How Bill Gates evaluates expertise

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 18, 2006
Filed in Anecdotes

IStock_000001340564SmallJoel Spolsky is a software developer who used to work for Microsoft as the Excel Program Manager in the early 90’s. One of his big tasks was to enhance Excel’s programming language. Here Joel relates the story of presenting his Visual Basic for Excel specification for review by Bill Gates. It would seem that Bill is a bit of a swearer because one person on the team is allocated the role or expletive counter—the lower the number, the better.

For the purposes of this post the crucial part of the story is when Bill is asking a series of questions about the software specification , each one a little more difficult than the last.

Finally the killer question.

“I don’t know, you guys,” Bill said, “Is anyone really looking into all the details of how to do this? Like, all those date and time functions. Excel has so many date and time functions. Is Basic going to have the same functions? Will they all work the same way?”

“Yes,” I said, “except for January and February, 1900.”


The f*** counter and my boss exchanged astonished glances. How did I know that? January and February WHAT?

“OK. Well, good work,” said Bill. He took his marked up copy of the spec

…wait! I wanted that…

and left.

“Four,” announced the f*** counter, and everyone said, “wow, that’s the lowest I can remember. Bill is getting mellow in his old age.” He was, you know, 36.

Later I had it explained to me. “Bill doesn’t really want to review your spec, he just wants to make sure you’ve got it under control. His standard M.O. is to ask harder and harder questions until you admit that you don’t know, and then he can yell at you for being unprepared. Nobody was really sure what happens if you answer the hardest question he can come up with because it’s never happened before.”

Joel’s depth of knowledge was being tested here but I would also imagine that Joel’s demeanour on the day (level of comfort), the quality of the software spec and the stories already told to Bill about Joel were important factors in putting Bill’s mind at rest that the project was in good hands.

How is expertise judged in your organisation?

[via Seth Godin]

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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