Interviewing Bill Gates

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I still can’t look Peter Rojas in the eye.

In 2004, Rojas left Gizmodo, the blog he had founded at Nick Denton’s Gawker Media, to start Engadget. Denton asked me to step in to blog at Gizmodo while they searched for a full-time replacement. My two-week temporary position turned into a four-week one, then a six-week one, until Denton finally realized that my special brand of cock jokes were as good as Gizmodo deserved and made me the full-time editor.

But I was floundering. Rojas had hired a small team of writers to work at Engadget, while I was running Gizmodo by myself. I planted myself in front of my computer from five in the morning until midnight, breaking only to shovel General Tso Chicken and delivery fajitas down my gullet. I gained thirty pounds. I couldn’t sleep at night, my back contorted with worry. My girlfriend and I barely slept together; she would gently try to coax me into relaxation, but I’d be too preoccupied with conceiving my next linkbait story to register her supplications.

I’d post 30 stories a day. Engadget would post 45. I’d post 45. Engadget would post 60. They were winning.

Rojas — a person who I still don’t know in the least; someone whose sitting down amicably at my table at last year’s SXSW prompted me to spring up, sputter a drunken unintelligible excuse and literally run away — haunted me, a fiendish specter who outwitted me at every move, whose machinations I saw behind every bad turn.

I was fucking nuts.

As CES 2005 rolled around, it was clear that Gizmodo was losing the gadget blog war. Although they never publicly exposed their readership numbers, it was obvious that Engadget was pulling ahead in traffic. And I knew through various channels that they were going to be heading to the Consumer Electronics Show in force, while I was going to be out there by myself.

I was ready to lose, though. Although I had been running Gizmodo for less than a year I was already about to burn out. If I’d had any inkling of the outcome over the next few years — Engadget‘s sale to AOL, the growth of Gizmodo with a proper staff, and eventual irrelevance of any sort of “win” between the two sites — I might have been able to keep my head on straight. But instead I saw the end of my short career in blogging, the first job I’d ever truly loved, about to end.

Susie and I sat in the back of towncar on the way to La Guardia to catch our plane to Vegas. She’d waited patiently by my side over the past few months. I thought perhaps we’d be able to catch an evening or two alone in Las Vegas in between all of the madness of the trade show. We needed it.

As I leaned back into the fake leather seat, my phone rang.

“Hey, Joel? It’s Larry Cohen from Microsoft. I know it’s sort of last second, but would you be interested in interviewing Bill Gates at CES?”It may seem strange now, but four years ago we bloggers were treated as somewhat mythical, dangerous creatures. We were going to kill the old media, the old media kept telling us, despite the fact that most of us were gaining newfound respect for the process of journalism and reporting practiced by the old guard. There was a strange line between bloggers and the rest of the media and a fraternity naturally developed those few of us actually blogging for a living. Every time something happened to one of us all the other bloggers took it as a sign of legitimacy for the entire endeavor.

And I was about to be the first blogger to whom Bill Gates would grant an interview.

In retrospect it isn’t that big of deal. Gates has been interviewed hundreds of times. The only difference was that this time he was about to be interviewed by someone who wasn’t really a journalist, hadn’t put in his dues, and more or less happened to be in the right place at the right time. Others would come to view the interview as a hallmark of blogging’s legitimacy in the world of online journalism, but for me it mostly reinforced the same rule that governs media old and new: whoever has the largest audience gets the most favor.

But fuck it: Bill Gates!

I looked over at Susie, who could tell from the look on my face that the person on the other end of the wireless was blowing my mind. I hung up.

“I think I’m going to interview Bill Gates.” She punched me.

A couple of days later, I met Cohen in the lobby of the Las Vegas Hilton. He kept me occupied while we waited for Gates’ to finish a previous interview in his hotel room.

“So what’s up with that Engadget site?” he asked. “They seem to be doing pretty well.” We shared a look that I interpreted as acknowledgement that he may have reached out to the wrong site. Too late now, I thought, but there’s no reason not to be gracious.

“I think they do good work,” I said. “If you like your technology news terminally dry.” Burn! Engadget might have a small team of hardworking, talented reporters out-writing the rest of the industry and transforming the face of technology journalism, but could they insert penis references into thirty posts a day? I and my penis think not.

