Legendary tech columnist Walt Mossberg is retiring this month, shortly after the annual Code Conference wraps up, but not before he could take another seat in those famous red leather chairs.
Wednesday night, the script was flipped as Mossberg was the subject of an interview conducted by former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.
Over his 47 years in the business, Mossberg has interacted with the giants of the tech industry. So at the 15-minute mark of his nearly half hour discussion with Costolo, it was worth paying extra close attention when Mossberg was asked to recount “the Bill Gates Taco Bell story.”
“This better be good, by the way,” Costolo said. So we transcribed it below:
“Bill Gates was very generous with me when he was running Microsoft and actually Steve Ballmer did the same thing. I did an annual, what I called an “immersion visit” with Microsoft, I spent two or three days, I saw lots of product managers and I saw some engineers and that’s really what I enjoyed doing. I saw future products, I did all that. A PR person would sit in the meeting and take notes. I inquired about this and I was told these memos went to a number of people, including Bill, who was always my last interview, or mostly my last interview. And he was getting these memos about how these meetings were going about these different products. And then I would sit down with him.
“One one year it was decided, or I was told, ‘Bill would like to take you to dinner, and do the interview there.’ So I go to his office, and you know, those of you who are from Microsoft or been to Microsoft know, even back, this must have been 10-12 years ago, they have a lot of buildings. I parked in one building but by the time I got to his office I was like half a mile away from my car.
“It was like 7 o’clock or 6 o’clock and I went into his office and we got into a giant discussion, some of it was arguing. Bill and I had hand-waving arguments — he’d stand up and wave his arms and I’d wave my arms back at him. It was theatrical and there was a little anger in there, but, I learned a lot from him, I don’t know if he learned anything from me, but we had good meaty discussions.
“Well, he forgot to take me to dinner, and I forgot that he was supposed to take me to dinner, and the phone rings and it’s Melinda [Gates]. It’s 10 o’clock, we’re still in his office, there’s no one else in the building, the phone rings it’s Melinda. I can hear only one side of the conversation, ‘Oh, shit I forgot to take him to dinner.’ He puts his hand over the mouth[piece], ‘Melinda’s on the phone she says I’m an idiot because I forgot to take you to dinner, are you mad?’ No, tell her I’m fine, I’m enjoying the discussion, it’s all fine. So he says, ‘I’ll be home soon’ — this is the richest man in the world — and he hangs up the phone and he says, ‘I’ll drive you to your car, I gotta get home.’ But he says, ‘Ya know, I am gonna go eat before I go home but I’m going to go to the takeout window at Taco Bell.’ He says, ‘Do you want to come with me? Then I can tell her I took you to dinner.’ And I say, ‘Ya know, we’ve been talking for about 3 1/2 hours and I’m not so crazy about the Taco Bell takeout window at night when there’s the last leavings of the stuff.’ So I say, ‘Thanks, but, if you’ll just take me to my car I’ll just get room service back at the hotel.’
“So we walk out of his office and we’re walking toward the elevator and he goes, ‘Oh, I’ll be right back I’ve gotta go back to the office.’ I go, ‘What’s the matter?’ He says, ‘ I don’t have any money on me.’ His net worth is, I don’t know $100 billion, or some major amount of money. I said, ‘Well, what do ya need, I’ll give ya 10 bucks.’ He says, ‘No no no.’ He goes back in his office and he emerges again with this $10 bill. He tips. He’s a good guy. He is, literally, the world’s biggest philanthropist, so that’s where it started with tipping the Taco Bell guy. But he comes triumphantly out of his office with a $10 bill and he drove me to my car and I imagine he went to Taco Bell.
“The coda to the story is, I knew Melinda from when she was a product manager, before she got married to him, and so I’m in a meeting with a group of people, including Melinda, and before the meeting starts she pulls me into the hall and she says, ‘I’m so embarrassed that he didn’t take you to dinner.’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’
“But that’s the Taco Bell story.”