A hotline to His Billness? Or a guard having a bit of a giggle?

Choose Your Own On Call


On Call You can never be sure who is on the other end of the on-call phone. It might be a minion... but sometimes it might be the master. Or maybe not.

Today's story is another from Register reader Alessandro (not his name) and takes us back to the glory days before Microsoft Exchange, when Microsoft Mail was all the rage (sort of).

Alessandro worked for a small European company beta testing Microsoft Mail. The team was ace at finding bugs in Microsoft's code, so much so that a member of the development team passed on his direct dial number so the gang could file issues directly, "bypassing the (painful) Microsoft system," explained Alessandro.

Anyone subjected to the delight of Microsoft's current Feedback Hub might wonder if things have changed that much in the intervening decades.

All went well for a few weeks, until the Microsoft developer told Alessandro that he would be taking a five-day vacation. To keep those issues flowing, he handed over the "hunt group" number for the entire Microsoft Mail development team.

"Back in the '90s," Alessandro told us, "a 'hunt group number' was a special number that grouped a number of phone numbers." Call the number, and every phone on the development team would ring. The company name and problem could then be given to whoever picked up.

"Oh, where are the days that devs could just talk to other company's devs instead of submitting 'issues' and 'tickets' without going through a web interface or (heaven forbid) a call centre..." he sighed.

It was very late on a Friday night (Redmond time) that Alessandro, tiring of the latest bug, called for help. The phone rang. And rang. And rang some more. Eventually it was picked up and an unfamiliar but terse voice answered: "Microsoft, Redmond."

Alessandro was explaining his problem when he started to suspect that the listener was not on the Microsoft Mail team. He was, however, the last one left in the building. Probably some innocent on patrol who had picked up a ringing extension.

"So what's it like to be a security guard for Microsoft? You must know all the big-shots, right?" joked Alessandro.

The annoyed voice on the other end of the phone snapped back: "This is not security. I'm Bill Gates."

Suspecting a wind-up, Alessandro laughed: "Sure, 'Mr Gates'. I understand and my apologies for having troubled you at this time. I'll call back on Monday and call it a night as it's 4am here now and I'm not thinking straight any more..."

The following Monday, Alessandro called again and this time went straight through to a developer. He told the techie about the japery of Friday and the joker pretending to be Bill Gates.

There was a pause.

The developer checked the time of the call. Late on a Friday night. He checked the number. The hunt group. He checked how many times Alessandro had left the phone ringing. Maybe 20 or 30 rings. Maybe more.

"Yeah," said the developer, "on a Friday night that could have been Bill Gates..."

The developer went on to explain how the hunt groups worked if there was no attached voicemail. An escalation occurred to ring more and more phones until eventually every phone in the building began ringing.

"So, it's entirely possible that you indeed had Bill Gates on the phone, because he absolutely hates ringing phones and picks up immediately when his phone rings..."

Alessandro was suitably gobsmacked. He did not, however, delete the number from his phone until Gates was succeeded by Steve Ballmer.

The story might have ended there (and Alessandro's conviction that he had indeed spoken to His Billness and had a direct line to Gates stored in his phone would later serve him in good stead) if it were not for some current and former Microsoft veterans raising an eyebrow.

One long-time worker we spoke to recalled the building in which the Microsoft Mail team were located (following its relocation from Vancouver after the Network Courier acquisition) being different to that of Gates, making it unlikely that the CEO would have heard a phone ringing: "At most, it would've stopped at a VP."

Another former employee and sharer of Task Manager tales, Dave Plummer, told us it came under the category of "urban legend with some possible roots in fact," before pointing out it was unlikely to have happened on the current campus, but was possible when Microsoft was on Northrup Way.

"They even wired in an extension so that Burgermaster was on the PBX somehow," he told us.

As well as a supplier of fried patties to hungry Microsoft workers, those with long memories might remember the BurgerMaster (note the capitalisation) from the days of Windows 3.0 as "the data segment that recorded the locations of all the other data segments."

But as for a direct line to Gates? Alessandro is convinced. None of those present at the time that we contacted could definitively deny it having ever happened. So could it be...? We asked Bill himself, but we suspect he might be bit preoccupied with other matters to confirm an On Call moment from 30 years ago.

What do you think? Have you ever dialled up the on-call number and found yourself talking to the biggest of cheeses? Or have you adopted the persona of another and pushed the joke a bit too far? Tell us with an email to On Call. ®

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