Life experiences that shaped Satya Nadella’s worldview

Satya Nadella, the current CEO of Microsoft, has recently written autobiography, titled ‘Hit Refresh’; Microsoft has more than doubled in the past 3 years, under Satya’s stewardship; much of it is attributed to the culture change, and renewed sense of purpose, he has brought in the company. ‘Hit Refresh’ touches upon Satya’s upbringing, his personal life, career growth, view on technologies that are shaping our future, and the culture change within Microsoft. In Satya’s own words, he has written ‘Hit Refresh’, while the process of renewal at Microsoft is still ongoing, so that he can share the view from within the thick of action. The book offers the reader an insight into Satya’s worldview, and how it has been shaped by his life’s experiences.

Satya’s personal philosophy and passion, developed over a period of time, through the many life experiences, ups and downs, is to connect new ideas with a growing sense of empathy for other people. In his own words, ideas excite Satya, empathy grounds and centres him. In this article, I recount key life experiences that have shaped Satya’s philosophy and passion, which, I believe, form the bedrock basis which Satya takes decisions; which in turn that have shaped his meteoric career and are shaping Microsoft’s resurgence like never before.

Upbringing: do your thing, at your pace

Satya has been influenced by his fathers intellectual enthusiasm and his mother dream of a balanced life for him. His father was a civil servant with Marxist leanings and his mother was a Sanskrit scholar; she was opposite of a tiger mom and never pressured him to do anything, other than just be happy. His father nudged him towards some key decisions like leaving Hyderabad to pursue higher education. Always his mothers son, his attitude to life is largely her influence.

Cricket has had a profound influence on Nadella; as a kid, the only thing he cared about is cricket. Satya played cricket throughout his school life, & grew up surrounded by the glamour, tradition and obsession of cricket; he credits cricket with learning a lot about himself, succeeding and failing as a bowler, batsman and a fielder. Cricket taught him to compete vigorously, and with passion, in the face of uncertainty and intimidation; to respect his competitor, but not bet in awe; to put the team first, ahead of ones personal statistics. Cricket continues to be his passion, even to this day.

Satya’s schooling was not centred on academics. Satya moved around a lot with this father, who was frequently transferred; he joined Hyderabad Public School (HPS) at the age of 15; in his own words, he was not academically great and nor was the school known to push academics. There wasn’t the peer pressure to follow a particular path. His ambition in class 12 was to attend a small college, play cricket and work for a bank, & his mom was happy with those plans. Computers became Satya’s second passion, after cricket, when his father got him Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer kit. He did not qualify for the prestigious IIT exam, however, he got through electric engineering at Manipal. Satya exited schooling with twin passions of cricket and computers.

America: the chance to prove himself

Satya landed in US in 1988 at the age of 21; post his engineering, he had a choice of doing masters in in India or to pursue computer science program at Wisconsin, US. He chose the later, primarily because he had a friend from HPS, studying there. At Wisconsin, he got deeply interested in theoretical aspects of computer science and learnt about the limitations of the current machines, and nimbly managing within constraints, which he says was a great training for a future CEO.

Like all times before, Satya did not have a grand plan for his career; his first job was with Sun Microsystems. After 2 years, in 1992, his work at Sun landed him an offer with Microsoft Windows NT team, when they were looking for someone with experience in 32 bit operating systems. At that time, he had wanted to do a full time MBA, for which there was an offer from University of Chicago, and was also considering a switch to investment banking. Satya chose to join Microsoft, he had heard about Windows NT earlier from a friend and had believed that it was going to be big. He simultaneously converted his MBA into part time program; it was a time of true sense of mission and energy in the company, and stock was just beginning a meteoric rise. In retrospect, Satya says that he could not have timed his entry better.

By this time in the book, one can sense that Satya’s decisions are based on a simple framework of taking a meaningful next step, without being overtly analytical or having a grand plan; at the same time, his decisions reflect a deep faith and anticipation of good things to come, shaped by his upbringing and passion. He let good luck happen to him

Satya married Anu in 1992. They had known each other for a long time and were family friends. He had a green card at that time, unfortunately some immigration rules prevented bringing spouse to US on that card. This caused a lot of unease for some time; he eventually was suggested an option to to give up his green card and come back to us on a H1B Visa, that allowed his spouse to come along with him. The decision as swift for him, and Anu joined him in the US

Satya credits america for not typecasting him for the college he attended; and giving him a chance to prove himself. In his own words, he showed up in US with software skills, just ahead of the tech boom, talk about hitting a lottery!

