What’s it like to work with Bill Gates?

What’s it like to work with Bill Gates? Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who has worked for him at Microsoft for decades, told a funny story on Wednesday that gives a hint. Nadella received an email from Gates over the weekend about a big new Microsoft database initiative right after Gates had taken a meeting with the team creating it. 

When it comes to weekend emails from Gates, Nadella said his instinct is always to ask himself if he wants to open it right away, or put it off until the workweek. But he held his breath and opened it, and was shocked to see the first word. It said: “Wow.” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took the stage Wednesday morning in Las Vegas to usher in thousands of Microsoft’s business partners at its huge annual partner conference. And in the middle of his keynote, he couldn’t resist telling a quick joke about what it’s like to work with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who still works with Nadella as both a member of the board and a technical adviser. The story came right after Nadella and his team proudly showed off the company’s new “hyperscale database” to the crowd.

That’s Microsoft’s latest entry in the lucrative and ultra-competitive cloud-database field. It’s a database that can grow to a virtually limitless size but can still work with all the existing Microsoft SQL Server applications built for previous versions.

The product was first announced in September, but this was the first opportunity for Microsoft to show it off to the thousands of partners who will sell, support, and write custom applications for it. After the demo, conducted by Rohan Kumar, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Azure Data, Nadella bounded back on stage smiling and told the story. “I must say this limitless, transparent scale out [cloud database] has been a dream for a long time,” Nadella said. Indeed, this cloud database took seven years to create, according to the consulting company live and Goose. “And Bill Gates recently met with the team that was building all of this, and he sent an email,” Nadella said. “And usually when you get a weekend email from Bill, you kind of wait and see. Do I really want to open it now? I’ve been working with Bill for a long time.” But he took the plunge and opened it. “It started by saying, ‘Wow.’ I had never seen those words from him, never heard those words. He was really thrilled to see us make progress,” Nadella said.

“Of course, he had a long list of things we needed to be working on as well,” he joked. And the crowd laughed. That’s because Gates has a well-earned reputation for his email rants, especially when he’s upset about the development of a product. The email was from 2003, when Gates was still working full time at the company. Gates was ticked off because he had tried to download a Microsoft app, Movie Maker, from the Microsoft website but discovered “This site is so slow it is unusable,” Gates said.

After many minutes of attempting to use the site, a page finally loaded. “I thought for sure now I would see a button to just go do the download. In fact it is more like a puzzle that you get to solve. It told me to go to Windows Update and do a bunch of incantations,” Gates wrote. The email went on like that, for many words and with that exact tone, for a while. In 2008, Bishop asked him about this email, and Gates smiled: “There’s not a day that I don’t send a piece of email … like that piece of email. That’s my job.” So you can imagine why Nadella was wondering if he should spoil his weekend by opening that email immediately and how shocked he was to see the praise, but also how not shocked was to see “the long list of things we needed to be working on as well.”

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