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AT LARGE: Ask a silly question

AT LARGE: Ask a silly question

Working in this business can, occasionally, be quite surreal. I've been writing about technology and technology issues for some years now (despite my deceptively youthful appearance) and, in that time, I've encountered some of the more bizarre characters I could ever have hoped to meet. Probably what keeps me interested.

I'm on this subject at the moment because of an article I wrote recently for one of ARN's stablemate publications about disaster recovery plans. I won't identify the person I was interviewing, but I will say this: he wasn't identified in the article either.

In the course of writing the article, I spoke with people in various organisations who were responsible for disaster recovery. What I meant by that was, of course, what do you do if the computers containing your mission-critical data fail? How do you get back up and running? How do you stay in business? It's a fairly dry subject, but it's ground that's worth covering repeatedly.

Anyway, I opened the interview with this fellow by asking what were his company's priorities for disaster recovery. What I meant, of course, was which of your systems are the most critical and how are they protected?

"Well," he said, his American drawl practically melting my microphone, "I'd like to start by saying that our first priority is our people." I was intrigued and slightly confused at this point. I hadn't been thinking of an HR angle here, but I let him run with it.

"The first thing we want to know in a disaster," he drawled, "is that our people alright. We want to know where they are, and we want to get them to safety." I attempted, as you might understand, to steer the discussion around to data recovery, and getting the computers up and running again. But no, his first priority was his people, and he was determined to tell me how darn safe they would be.

I thought for a moment of stopping the interview, rewinding the tape and starting again, perhaps with a clearer brief. Then I decided I must keep this tape. Please understand that it's not that my years in tech rags have inured me to the plight of people in the event of a disaster. It's just that when you're writing yet another feature about backing up your data and plugging in a UPS, you need something to laugh about as you go.

To be fair, it's not always the people on that side of the mike who are a bit bizarre. I recall a press conference a few years ago with Bill Gates (not the last time he was here, but maybe the time before), in which he was fielding mostly friendly questions from an audience of awed journos. A few tried to corner him on the subject of the antitrust suit (which was still in its early stages), but he managed to deflect them. Then, one of my close colleagues, and a person I respect sufficiently that he will remain unidentified, decided to ask a "hard" question.

Problem: the journo hadn't quite thought the question through properly, and in fact the answer was contained within the question. Unfortunately, I don't remember the question now, but I do recall thinking at the time it was one of the worst questions I'd ever heard asked in a press conference. And the guy was sitting maybe a metre away from Bill Gates. You know, Bill Gates.

The room went silent. Even the guys from the broadcast media seemed to realise that something very silly had been asked. My colleague sank a little in his seat, as if he also realised, as the words left his mouth, that he'd just made himself look like a doofus in front of Bill Gates. But, to his credit, he kept his eyes on the Gater the whole time - he wanted his question answered, and would not admit it was maybe not the brightest thing ever said.

Gates looked at him, momentarily perplexed but not put off. My guess is that he's been asked silly questions before. He has a reputation, of course, as an ubergeek who does not suffer fools at all, much less gladly. I, and the rest of the room, waited for the kill.

His answer, when it came a few moments later, was polite and considered, and outlined the techie underpinnings of NT's networking. Faced with the prospect of humiliating a journo with ease, Gates chose instead to treat him as if he'd said something sensible. Too easy, perhaps? Fish in a barrel, maybe. Or maybe, despite reputations, Gates is a decent guy after all.

But I'll bet he kept the tape.

Matthew JC. Powell denies that he is a member of a secret society. Beat it out of him on mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au


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