Zain’s birth: the importance of equanimity in life

The arrival of Zain, their son, in 1996 was a watershed moment in Anu and Satya’s life. Zain suffered from asphyxia in utero, i.e. deprivation of oxygen at birth, which created several physical challenges for the young boy, that continue to this day. ICU’s visits, painstaking therapy, & operations have been a norm. Seattle children’s hospital became their second home. Zain is now a fragile young boy, and requires assistance in everyday life. Not all of life’s problems are solved in a manner we want, & one has to learn to cope; Nadella and Anu internalised this understanding immediately.

Zain’s condition lead to Satya developing deeper empathy for fellow human beings. Anu helped him come to terms of the situation, it was not what happened to him, but to his son Zain; they developed empathy for his pain, his circumstances, while fulfilling his responsibility as a parent. Being a husband and a father has taken him on an emotional journey, develop deeper understanding of people with all abilities and what love and human ingenuity can accomplish. This moving experience, gave Nadella the understanding that life’s problems cannot always be solved in the manner one wants.

If one could understand the inherent impermanence of everything related to life, one would develop equanimity, & would not get too excited about the ups and downs of life, Satya now believes. Only then, one would be ready to develop a deeper sense of empathy and compassion to those around; in his own words, Satya has empathy for people with special needs, migrants, small business owners, & those targeted with violence and hatred.

Microsoft: a deeply meaningful career

Meanwhile, at Microsoft, Nadella had the opportunity to lead entire Dynamics business, after working on Windows NT, Video on Demand , & Dynamics teams. It was his first chance to run a business end to end, something he had prepared for 5 years, and had all the relationships within and outside Microsoft to drive business; it was at this time that Steve Balmer, the then CEO of Microsoft, presented him with an option to lead Bing, which as a fledging search business. Steve told him that there this opportunity did not come with a parachute, if he failed at it, this might be his last assignment at Microsoft. One night, at 9 pm after work, Nadella drove to the building housing the Bing team, and saw the place buzzing with activity; on seeing the teams commitment and dedication, he announced to Steve, OK, I am in.

Once again, Satya took decision basis something he could immediately connect to, with, I believe, a deep underlying faith that it would work. At helm of Bing, he learnt about building consumer products, distributed computing, 2 sided markets, and applied Machine Learning. It was a training ground to build hyper scale, cloud first services that permeate Microsoft today. Bing became profitable and went on to power 25% of US searches. Little did he know, that Bing would be his proving ground for future leadership and future of the company.

After success at Bing, Satya as tasked to lead the Server and Tools Business (STB), & consequently, lead Microsoft enterprise’s biggest transformation in a generation into the cloud. STB was at the peak of commercial success and yet was missing the future, which was headed towards cloud. It was not an easy leadership position, Nadella was an outsider, and many of his team believed that they should have gotten the job instead. Satya had a very good idea about where the business needed to go, and immediately realised that his task was to create a desire in STB leaders to go there with him.

Satya remembered lessons from ‘Young Men and Fire’, a book that tells true story of a forest fire that killed 13 fire fighters, even though the leader of the team had the skills to bring out his team safe, but had not built the shared context to make his leadership effective. He was determined not to make the same mistake, Nadella decided not to bring his old team from Bing, he believed change had to come from within, it is the only way to make change sustainable, rather he worked with leaders at STB individually to feel their pulse and win them over.

Satya Nadella believes that business and work is not to be thought of in isolation, but as a part of broader societal fabric and a core part of ones life. He was named the CEO of Microsoft on 04 Feb, 2014

Satya Nadella’s life lens

My inference from the above is that Satya used a simple, but powerful, frame for major life decisions. He does not appear to think in terms of grand plans, personal ambition or eventual outcomes, these things may be important, but not at the core; at the core is to think if he can relate to the immediate choice in a meaningful way that is in sync with his deep belief system developed in childhood. Nadella’s mother believed in doing your thing at your pace. Pace comes when you do your thing. So long as you enjoy it, do it mindfully, and have an honest purpose behind it, life won’t fail you.

To me, his life exemplifies how we can approach our own decisions, which ism not to be driven by fixated outcomes, but by doing things that are meaningful at a deep level, at our pace, with the faith that it will eventually work out.

Life has not always dealt the best cards to Satya Nadella, and despite being CEO of one of the largest and most respected global companies, he does not have power over all his personal challenges. However, I do not sense bitterness or resentment in his outlook; he comes across a person who is very grateful for his share of good luck, and has accepted some things he cannot change in the way he wants. There is a lesson in his up-bringing, which is that personal ambition is not a pre-requisite of success.

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