A man is known by the company he keeps, goes the adage.
And for one wonderful evening Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft Corp., hung out with some of India's best and brightest -- the IIT alumni.
In his usually understated way, Bill Gates delivered the keynote speech at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the founding of IIT at the Flint Center, Cupertino, CA.
Indian Institute of Technology alumni from all over the world flocked by the hundreds to attend the two-day event.
Gates looked like a bashful student when the audience gave him a standing ovation before he started his speech.
"Great honour for me, after all I am not 50 years, and I never graduated from college - yet. I don't know if I will be able to change it -- am busy right now."
The Microsoft chief said that he does not usually speak at college events, but made an exception because of the great things IIT folks have done.'
He mentioned that he has two IIT alumni at the vice-president level in his company. "We have graduates from different IITs. Before today I didn't understand that there was competition between the different IITs," said Gates.
Describing IIT as a 'world class institute,' 'incredible institution,' and 'a unique institution,' Gates said that the impact of IIT has been worldwide.
He said that IIT and Microsoft have lot in common and aspire for the same things -- including optimism about the future, and a belief in fundamental research.
"The computer industry has benefited greatly from the tradition of the IITs," Gates said.
Before Gates's speech there was a brief spotlight on IIT, with messages from John Chamber of Cisco and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.
Chambers recognised the IIT system as one of the best in the world and said, "I want to thank you for Cisco employers that is approaching 1000," Bezos said.
"IIT is a world treasure," he said and recognised the contribution that engineers from IIT have made to his company. "IIT thank you, bless you."
Rajat Gupta, managing director of McKinsey, and IIT Delhi alumnus, started the program with an ancient inaugural invocation -- a Sanskrit shloka from the Upanishads.
"There is no other educational institution that has accomplished so much in its first 50 years and developed a brand image consistent with the achievements," said Gupta.
Meanwhile, Bill Gates said that Microsoft supports and sponsors research at IIT. IIT is one of the two institutions that Microsoft funds research. The other institution is Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
Gates then spoke on his pet subject -- digital lifestyle. He dubbed this decade as the digital decade one that will transform our lifestyle.'
He cautioned that digital transforming requires patience, and that infrastructure needs to be in place before changes take place to a digital lifestyle.
Digital infrastructure should be available as reliably as water or electricity, he said. Web services will be the standardised protocol that will help devices talk to each other, said Gates.
"Today's systems were not designed bottom-up. and deep research is required," he said. There is an opportunity for the IITs to contribute in this research, he added.
One of the themes that Gates touched upon was giving back to the community and he spoke about the work the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation is doing in India.
Gates summed up his speech on an optimistic note.
"Where do we go from here? The theme is 'working together.' US working with India, commercial organisations working with IIT, and Microsoft working with IIT."
In the question and answer session Gupta asked Gates questions that were sent by the audience via e-mail.
Gates was asked what advise he would give to entrepreneurs of struggling start-ups, to which he replied that a start-up has to do something unique with a barrier to entry and keep their costs low.
He also said that it was not necessary to have a big sales and marketing team. "We never ran an ad in the early days," he said.
To a question on what is the future of the education institutions, he answered: "If there is one thing that IIT has done -- it is the merit-based approach and I won't tamper with it."
What challenges does India face? Gates said that overall he was optimistic about India's future. He struck a cautionary note and said that when you compare India and China, India is ahead of China in IT services, but in manufacturing China was in a league of its own, and nobody is paying attention to it.
I was told not to compare the two countries, acknowledged Gates as an aside.
The last question was, "What really motivates you now? What are your passions?" Gates replied, "I am still dreaming of a PC that works very well."
He added that his other passions are working with smart people, family and the foundation.
In his thank you note Gupta recited another Sanskrit shloka.