NaDElla brINgS ThE SOul bacK TO mI­crOSOfT

The Mi­crosoft CEO has a brought a new vi­sion to the com­pany as it at­tempts to re­fresh, re­new and trans­form into a force for the fu­ture

Khaleej Times - - PAGE TURNER - Matt O’Brien

Satya Nadella, the Mi­crosoft CEO who kept the com­pany rel­e­vant as its pri­mary PC soft­ware busi­ness faded, could write a book about the chal­lenges he faced. And he has... but it’s not a tell-all mem­oir. In­stead, Nadella, who has worked at the com­pany since the early 1990s, has po­si­tioned him­self as the em­bod­i­ment of the story Mi­crosoft wants to tell about its trans­for­ma­tion into a for­ward-think­ing out­fit fo­cused on ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, cloud soft­ware, vir­tual worlds and quan­tum com­put­ing.

“Mi­crosoft is known for ral­ly­ing the troops with com­pet­i­tive fire,” Nadella writes in Hit Re­fresh, his new au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. “The press loves that, but it’s not me.”

Nadella isn’t brash or out­spo­ken in the man­ner of his pre­de­ces­sors or many of his Sil­i­con Val­ley peers. His thought­ful­ness stands out in an in­dus­try known for big egos and awk­ward de­tach­ment from the real world. He talks a lot about em­pa­thy and mind­ful­ness. Those who know him say he means it.

“Com­pa­nies that try to un­der­stand other peo­ple’s prob­lems tend to be more suc­cess­ful,” said K Vaira­van, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin, Mil­wau­kee, who was chair­man of the school’s com­puter sci­ence pro­gramme when Nadella ob­tained a master’s de­gree there in 1990. Even then, Nadella com­bined in­tel­lec­tual vi­sion with a warm per­son­al­ity, Vaira­van said.

Nor did he ever seem stressed out — though the pro­fes­sor once walked into the re­search lab one Mon­day morn­ing to find Nadella’s sleep­ing bag on the floor — a sign of a long week­end spent fin­ish­ing a the­sis.


Nadella’s book re­counts some per­sonal and pro­fes­sional strug­gles, in­clud­ing de­tails not widely known about his up­bring­ing in In­dia and ad­just­ing to his chil­dren’s dis­abil­i­ties.

In a sur­pris­ing pas­sage about the “per­verse logic” of US im­mi­gra­tion law, Nadella re­veals how dur­ing his early years at Mi­crosoft, he gave up the se­cu­rity of a green card — which grants per­ma­nent Amer­i­can res­i­dency — for a tem­po­rary work visa be­cause it was the only way his wife, Anu, could join him in the United States.

“I went back to the US em­bassy in Delhi in June of 1994, past the enor­mous lines of peo­ple hop­ing to get a visa, and told a clerk that I wanted to give back my green card and ap­ply for an H-1B,” Nadella writes. “He was dumb­founded.” Risk­ing his ca­reer gave him in­stant no­to­ri­ety on the Mi­crosoft cam­pus. “Anu was my pri­or­ity,” he writes. “And that made my de­ci­sion a sim­ple one.”


In the first ex­ec­u­tive meet­ing af­ter Nadella took over from his pre­de­ces­sor, Steve Ballmer, in 2014, Nadella brought a copy of a book about non­vi­o­lent com­mu­ni­ca­tion for everyone in the room.

“It was a lit­tle bit of a sur­prise,” said Mi­crosoft Pres­i­dent Brad Smith. “Steve Ballmer was not some­body who brought in books. There was def­i­nitely a sense that this was some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Nadella’s push for cul­tural shift — and hir­ing “learn-it-alls” in­stead of “know-it-alls” — is largely meant to jolt en­thu­si­asm for a new era of in­no­va­tion at the com­pany. Mi­crosoft had long de­pended on the suc­cess of its flag­ship Win­dows op­er­at­ing sys­tem and the roy­al­ties it gets for each PC sold with it. But the global PC mar­ket is de­clin­ing, and Mi­crosoft fell be­hind as Ap­ple and Google led the shift to smart­phones.

Nadella doesn’t take any shots at Mi­crosoft’s co­founder and first CEO Bill Gates — who wrote the book’s fore­word — or Ballmer. But he’s frank about their dis­agree­ments, es­pe­cially over Ballmer’s dis­as­trous $7.3 bil­lion ac­qui­si­tion of Nokia’s phone busi­ness in 2014.

Nadella also refers to the com­pany’s pre­vi­ous or­gan­i­sa­tional struc­ture as a “con­fed­er­a­tion of fief­doms” and re­counts neg­a­tive feed­back re­ceived from em­ployee sur­veys and emails.

“The com­pany was sick,” Nadella writes. “Em­ploy­ees were tired. They were frus­trated. They were fed up with los­ing and fall­ing be­hind de­spite their grand plans and great ideas. They came to Mi­crosoft with big dreams, but it felt like all they re­ally did was deal with up­per man­age­ment, ex­e­cute tax­ing pro­cesses and bicker in meet­ings.”


In a book full of techno-op­ti­mism and en­thu­si­asm about the com­pany’s fu­ture, it’s about as crit­i­cal as Nadella gets. He also largely steers away from po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy, ex­cept to re­ject com­ments about Asian tech ex­ec­u­tives once made by Steve Ban­non, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s for­mer chief strate­gist.

“Even when some peo­ple in po­si­tions of power have re­marked that there were too many Asian CEOs in tech­nol­ogy, I’ve ig­nored their ig­no­rance,” Nadella writes, with­out nam­ing Ban­non. Trump barely mer­its men­tion — and gets no crit­i­cism — al­though the in­dex ref­er­ences sev­eral pages about for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, all pos­i­tive.

Even Nadella’s big­gest pub­lic con­tro­versy — a 2014 com­ment sug­gest­ing that women don’t need to push for pay raises — has be­come a les­son in how busi­ness lead­ers should ac­knowl­edge their mis­takes, said Maria Klawe, pres­i­dent of Har­vey Mudd Col­lege and a for­mer Mi­crosoft board mem­ber who was in­ter­view­ing Nadella when he made the re­marks.

His swift apol­ogy cast Nadella “as a very dif­fer­ent kind of leader from Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer,” his two pre­de­ces­sors, Klawe said. “Some­body who has a lot more hu­mil­ity and is a lot more will­ing to learn.”

He prom­ises not to squan­der the new en­ergy felt by em­ploy­ees af­ter years of frus­tra­tion. So far, it seems to be pay­ing off; Mi­crosoft shares have dou­bled since he took the top job in early 2014, and the com­pany is at­tract­ing buzz for its work in AI, aug­mented re­al­ity and a new ef­fort in fu­tur­is­tic com­put­ing.

“I think he has built a much more col­lab­o­ra­tive cul­ture,” Klawe said. “He has made peo­ple be­lieve in the fu­ture of Mi­crosoft in a way that nei­ther Bill nor Steve re­ally did.”

Even Nadella’s big­gest pub­lic con­tro­versy — a 2014 com­ment sug­gest­ing that women don’t need to push for pay raises — has be­come a les­son in how busi­ness lead­ers should ac­knowl­edge their mis­takes

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