Slammers With Bill Gates

It was the summer of 1986. I had just finished my freshman year at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), and I needed a job. My parents used their networks and somehow I landed a gig as a Microsoft Summer Intern.

At the time, Microsoft was the dominant operating system company, but they were nowhere in the Office applications space. Word processing, in particular, was dominated by a program called Word Perfect. It was an incredibly hard to use program, because everything you would now expect to be on a menu (bold, line spacing, font selection, whatever) was assigned its own F-key along the top row of the keyboard. You would hold down shift, and alt, and ctrl, in various combinations when you hit these F-keys to get different effects. It was a user interface disaster.

Word 3.0So Microsoft had the novel idea to introduce a Word processor that did away with special keys, and instead had a simple menu system. These were the days before GUIs on PCs, so the menu was a list of words along the bottom of the screen. And each menu would open sub-menus, just like the Word processors you use today. Except the sub-menus were also horizontal. It was actually kind of a mess, but it was better than the F-key disaster of Word Perfect.

The trick was how to convince people to stop using Word Perfect and to use Microsoft Word instead. And that’s where the summer interns came in. We would drive around to computer stores, and teach the employees how to use Word. The theory was that when people came in to buy a word processor, they would probably buy what the salesperson told them to use. So if they salespeople were bought in to this new idea of menus, instead of F-keys, then they would be more likely to sell Word.

So that was the job, but before I could start, I needed to go to Microsoft HQ in Redmond, WA to be trained. After all, I couldn’t teach a program I didn’t know how to use.

They sent me the manual in advance, and I read it, so by the time I got to Redmond, I already knew more about how to use Microsoft Word than the person teaching the course. But that was OK, because there were a lot of lazier students who hadn’t read the manual, so I helped teach.

We spent a couple days doing that. And one night, back at the hotel where they were putting us up, we were instructed to meet in a big room off the lobby at 7pm. It was a nice room – big board room table, floor to ceiling windows with a view of nothing in particular. And sitting at that big table, was a disheveled blond guy rocking in his seat. His name was Bill. You might have heard of him. He was not the richest man in the world back then, but he was doing OK.

The hotel staff brought in a tray of small glasses. And Bill said, “Who wants to do slammers?!”

slammer

By 1986 I had tried beer in college, so I figured I could join him. He put his hand over the glass, slammed it on the table, and drank the shot. I followed suit. As did the rest of the interns. None of whom were anywhere near the legal drinking age in Washington state, which was 21.

From there, we climbed into a couple hotel vans and went to downtown Seattle. This was pre-grunge, but the Seattle club scene was absolutely hopping. And UW was about 80% women at the time (I was told), so the people doing most of the hopping in these clubs were primarily girls.

We went into the first place, and Bill handed his credit card to the bartender and said “Run a tab!” To a youngster like me, this was probably the most impressive thing he did all night. Such largesse!

Not Ms. 19

Not Ms. 19

Bill was a terrible dancer. Not even white-guy-at-a-wedding bad. Worse than that. He basically just bounced up and down. And mostly, he bounced up and down next to a particular 19-year-old girl. He was 31 at the time, and looked about 16, so this wasn’t nearly as creepy as you might think.

However, Ms. 19-year-old was not impressed. I remember that she had curly, sandy hair. Low body fat, like a runner. Pretty, but kind of plain. A very kind face. The sort of a woman you might picture running a 40 billion dollar charitable foundation someday. She seemed to be just tolerating Bill’s attention. Looking for, but not finding, an exit strategy.

The night went on, and we went from club to club. Dancing, drinking, and yelling but not hearing. We eventually ended up back at the hotel, where there was a very large bouquet of red long stem roses waiting for Ms. 19. I asked her if she was surprised by the flowers. She shrugged, and said something along the lines of, “He was really into me. But he’s gross.”

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