Cohen got a call on his hulking Windows Mobile smartphone and said it was time. I was nearly sweating through my barbarously ugly Old Navy thermal shirt, the same one my mother would gently ask me about later, questioning if I had enough money for clothing.

Up we went. I was led into a small hotel room. A door connected my room to an adjacent suite. Gates was inside, waiting. Three executives milled around, trying to put me ease. Handing me water, suggesting helpfully that I drink some.

The door opened. Gates was ready.

I lumbered inside. Gates stepped around a couch and smiled, extended his hand. He was small and almost ashen, but seemed lively. He seemed alive. Perhaps after all the jibes and scorn, Bill Gates was not a robot after all. (Speaking to the richest man in the world and discovering him just another guy ended up being a deeply humanizing influence on my worldview. I recommend everyone try it.)

We exchanged pleasantries which have been obliterated from my memory by terror. I sat down on the couch and removed my laptop — my brand new 12-inch PowerBook — and placed it on the coffee table between us. I will not lie and say that it did not seem like a small act of rebellion to record an interview with Bill Gates with my Apple laptop; it also felt like the twerpiest thing I could ever do and I regretted it immediately.

That sudden shame also knocked out a large portion of my snarkiest prepared questions. I literally scratched out “Does Steve Balmer eat babies?” from my notepad, leaving me with precious few questions to ask.

I’d called Xeni an hour before the interview. I felt like this was a huge opportunity, a huge responsibility for all bloggers everywhere, and I was at a loss as to what questions I could ask. Should I try to nail him on DRM? Should I make fun of him? Should I call Microsoft uncool?

Xeni told me, more or less, just to roll with it and that I’d do fine — but asking him about DRM probably wouldn’t hurt.

The beginning of the interview was about blogs and RSS, which seemed important at the time. (Remember, this was four whole years ago, when RSS was an exotic new technology.)

Gates was rocking. I didn’t notice it at first, my mind preoccupied with the ways in which I would nail him and become a hero to thousands of Slashdot readers. But as his mind would warm up to answer a question, he would fade out just a bit and begin a slow but unmistakeable autistic full-torso rock.

I’d never seen Gates do this before in any televised interview. What could it mean? It was something he was obviously aware of if he didn’t do it all the time. Did the fact that he was doing it now mean he was comfortable around me? Uncomfortable around me? Were my questions actually challenging enough that he had to give real consideration to his answers? This was terrifying. Why hadn’t anyone mentioned that Gates was like this before? Should I mention it?

He’d soon answered my question, which meant I was supposed to ask another one. It all seemed so natural. We were having a conversation. I’m having a conversation with the richest man in the world and I’m totally doing fine.

Except I wasn’t.

Bill Gates may be a lot of things, but he isn’t stupid. No matter what you think of Microsoft and the technical and business moves that Gates made to grow it, there’s no denying that the guy is sharp. And while I’d waltzed into the room with my stupid greasy blogger hair and my stupid greasy blogger shirt ready to pin Gates to the wall with some pointed repartee, I realized with a sinking feeling that not only was Gates respectfully taking the interview seriously, he actually cared about his answers. Cared enough to try to prove me wrong.

I was in a battle of minds with the richest man in the world! I wanted to leave the room immediately, but his handlers were blocking every exit. I’d have to stick it out.

Actually, I did okay. I even managed to get in a couple of rhetorical zingers at the end.

The very last question I asked, to which Gates gave a weak (but in retrospect telling) answer, I excised from the transcript: Do you worry about the fact that Microsoft isn’t cool?

Our time was nearly up by the time I’d asked. I could tell from the look on Gates’ face that it wasn’t a question he felt worth answering, and he snapped instantly back into his stock-standard PR spiel. “Oh, I think our products are very cool.” (Or some such. I’ve lost the MP3s of the actual interview.) I’d clearly been referring to Apple. He knew I was talking about Apple. But at the time I had an inkling that Apple’s style would be a factor in the still-ongoing iPod war, but I wasn’t confident enough in my opinion to try to convince Bill Gates that his company just wasn’t cool.

We shook hands, took that dreadful picture*, and I stepped back into the staging area to compose myself. As it happened, Bill and his entourage were leaving their room as I left the one next door, so we shared an awkward elevator ride to the ground floor. He asked me what my favorite device of the show so far had been. I believe I had an answer, but like everything that day, it wasn’t recorded to a device so it’s a all a bit murky.

