A few months ago, I received an e-mail from Microsoft inviting me to an event called “Mix n Mash 08”.

It was a one day event at Microsoft, and as I was reading the e-mail, my first thoughts were about the fact that it would mean two days of flying for a one day meeting, but then two words caught my eye: the first was “Bill” and the second was “Gates”.

The meeting was to be preview of and discussion about MIX08 (to be held in Las Vegas in March 2008) including conversations with Scott Guthrie and presentations by a variety of development teams. The last hour of the day, the e-mail explained, would be spent with Bill Gates where attendees could ask him questions.

I did a little web searching and learned that last year’s Mix n Mash had only 15 attendees. This wasn’t like the MVP Summit where there were thousands of us in the room with Bill, but very intimate. It didn’t take long for me to forget about the two days of travel to get across the country and back from Vermont, and I replied that I would, of course, be there!

None of the attendees had any clue in advance about who else would be there. This year there were nine attendees including myself and Rob Howard, who many of you may know as a former ASP.NET architect at Microsoft and the founder of Telligent. I remembered Rob blogging about being in a meeting with Bill Gates when he was still at Microsoft. The only other person I knew at Mix n Mash was CSS guru, Molly Holszchlag, who I had recently met at the ReMIX event in Boston. Molly and I are two vocal, loquacious, curly-haired girls and can easily find each other across a crowded room, though this room was far from crowded. The others were from outside of our .NET world. Kip Kniersen, who runs LiveSide.net, a community for Windows Live, was the only other Microsoft techie there. The rest of the group included many Flash gurus who Microsoft hopes will be intrigued by Silverlight. I think Kip and I were the only ones not using Mac laptops.

In the morning we were split up into two groups-those who leaned toward the design world went to meet with the Expression team and the code geeks spent a few hours grilling Scott Guthrie. One of the questions I asked Scott was if we would see anything at MIX08 that will surprise us, something nobody has any clue about at all. He said “yes.” I may have pushed it a little too far when I then followed up by asking “how many surprises?” Scott thought for a moment and said something to the effect of, “Well, more than one, but it won’t be one after another after another like at MIX07.” No worries, there. “More than one” is enough for me!

Normally when I attend training events such as Software Design Reviews or the ASPInsider summit, the meetings are held in Building 20 which contains a lot of classrooms. However, Microsoft held Mix n Mash 08 in the Executive Briefing Center where I think we were the only visitors not wearing suits. I mention this because lunch was quite the gourmet meal. The pastries ...we’re talking truffles, folks... were to die for.

After this we spent time with some folks from the Surface team who had set up a Surface computer and let us play with it while they demonstrated a variety of applications. If you haven’t seen Surface, check out the videos on the microsoft.com/surface site. Having played with it in real life, however, I can say that the videos don’t do it justice. Surface is astonishing.

After more presentations in the afternoon we had about a 20-minute break before Bill’s arrival at 4pm.

Now I have to say that this is one of the few times in my life I remember being excited about meeting someone and not in the least bit ashamed to show it. It’s Bill Gates, for goodness sake, and I *am* a geek, right?

While we all had our questions ready in advance, I suddenly started to doubt my question and started thinking up dozens more while we waited.

Bill came in and sat down at the table. We went around the table and did quick intros. Rob and Kip Kniskern set the standard for about 10 second elevator pitches so all I managed to get in was my name, that I lived in Vermont, am an independent consultant and a Microsoft MVP. Of course, I would have loved to tell him much more so that I might be somehow memorable, but I also decided to assume that he had been given our bios in advance anyway. I’m sure everyone in the room felt the same way. The only other means would be asking a really good question!

After the intros, Bill just started talking about the future of the software industry and where Microsoft is headed with respect to that. Not only did he talk about what is happening on the Web and the vision of making the Web a 3D experience, bringing all of the physical interaction we are seeing now with devices like Surface and the Wii and making that happen on the Web as well. He also talked about using the data cloud for scaling services on the Web (think Microsoft’s Data Center strategy) as well as improvements on the clients with tools like Silverlight. With respect to Silverlight, he said something that only heightens my anticipation for MIX08.

“Down on the clients, Silverlight is a big deal for us, and MIX will be a huge milestone in terms of the feedback we’ve got, and the new things we’re doing there. We’re pretty excited about that and making that both richer and broadening the set of devices that that connects to, and ourselves having our key applications take advantage of that in a pretty rich way.”

After this incredibly enlightening, near stream-of-conscious discourse, each of us asked one question and they were all very different. He spent anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes answering as the questions would open up a new door in his mind. We learned his opinion on Microsoft’s new-found transparency, and that it was really driven by technology, because the motivation was already there. I asked him if he had any visions that he hoped would be carried out after he leaves to work full time on the Gates Foundation in July. This revealed a lesson in how Microsoft attempts to think 10 years ahead, which drives Microsoft Research.

While we were allowed to live blog or take notes during the meeting, we were not allowed to record it with audio or video. However, we were each given a transcript of the entire hour. One of the bloggers at the event, Keith Peters, has posted the unedited transcript in a series of blog posts at www.bit-101.com/blog in a series of six posts between Dec 5 - Dec 8.

Throughout the hour, Bill seemed very relaxed and gave many of us the impression that it was a nice change of pace for him to hang out with a bunch of geeks in a very relaxed setting. We saw him at his most passionate when Jonathan Snook asked what he thought of the accusations that Microsoft does not innovate-apparently a well-known hot button issue for Gates!

After the discussion, we went in the hallway for a group photo which all of us have proudly posted on our blogs. A few days later I was at a large family gathering and impressed the heck out of a gaggle of teenage boys when I showed them a picture of me and Bill Gates on my Blackberry.

All in all, it was a great experience and I came away with something I never expected was possible-even more respect for Bill Gates and all that Microsoft has achieved and continues to do.