Adrian Mercado credits Mr. Gates at Microsoft with turning around his life.
No, it's not Bill Gates--although Microsoft Office did play a starring role in Mercado's transformation from wayward youth to motivated future worker. Rather, it is Kevin Gates--a dreadlocked, African American Microsoft employee, who Mercado said really inspired him.
Mercado, 17, was one of more than 50 teenagers and young adults who competed this week in a global competition to determine the world's most proficient users of Excel and Word.
More than 115,000 people--mostly students--entered the Worldwide Competition on Microsoft Office, with the best of the best facing off this week in Park City, Utah.
After winning a preliminary competition, Mercado was invited to Microsoft's field office in Chicago where he met Kevin Gates. Mercado said this Gates, like himself, had a tough upbringing but managed to find his way to a good career through technology. Gates had dropped out of high school before going back to get his degree and eventually landing at Microsoft.
"He basically had a story just like mine," said Mercado, a high school student from the south side of Chicago.
That trip to Microsoft's offices motivated Mercado to keep going. And although he didn't reach the podium in this week's finals, he took a lot away from his experience.
"It was great," he said. "In the long term this is going to be good for us. I can honestly say they are changing my life."
Mercado said he hopes to attend a two-year college after graduation and hopefully get a job that will help pay for further study. Eventually he hopes to become a high school teacher and follow in the footsteps of Ms. Ferguson, the teacher who helped get him into computers.
"I want to help people out like she helped me out," he said.
As for the winners, each completed their exam with a perfect score and did so in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes as opposed to the allotted 50 minutes. The top finisher in each of the four categories (Word 2003, Word 2007, Excel 2003, and Excel 2007) each got a $6,500 scholarship.
Students came from around the world, with many non-English speakers bringing their own keyboard to aid in their competition. The event, now in its sixth year, is put on by Certiport, a company that offers certifications in Office, handing out more than a million such attestations each year.
On hand to witness this year's competition was Microsoft Office VP Takeshi Numoto, who took the certification exam for the first time at the event. He passed, but says there were some tough parts, such as handling a complex e-mail merge in word.
"I think if I didn't pass, I might have had some problems," he said. Like others who get their certifications, Numoto will get paperwork signed by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to mark the achievement. No word on whether Numoto will be hanging that in his office.
Next year's competition, meanwhile, is set to take place in San Diego and will be the first to include Office 2010--the version of the suite that debuted earlier this year.
Correction, August 12 at 7:52 a.m. PDT: An earlier version of this story said that the Microsoft employee whom Mercado met in Chicago was named Bill Gates. That was Mercado's recollection, but he was mistaken. The worker's name is Kevin Gates, a technology architect in the Microsoft office there.