I do remember the looks on the faces of the people waiting for the elevator when it opened and they recognized Gates inside. I looked at them, looked back at Gates, and said “Talk to you later!” Then I gave those innocent, hapless people the rudest smirk of my life and walked away.

I stayed up all night and typed up the transcript myself. It was a moderately big deal when we published the story — Denton called it our “CES Hail Mary” — but Engadget did such a bang-up job that year that it was clear they were going to be the dominant gadget site for a while. A few months later Gates granted Rojas an interview and my brief claim to fame was over.

I couldn’t have been more relieved.

* I’d wanted to throw the horns, but I chickened out. One of my life’s greatest regrets and one I hope I have a chance to remedy in the future. Maybe this year?

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28 Responses to Interviewing Bill Gates

  1. Thud says:

    This story: “But as [Gate's] mind would warm up to answer a question, he would fade out just a bit and begin a slow but unmistakeable autistic full-torso rock.”

    Two stories down: “The second his ass hit the chair, Jobs began rocking back and forth autistically.”

    Dammit. If I’d only developed an autistic rock, I could be a multi-gazillionaire software mogul.

  2. Gloria says:

    It’s posts like these that demand my eternal loyalty to BB Gadgets.

  3. Kyosti says:

    Excellent. Light years ahead with your cool-factor question. Microsoft is now coming out with retro-cool tees. Love to see BBGadget review these with references to original Bill interview.

  4. reflex says:

    I feel immensely guilty. By reading your increasingly irrational ramblings on Gizmodo a few years ago, I was actually helping to bring about your downfall. I honestly didn’t believe you were a single person. I figured there was a team of interns and ghost writers who prepped content that was “Joelized” prior to dissemination.

    No that I know the truth, I realize that you were little more than a slave in a third world sweatshop, pounding out tacky baubles 12 hours a day without sunlight or respect.

  5. Kluv says:

    Excellent stuff today, gents. Great writing, all around.

  6. sisyphus says:

    Hah, Thud, I was just going to make that same observation. It seems that compulsive behavior stemming from a developmental disorder is a common trait of scrupulous, ruthlessly powerful corporate rivals.

    And do I detect a rivalry of a different sort right here at BBG? Brownlee writes an autobiographical, childhood confessional, filled with all the perplexing plot elements of a bildungsroman.

    Four hours later, Joel dredges up painful memories of yore, remembering the days of going it alone in the face of adversity. Joel exudes an hyperawareness of his woefully deficient hygiene in the presence of an information-age titan.

    And lo! Beschizza, only two hours on the heels of Joel’s reminiscent post, plumbs his own childhood, recalling not only quality time with Father, but also a supernatural experience that instilled in him (I’m going to go out on a limb here) a sense of wonderment and awe at the mysterious workings of gadgets.

    Could this be a more literary (and much more subtle) theme week here at BBG? Or does this mark some other, more particular occasion? You guys are a week late, if its Proust you seek to conjure–his death anniversary was Nov. 18. Nevertheless, that this is coincidence I find hard to believe.

  7. John Brownlee says:

    Yeah, it’s called a themed anecdote and personal narrative day. Which Joel -promised- to announce at the start of the day, then didn’t do! Bosses!

  8. rstevens says:

    That part about being on the computer constantly, not sleeping and eating crap. That describes so many months of my life. You’re my new cousin.

  9. sisyphus says:

    Haha, John, I personally find that the effect was greater having no introduction. Of course, I was one of the paltry few who was positively giddy over the total immersion of INFOMERCIA.

    Fine work, gentlemen. I applaud the effort that goes into writing thoughtful, provocative posts that only tangentially relate to gadgets. And I mean that with all the sincerity I can muster.

  10. acipolone says:

    What’s an Engadget?

  11. krylon says:

    First let me say that your tenure at Gizmodo was when I actually ENJOYED the site a hell of a lot more than Engadget. Eventually they loosened up and Gizmodo loosened up too much and my allegiances swayed.

    Anyway, this was a great article and apparently I need to start rocking back and forth all the time.

  12. deejayqueue says:

    I always wondered what happened when you left Gizmodo and started Dethroner, and now landed here at BBG.

  13. pt says:

    it’s interesting, i lived through that, the big traffic bumps were when engadget did a lot of how-tos and different content – then it went to 50+ posts a day, link wars – now it’s moving towards really rich content and live events. BBG, giz and engadget are all better sites now i think… BBG being my favorite for at least today – mostly because of your reviews and stories like this joel.

