a mane of unruly brown hair. Her default mode seems sarcasm, and her pushiness seems a reflex, as if every moment on the job she's loaded down with parcels trying to squeeze her way on to a commute-hour subway car. When interviewing people at Microsoft, reporters have an employee of Edstrom's firm, Waggener Edstrom, always at their side. Edstrom herself played escort during my first of several days at Microsoft, giving her plenty of time to brandish her sharp elbows whenever I posed a question directly about Gates. Each query was greeted with a nose scrunch of disapproval, as if I had just asked to root around in the man's dresser drawers -- or as if I had been one of the scooter-driving paparazzi chasing Princess Di that fateful night in Paris.

The problem with this rehearsed indignation is that Edstrom is a co-conspirator in the game, if not the leading facilitator of the prolonged campaign to cast Gates as the extraordinary, princely figure of our times. "It's not about Bill, it's about the products," she repeatedly told me. But I think Edstrom's daughter Jennifer and her co-writer, Marlin Eller, a long-time Microsoft programmer, cut closer to the truth when they described Gates in an unflattering kiss-and-tell book as "the company mascot -- a kind of high-technology Colonel Sanders."

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I found signs of Gates worship everywhere on Microsoft's campus. There's the Microsoft calendar, sold at the company store, which offers the many faces of Bill: Gates as a young man, Gates on the cover of Business Week ("The Whiz Kid"), Gates on the cover of Time, Gates jumping over a chair from a standing start (Bill!), and Gates and wife, Melinda, pictured with Nelson Mandela. The Microsoft library is decorated with no less than 30 framed Gates magazine covers. And then there's the company museum. The opening panels show several blown-up pictures of Gates as a lad. Did you know that Gates starred in two high school plays in 1972? Or that the Redmond campus' man-made lake is called Lake Bill? At exhibits along the way, you can push a button to hear Gates at the launch of Windows 3.0, or another that lets you listen to him describe the advantages of the Intel 386 processor.

Colonel Sanders? Gates as rock star might be more like it. To push Windows at Comdex 1994, the company posed Gates with a computer keyboard in hand, slung low like a guitar and fashioned after Eric Clapton's Grammy award-winning "Unplugged" album, and plastered "Bill Gates Unplugged" posters all over Las Vegas.

Edstrom may sneer at the inordinate media interest in Gates -- but the man has hardly been a media recluse. There are the books he's written ("The Road Ahead" included a virtual tour of his house then under construction; "Business @ the Speed of Thought" was excerpted as a Time cover story) and the biweekly column he writes for the New York Times syndicate. Edstrom complained to me that "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" once did an unauthorized show on Gates, but more recently Gates has appeared on the Regis and Kathy Lee show, and consented to a long sit-down with that courtesan to the stars, Barbara Walters.

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So much for Edstrom's contemptuous comments about reporters and their inane questions; the more inane the forum, the more likely he is to be fawned over and adored -- and the more likely Gates is to participate. At Microsoft, PR people and executives alike aggressively capitalize on the magic of Gates' name, using him as bait when it suits them in business meetings or with the press. But when it comes to the hordes of more serious-minded journalists -- many of whom, it's true, are knocking on Redmond's door hoping to come away with a high-profile notch on their belt -- Edstrom and her minions try to fend them off so as to shield their Bill from all the unpleasantness that goes hand in glove with being famous in the late 20th century.

My sin with Edstrom was to ask whether it was true, as one pair of book writers claimed, that for years Gates kept a stockpile of Dom Perignon in his refrigerator. She shakes her head wearily. That morning it was USA Today on the line asking the brand of Gates' new glasses. The previous week it was a reporter asking how much money the world's richest man carries in his wallet. Now it was me asking about his drinking habits. "This is someone who eats a tuna fish sandwich at his desk," she says. "This isn't someone who lives an ostentatious lifestyle."

My mouth starts to open and she anticipates my comment: "Yes, the house." (Actually, I was going to bring up not only the house, but the $31 million he spent on a da Vinci notebook, a $21 million airplane, a $380,000 Porsche ...) "So much of the design of that house was driven by the fact he uses it for work. I mean, does anyone need a dining room that sits 100 people?" she asks. "I don't get it. It's all so trite. So he's rich. Does that mean people think they have a right to ask some of these questions?"

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By the time I had finished my first draft of the book, I had come up with any number of items that only Gates could address. I decided to focus on two. One was the 64 percent/36 percent split Gates had finagled from Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, even though Allen had been equally instrumental in getting the company off the ground. (Have you ever wondered why Gates sits alone as the world's richest man, and not Gates and Allen given that the two founded the company together?) The other related to the lingering charge that in 1989 Microsoft initiated merger talks with Novell solely so Microsoft's engineers could get a peak at the inner workings of NetWare, the Novell networking product that trounced the Microsoft equivalent year after year.

Thus began my three-month campaign, so that when I was asked the inevitable question about whether I had spoken with Gates I could say I had.

Edstrom's initial response to my e-mail was short and to the point: "gary, I doubt that you will get billg at this time. sorry." I responded in true Microsoft style, with an e-mail crammed with half-truths and overinflated claims, sent at 6 p.m. on New Year's Eve. My publisher, Times Books, was claiming a first printing of 35,000, so I rounded up to 50,000. At that point we were only brainstorming about the magazines that might be interested in an excerpt but as I conveyed it in my e-mail we were already getting a lot of interest from national magazines. The remainder of the note was an impassioned plea in which I raised the issues of accuracy, fairness and truth. A few days later, Edstrom wrote back: "ok."

