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Bill Gates Wasn’t The Smartest Guy In the Room

August 27, 2013

(Photo credit: World Economic Forum via flickr)

The CSA would also have responsibility for Microsoft Research. There’d be a dotted line reporting to a VP but the CSA would be the decision maker. So, any questions?

Just one, and maybe you covered this and I missed it, but what’s a CSA?

Ah. . .that’s you, Bill.

One of the benefits to working for Microsoft was the opportunity to hear Bill Gates speak in person. Sure it was typically at a company meeting where it was just Bill and 5,000 of his closest friends, but still when Bill spoke to employees, the stories were much different than the ones that got reported in the press.

Bill was telling us about a time where he was in a meeting with the top Microsoft leadership. Bill had recently turned over the Chief Executive Officer role to Steve Ballmer and had created a Chief Software Architect role for himself. This executive meeting was to discuss the resulting reorganization. While reorganizations were not common at the senior levels, Microsoft had a habit of doing some sort of reorgs every six months or so.

In my 9 years as a full time employee I had 20 direct managers. And I wasn’t unusual. The logic was that by constantly changing the management and team structures, they kept people from becoming complacent in their roles. Not sure if it worked.

Bill explained that at this particular meeting it seemed like everyone else in the room understood what CSA meant and he was the only one who didn’t.

I sat there thinking maybe I could pick it up in context, but after about 15 minutes I realized that wasn’t going to work. I had to either keep quiet and not know, or speak up and risk looking foolish.

Think about that. The richest man in the world. The man who was one of the two or three most influential people in the software industry sat in a meeting and worried about asking a question that would make him look foolish. I don’t know about you, but knowing that, helps me have much less trouble speaking up. If Bill Gates occasionally got lost in meetings, maybe there was hope for me yet.

There is a danger in trying to be the smartest guy in the room. I’ve worked with some brilliant engineers. At my last company, our network engineers truly were brilliant. They knew more about networks than I’ll ever know. And yet, at times they weren’t the smartest guys in the room. I talked about How to Argue With An Engineer. . .Sort of. The network guy knew networks, but didn’t necessarily know how the backup system works, or the virtualization program, or the storage arrays. I often had all those groups and more represented on my projects. I certainly wasn’t the smartest guy in the room. I knew the overall plan, but I didn’t know the details of how the engineers were going to accomplish each piece.

In short, NO ONE was the smartest guy in the room. And so long as we, especially I, remembered that, things went well. Occasionally, we’d get a hotshot engineer who, like an annoying volleyball player ran all over the court trying to tell everyone else how to run their technologies. They typically didn’t last long. Worse is the guy who really doesn’t understand what’s being discussed, but pretends he does. The results can either be hilarious or disastrous.

So, naturally we were curious what was so obscure and perhaps secret that even Bill Gates didn’t know what it was.

What do you mean, it’s me?

Well, CSA stands for your new title: Chief Software Architect

Fortunately Bill was able to laugh at himself.

Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions. And if you ever find yourself as the smartest guy in the room and you aren’t alone, you should check your assumptions.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, blogger and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children. That fact alone pretty much guarantees he’s never the smartest person in the room.

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