Monday, March 23, 2009

Cueless in Redmond

In the eighties and nineties, I was a grunt programmer and that qualified me to put in some quality time at Microsoft University, where in those days all us hacks got educated.

Microsoft was cool, then. I went there several times. The Snickers were free. I saw the Big Rock Candy Mountain flowing. And I ate the hamburger in the hamburger joint. I did Redmond.

But the time I remember is when Louis Kahn and Greg Johnson went with me. I don't remember the year, but it was when everybody on campus was saying that "Microsoft is betting the company on NT."

At the time, both Louis and Greg worked for me, although that's what you might call a euphemism. Both of them were smarter programmers than I was. Louis, in particular, was a wunderkind who became financially independent in the computer business when he was 17.

I once went to a computer networking conference with Louis back when networking was the coming thing. On the first day, we walked into the conference room and were immediately surrounded by at least 20 people. They all wanted to talk to Louis. That's when I found out that Louis was famous. A guy next to me said, "Who are you?" I said, "Louis works for me." The guy edged away. After that, if anybody asked, I said, "I'm with Louis."

But when Greg and Louis got together, they were like big kids. The first thing they wanted to do, when we got in to Redmond, was go to a local arcade and play the video games and drive the racecars.

Then we hooked up with Dave Edson, a Microsoft programmer Louis knew, and we all went to a fancy pool parlor, which, we were told, was a classy place to hang out in town. Now, in those days, Dave Edson was known for being the guy who ported Tetris to Windows, but he made us go all the way to his place first so he could get his cue stick.

I said, "Don't they have cue sticks at the place?"

Edson said, "This is my cue stick."

I stood rebuked. He brought a little black case from his house and showed it to me. The cue was inside, and it came in two pieces that screwed together. All in all, a precision instrument. I was impressed.

At the pool parlor, Edson said to me, "You want play a game?"

I explained that I was a terrible pool player. The truth is, I watched my father once take two bills off a couple of slicks by running the table while holding his cue in one hand, but I know nothing of the game. And, especially, I told Edson, I did not wish to play anyone of such a high calibre as himself.

He said, "I'm not that good. I'll show you how."

I said, "I left my cue at home."

He showed me the cue rack.

As it turned out, Dave Edson was no better at playing pool than I was. We fumbled our way to a draw, if that's what it's called.

The next day, he showed us his office space in the part of Microsoft that students usually didn't get to see. He told us that everybody in the area knew it was his space because it had all his things in it.

Later on, in the break room, we talked a little shop.

I said to Dave, "How do you think NT is going to work out?"

Dave said, "Microsoft is betting the company on NT."

Greg told us how Louis had stood up in a national meeting when he was still a kid and told a big company that their technical architecture was all wrong. Everybody on the dais was confounded, but Louis was right and they were wrong.

Greg said it was like baby Einstein, tugging on Newton's cape.

Edson then paid homage, saying that Louis was a genius of networking, while he, himself, was "network clueless."

I said, "Me, too."

And Louis laughed out loud.

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