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Satya Nadella Rewrites Microsoft’s Code

Microsoft’s CEO has stopped infighting, restored morale, and created more than $250 billion in market value. All it took was focusing on what matters most.

Satya Nadella Rewrites Microsoft’s Code
Three years after becoming CEO, Satya Nadella is as focused on Microsoft’s culture as he is its business strategy. [Photo: ioulex; Groomer: Brent Henry]

Satya Nadella’s corner office, on the fifth floor of Building 34 at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters, features a can’t-miss 84-inch Surface touch-screen computer that dominates one wall. But what demands even more attention are the vast quantities of books in the room. They fill rows of shelves and are piled by the dozen on a long table next to Nadella’s desk.

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The place looks more like a neighborhood bookshop than the command center for the third-most-valuable company on the planet. “I read a few pages here or a few pages there,” Nadella says, in his typically understated manner. “There are a few books, of course, that you read end-to-end. But without books I can’t live.”

He is sitting in a turquoise armchair, with multicolored socks peeking above his casual brown shoes. The stacks around him include heady tomes such as Bionomics and How Will Capitalism End?, but his taste is eclectic. At one point during our conversation he references a Virginia Woolf essay about illness; at another, Trinidadian author C.L.R. James’s literary take on cricket. When explaining the impact of Microsoft‘s Cortana AI assistant, Nadella eschews market-share data for Shakespeare: “If Othello had Cortana, would he have recognized Iago for who he was?”

One of Nadella’s first acts after becoming CEO, in February 2014, was to ask the company’s top executives to read Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, a treatise on empathic collaboration. The gesture signaled that Nadella planned to run the company differently from his well-known predecessors, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and address Microsoft’s long-standing reputation as a hive of intense corporate infighting. (Programmer/cartoonist Manu Cornet crisply summed up the Microsoft culture in a 2011 org chart spoof that depicted the various operating groups pointing handguns at each other.) The reading assignment “was the first clear indication that Satya was going to focus on transforming not just the business strategy but the culture as well,” says Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith, a 24-year company veteran.

The Microsoft that Nadella inherited was regarded by both Wall Street and Silicon Valley as fading toward irrelevance. The tech industry had shifted from desktop computers to smartphones—from Microsoft’s Windows to Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. (Windows’ market share on phones fell to below 4%.) Apple and Google had soared to record market valuations; Microsoft’s stock price had stalled, despite the fact that revenue had tripled and profits had doubled during Ballmer’s reign as CEO from 2000 to 2014. “It was an enormously profitable company,” says Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson. “They were in no danger of going out of business soon—it was just a question of whether they’d go into permanent decline.”

Consequently, when Ballmer announced his intention to retire in August 2013, succeeding him was seen neither as a plum assignment nor an opportunity for business to continue as usual. A Bloomberg story about the search for a successor was simply titled “Why You Don’t Want to Be Microsoft’s CEO.”

“I was envisioning [someone with] more of a bull-in-a-china-shop mentality,” says Mason Morfit, the president and CIO of ValueAct, an activist hedge fund that had gotten a say in the new CEO hire by investing $2 billion in Microsoft. “I was personally more inclined to lean toward an outsider.” So were most other Microsoft watchers. Nadella, who had joined the company in 1992 at the age of 25, was hardly a favorite, despite the fact that he was already running Microsoft’s cloud business. (“There’s no question that I’m an insider,” Nadella says, with a touch of cheerful defiance. “And I’m proud of it! I’m a product of Microsoft.”) When his name was announced, some critics described the choice as a fallback.

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Since then, Nadella has not only restored Microsoft to relevance; he’s generated more than $250 billion in market value in just three and a half years—more value growth over that time than Uber and Airbnb, Netflix and Spotify, Snapchat and WeWork. Indeed, more than all of them combined. Only a handful of CEOs—names like Bezos, Cook, Zuckerberg—can boast similarly impressive results. Microsoft’s shares have not only returned to their dotcom-bubble highs but surpassed them. “[Nadella] has exceeded all my expectations,” says Morfit, now a member of Microsoft’s board. “I wish I could say we saw it all happening. That wouldn’t be honest.”

How Nadella turned things around comes back to the book he had his top lieutenants read, and the culture that took hold from there. He has inspired the company’s 124,000 employees to embrace what he calls “learn-it-all” curiosity (as opposed to what he describes as Microsoft’s historical know-it-all bent) that in turn has inspired developers and customers—and investors—to engage with the company in new, more modern ways. Nadella is a contemporary CEO able to emphasize the kinds of soft skills that are often derided in the cutthroat world of corporate politics but are, in today’s fast-moving marketplace, increasingly essential to outsize performance.

