How I snubbed Bill Gates (sorry Bill!)

 

In early 1986 Microsoft’ co-founder Bill Gates got an appointment to see me at the BRW office at 469 Latrobe St. It was not a successful interview, because I forgot he was coming and went out to lunch. I was habituated to a circuit around the block to stretch my legs after a morning at the computer, with a time-consuming stop at JB Hi-Fi on Elizabeth St to browse the cut-price classical CDs.

I returned to the office to find an indignant Pictures Editor, Tom Brentnall, who had to baby-sit Bill Gates to cover my absence.

My lapse was so egregious that it featured in ex-Editor Jeff Penberthy’s 25th anniversary essay on BRW’s history (Issue of August 24, 2006). He wrote:

When Bill Gates walked into the old BRW offices on Little Collins Street in Melbourne [actually we’d moved by then to Latrobe St. TT], there was no-one on hand to greet him. The young Microsoft founder had called to see senior writer Tony Thomas – but Thomas was a busy man. He was out to lunch, and he deserved it. Among the first owners of a personal computer in Australia [Eh? I don’t think so! TT], Thomas was writing a sponsored page that answered questions for the few PC users, but the magazine was ahead of its time.

In almost a year there had only ever been one genuine question come in from a reader. Week after week, Thomas wrestled to pose intriguing questions to himself, typically sourcing them from the reaches of Adelaide or Brisbane, and you could bank on his answers. Incredibly, then, some nark had written in to say he had checked the electoral rolls, and there was no person named Samson living in Willagee, which happened to be Tony Thomas’s old Perth home suburb.

Such is the price of exigencies. God knows what Bill Gates thought of us – Bill probably told Him when they talked that night. Tom Brentnall sat the geek from California down and gave him our latest issue to read while he rustled up a photographer…

Gates was in early 1986 just a 31yo in the geeky personal computer world. Microsoft was then just a private company on the verge of floating on the stockmarket. (The offering raised a modest $US61m from the public).

It took me quite some research even to establish when Gates visit to BRW happened. It was when Gates was doing overseas PR for the float.

Most IBM-style personal computers were still running the clunky MS-DOS operating system. Windows 1.0 involving mouse-pointing and clicking at the screen, was only a few months old. Bill Gates was not then famous, nor a model employer (he used to memorise staff licence plates so he could check who left the carpark early). But anyway, I now apologise to him over my inadvertent snub.

Microsoft, with its 118,000 workers, is now valued at $US400b, while Gates personal wealth is $US75b. BRW in contrast ceased as a printed magazine in 2013 after 32 years. Then on March 4, 2016, the on-line vestige of the magazine also disappeared. It was never the same – perhaps better – after my retirement in 2001.

11 March 2016 #

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