But OK, it turned out, proved only the start of the negotiations. Two days later, Edstrom wrote, "I would feel like I could make a compelling case to bill if you would allow me to read the page proofs." I wrote back that sending her my manuscript was impossible. Even if I were so inclined (I wasn't), my publisher's legal department was dead-set against it. "Besides, I got the impression from your previous e-mail that you were already going to pass along my message," I wrote. Later in the day I phoned. By that point I had spent a couple of years steeped in Microsoft lore, but Edstrom's unabashed expression of the dollars-and-cents considerations behind this decision left me stunned.

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"What I need to say when I talk to Bill is, 'Bill, you should input on this because it helps Microsoft in these specific ways,'" she explained. "What you need to do is help me explain to Bill how talking to you is going to work to Microsoft's advantage. That's what he's going to ask me. 'How will doing this serve Microsoft's best interest? How will it help the cause of selling more Microsoft products?'"

I answered that my book was aimed at a general-interest audience -- the same audience Microsoft spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year trying to reach through its ubiquitous mass-media branding campaign. Again, she reminded me that I was already one of the lucky ones to have been granted access to Microsoft at all -- and again she made another pitch to read my draft. Sigh. After many more words, she finally relented, ending the conversation strangely, with this bit of emotional blackmail: "You'll be putting me in a super-difficult position if Bill decides he regrets his input when the book comes out," she said. I thought to myself: So much for 17 years of loyal service.

Once again I anxiously logged on, hoping this would be the day I would hear from Gates. Instead, eight days later, I received an e-mail from Edstrom. It was yet another bid for a look at my manuscript. Pushy, overbearing, relentless: the Microsoft way. Her note began, "I have had several unsolicited inputs that indicate to me you may be reprinting myths and urban legends ... I cannot put bill in a compromising position unless I can be assured by reading that there aren't urban legends."

I had sent a batch of chapters to several colleagues of mine who work for big-time business bully pulpits; I could imagine a single set of chapters falling into the hands of someone seeking to curry favor with Microsoft PR, but not "several" as Edstrom claimed. The supposed "urban legend" she cited (leave it to Microsoft to equate a minor fact about its history to something as grandly indelible as an urban legend) was based on a long phone interview I had conducted (with Edstrom listening in) with a top Microsoft manager named Tod Nielsen. I reminded Edstrom of this, which launched a whole new round of negotiations.

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Two more times she'd make a bid for a copy of my manuscript before, finally, two days before Valentine's Day, I would hear from Gates.

Well, I didn't hear directly from Gates, not exactly. I received an e-mail forwarded through Edstrom that seemed as if it had been carefully scrubbed and disinfected before being passed along to me. He began by explaining that his recollection was that Novell had approached Microsoft, not the other way around, though I already knew from the Microsoft manager, Mike Murray, who had played point on that deal, that the opposite was true. He wrote that at the time of the talks, in 1989, Microsoft and IBM had "a great relationship" (true in the same fashion that you could say our president and first lady have a great relationship), and that IBM opposed the deal because of a similar project Big Blue had in the works.

Gates' response to my query about the 64/36 split was no less strange. Paul Allen had dropped out of Washington State University before Gates decided to drop out of Harvard, so for a bunch of months Allen worked as a software designer with the company that had licensed the pair's first product, BASIC for the PC. Though it was Allen who first proposed the idea that hatched Microsoft, and though both worked the same slavish hours to see the project through, Gates rationalized that he deserved a 60-percent share because Allen was getting paid to tinker with the original product, and he wasn't. Gates later convinced his partner that a 64/36 split would be more just (this was first reported in "Gates," by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews), because he had dropped out of a more prestigious university.

In his e-mail message, Gates was anything but defensive about this arrangement. He acknowledged that he had demanded a 60-percent cut of the company because of the salary Allen was receiving (a year or so's salary that has so far cost Allen something like $18 billion in lost equity), yet then claimed it wasn't about the money. "Paul and I started Microsoft because of the vision we had and not because we ever thought it would become such a business success," he wrote. He acknowledged, too, the 64/36 split, but said the two reverted back to 60/40 several years before taking the company public. "It has been very important for me to emphasize how much the original vision was something we shared," he wrote in that same message, perhaps not realizing that a 60/40 split emphasized precisely the reverse.

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I wove these hard-won Gates statements into the final version of the book, of course, but realized there were countless other places where I characterize Gates based on secondhand accounts relayed to me by people both inside and outside Microsoft. An honest portrayal of the man is a trying task -- perhaps an impossible one.

And therein lies the contradiction of writing about the world's richest man. He cares deeply about the way he is characterized in the press (witness his e-mail to Jim Carlton), yet so high is his profile that he cocoons himself in a platoon of well-paid handlers like Edstrom. He can't possibly respond to every request for his time -- but when he does grant a few minutes of it, his thoughts now come off as processed pabulum that lack credibility, guaranteeing that his perspective is dismissed out of hand. So he's left to complain after the fact, and we all must witness the grandest Gates irony of them all: Even as the world views him as one of its more aggressive predators, he sees himself as defenseless prey.


Gary Rivlin

Gary Rivlin is the author of three books, including the just-released "The Plot to Get Bill Gates." He is executive editor of the East Bay Express.

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