  14. Shinykatie says:

    God, Gizmodo was always better than Engadget back then. Not only did you consistently make me laugh (the most important thing in my view), you also used to credit Shiny Shiny if you picked a story up from us. Engadget credited sporadically and even once cropped my hand out of a photo I’d taken and used that in its story. The cheek of it!

    But Engadget is aimed at a different audience – hardcore techies who like to be very very cynical about gadgets. That’s fine, of course, but I’ve always favoured childish glee and enthusiasm.

  15. zikman says:

    you _totally_ should have threw the horns!

  16. artbot says:

    Nice story, Joel. I’m always fascinated by many people’s tendency to let the perceptions of their own minds (the richest guy in the whole world!) blind them to the reality of the situation (talking to a guy in a room).

    I’ve experienced it and it is, indeed, oddly uncomfortable to feel so powerless in a situation where there is no direct physical control over you. Once again my brain makes my body its bitch.

  17. murray says:

    Your writing on Gizmodo had a lot more to offer than cock jokes, Joel. Cock jokes amuse me sometimes, but you made me laugh every day. And besides, you just wrote well.

    I stuck with Gizmodo for a while after you left, but eventually migrated to Engadget. Neither of them are particularly good anymore.

  18. dculberson says:

    Awesome. Great post, Joel!!

  19. scissorfighter says:

    First, great story! And that picture of you with Gates is awesome.

    Now that I’ve delivered a compliment, let me chastise you for a moment. You had a once-in-a-lifetime interview with the richest man in the world (and arguably one of the most powerful and influential,) and you lost the freaking recording of the interview? What?

    Which is a good example of why I think the iTunes store, et al, is a dead end. Digital softcopy-only items have so much less longevity than their analog hardcopy ancestors. You know those 7000 jpg pictures that you took with your Nikon CoolPix that are now on your hard drive? How do you plan on showing those to your grandkids? And the 5000 AAC files you downloaded off the ‘net? It amazes me how short-sighted we tend to be in our new digital lifestyle. Trying to play an mp3 or view a jpg in 2048 will be like trying to read a Univac mag tape today, if you can even manage to keep track of it that long and not lose it!

    Oh, and if anything, you should have thrown The Shocker.

  20. frankiez says:

    Best post of the year!!!

    It would be great to be able to read somethign like this on WIRED…

  21. robotrevolution says:

    Great story! But don’t worry, you’ll always be the Inspector Gadget of penis jokes to me.

  22. notcot says:

    i second rstevens + reading your post just gave me the wake up call i needed about burn out…

    …awesome read! :)

  23. andrew liszewski says:

    I have to admit Joel, you made the idea of sitting around in your pajamas all day making penis jokes and writing about gadgets seem so glamorous.

    And 45 posts a day by yourself?! Cripes.

  24. lo_fi says:

    Joel, I enjoyed your post so much I actually registered instead of lurking as per usual so I could throw a thumbs up yer way; although now that I think of it you could have added a few more penis references. There’s always next time I guess… Keep up the good work!

  25. icky2000 says:

    I’ve always laughed at the penis jokes but it is the honesty, humility, and great writing that kept me reading Gizmodo and now BBG. Great stuff, Joel!

  26. tinfoil says:

    I do remember reading that interview. It was one of the better interviews with Bill up until that point, with many interviewers afraid to ask questions that were actually of some interest. It was also the one thing that tipped the scales into Gizmodo’s favour as at the time I was reading them both.

    And certainly, Engadget had good news, but as you said, it was dry. Institutional.

    Even now, not many people can pull off penis jokes without looking (completely) immature, but somehow you and the crew at BBG manage.

  27. funnelbc says:

    So the thing I can’t help but take away from the various articles I read about Steve Jobs versus Bill Gates is that Bill actually seems like a genuinely nice guy. From most reports it seems that Steve Jobs is somewhat more difficult (and I think that’s being charitable).

    I’m not sure what this means in the scope of things, or even if it has any relevance whatsoever in the mac v pc debate, but the thought nags at me like a mild toothache.

    I know Bill reads the nerd blogs, although whether that extends to BBG and even less likely to the comments, but if you are out there Bill, good on you and a heart felt thankyou to you & melinda for your amazing charity work (if not for being a nicer bloke than steve ;)

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