“There’s a long list of other leaders Microsoft could have hired,” says Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, which made its name as a cheeky startup by putting up billboards bashing Microsoft but now partners with the company on a variety of fronts. “There aren’t a lot of case studies about cultural shifts of the size and scale that Satya is creating.”


It’s 8 o’clock on a Friday morning—which means that the members of Microsoft’s senior leadership team (SLT) are gathering around a horseshoe-shaped table in a boardroom down the hall from Nadella’s office. As additional executives stream in, Surface devices in tow, Nadella, dressed in a black Microsoft AI School T-shirt, plops himself in a seat at the middle of the table and picks at a plate of grapes and pineapple chunks.

The meeting begins with a regular segment, instituted by Nadella, called “Researcher of the Amazing,” which showcases something inspiring going on at the company. On this day in late June, engineers at Microsoft Turkey, in Istanbul, are patched in via video conference to prototype an app they’ve built for the visually impaired that reads books out loud. After an uplifting opening such as that, the weekly meeting can sometimes stretch for as long as seven hours. Initiated by Ballmer late in his tenure as CEO, the SLT session has become a hallmark of Nadella’s team-sport approach to running Microsoft. He solicits opinions and offers positive feedback throughout, at one point nodding in vigorous agreement with someone’s point while holding a cardboard coffee cup in his clenched teeth, leaving his hands free to gesticulate expansively.

Workplace warrior: Nadella, seen here backstage before his first speech to Microsoft employees as their CEO, on February 4, 2014, believed that prioritizing a culture shift would inspire a new approach to the company’s customers and products.

The gathering’s relaxed feel is quite a change from the days when collaboration at Microsoft involved a large dose of showing off how smart you were. In the past, says president Smith, “all of us who grew up here knew that we needed to be well prepared for every meeting. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that meant trying to discern the answers before the meeting began and then being tested on whether your answers were right. Bill [Gates] and Steve [Ballmer] both used that to great effect to tease apart areas where the thinking needed to be developed further.”

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When I ask Nadella for his own account of working with his predecessors, he’s blunt. “Bill’s not the kind of guy who walks into your office and says, ‘Hey, great job,’ ” he tells me. “It’s like, ‘Let me start by telling you the 20 things that are wrong with you today.’ ” Ballmer’s technique, Nadella adds, is similar. He chuckles at the images he’s conjured and emphasizes that he finds such directness “refreshing.” (Upon becoming CEO, Nadella even asked Gates, who remains a technology adviser to the company, to increase the hours he devotes to giving feedback to product teams.)

Global explorer: Nadella regularly visits far-flung places, including this solar-powered internet café in Kenya, to understand how his customers use tech so he can better serve them.

Nadella’s approach is gentler. He believes human beings are wired to have empathy, and that’s essential not only for creating harmony at work but also for making products that will resonate. “You have to be able to say, ‘Where is this person coming from?'” he says. “‘What makes them tick? Why are they excited or frustrated by something that is happening, whether it’s about computing or beyond computing?'”

His philosophy stems from one of the principal events of his personal life. In 1996, his first child, Zain, was born with severe cerebral palsy, permanently altering what had been a pretty carefree lifestyle for him and his wife, Anu. For two or three years, Nadella felt sorry for himself. And then—nudged along by Anu, who had given up her career as an architect to care for Zain—his perspective changed. “If anything,” he remembers thinking, “I should be doing everything to put myself in [Zain’s] shoes, given the privilege I have to be able to help him.” Nadella says that this empathy—though he cautions that the word is sometimes overused—”is a massive part of who I am today. . . . I distinctly remember who I was as a person before and after,” he says. “I won’t say I was narrow or selfish or anything, but there was something that was missing.”

Zain “is just such a joy at this point,” Nadella says of the ongoing inspiration he draws from his son, who turned 21 in August. “Everything else that’s happening in my life is suddenly brought into perspective when I think about how he has endured through all his challenges. The one thing that he can communicate is, when I get close to him, he’ll smile. And that makes my day, and makes my life.”

Life with Zain helps explain Nadella’s keen interest in ensuring that Microsoft takes responsibility for making both its workplace and its products accessible to the disabled. Well before he was named as CEO, he became executive sponsor for the company’s community group for disabled staffers; today, he meets with the group on a quarterly basis and speaks at its annual Ability Summit, which attracted about 850 attendees in 2017. “I’ve found him to be a learner, curious, a listener, but very decisive when needed,” says chief accessibility officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie. “Moving things forward in a very collaborative way.”


Growing up in Hyderabad, India, young Satya Nadella liked computers almost as much as he did cricket. When he was 15, Nadella’s middle-class parents bought their only child a computer kit from Bangkok. On his 21st birthday, Nadella arrived in the U.S. to study computer science at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. After graduation, he spent a couple years at Sun Microsystems before being lured to Microsoft. It was Microsoft’s boom years—the 1990s—and Nadella found himself steadily promoted. “Saying, ‘Well, I’m waiting for the next job to do my best work’ is the worst trap,” he contends. “If you say, ‘The current job I have is everything I ever wanted,’ life becomes just so much more straightforward.”

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Master builder: Nadella visits the Hyderabad Public School, in Hyderabad, India where he grew up. He purchased Minecraft for $2.5 billion in 2014 to push Microsoft into education and grow with his next generation of customers.

Doug Burgum, who ran Microsoft’s business solutions group and is now governor of North Dakota, became a mentor. “Early on, Jeff Bezos was trying to recruit him [to Amazon],” says Burgum of Nadella. “It was my job to re-recruit him.” Though Amazon had already begun to spread its reach, Burgum successfully argued that the opportunities available at Microsoft beat anything a mere bookseller could offer. “I was wrong about my characterization of Amazon,” Burgum admits, “but I was right about convincing Satya to stay.”

Burgum groomed Nadella to be his successor. In 2007, at Burgum’s last customer conference at Microsoft, he lavished praise on Nadella in front of an audience of thousands and then handed the keynote off to him. But right after the conference, Ballmer stepped in, reshuffling the staff. He decided that Nadella would be more valuable running a different group, the engineering arm of Windows Live Search, later known as Bing.

It wasn’t a no-brainer that the search assignment was a better opportunity than the business solutions one, which carried profit-and-loss responsibility. “Steve was very clear,” recalls Nadella, describing the position, which he felt he couldn’t refuse. “He just said, ‘Look, this is the most important challenge I have. I don’t think this is maybe even a smart decision for you, but I want you to do it. Think wisely, and choose. And by the way, if you fail, there’s no parachute. It’s not like I’m going to come and rescue you and put you back into your old job.'”

In search, Microsoft was an extreme underdog to Google. To compete, it had to operate in a looser way than it did in other domains. “I remember when most of the senior execs at Bing carried around iPads to meetings,” says Mark Johnson, who worked at the company after Microsoft acquired the startup where he worked and who is now CEO of geographic-data provider Descartes Labs. “It was seen as very hip and a symbol of defiance against the Microsoft machine.”

Nadella honed an outsider perspective at Bing, which was enhanced when Netflix CEO and then-Microsoft board member Reed Hastings invited Nadella to shadow him at Netflix meetings. Nadella did so on and off for about a year. “Oh, my God, I learned so much,” remembers Nadella. “One of the things I felt was a big handicap for me was, having grown up at Microsoft, I’d never seen any other company.”

Though Nadella cut his Netflix adventure short when he was given control of Azure, Microsoft’s web-tools division that competes with Amazon Web Services, he leveraged the experience to make a case for his promotion to CEO. “Netflix pivots very quickly based on new data,” ValueAct’s Morfit recalls Nadella telling him. “He thought that was very interesting compared to the bureaucracy Microsoft had built up.”

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Microsoft saw Nadella’s ascent as an opportunity to reset how it presented itself to the world. In the Ballmer era, “lots of times you’d go to Microsoft events and there’d be big Microsoft banners and logos and lights and loud music,” says Steve Clayton, who, as the company’s chief storyteller, is responsible for its public image. “We said this event should reflect Satya. That’s not really his style.”

Eight weeks after he got the job, Nadella made his first public appearance as CEO at a purposefully low-key San Francisco press conference, striding out without any introductory hoopla—dressed in black, enthusiastic but calm, a trifle owlish in his chunky black-frame eyeglasses. It made for a sharp contrast with the often bombastic Ballmer, and that was before Nadella began paraphrasing T.S. Eliot to describe Microsoft’s goals: “You should never cease from exploration, and at the end of all exploration, you arrive where you started and know the place for the very first time.”

During the press event, Nadella announced the first version of Office for Apple’s iPad. It was a meaningful way to mark a new era for Microsoft, even though the software had been in the works long before he took the helm. “We’re not going to say, ‘Only use this device,'” Nadella tells me, referring to Microsoft’s Surface tablet and other Windows devices. The company had long aimed to control its ecosystem; by putting ambitious versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on Apple’s tablet—before it had comparable touch-screen-friendly versions ready for Windows—Microsoft was forging a new direction.

Nadella “is bringing Microsoft into [today’s] more open and integrated computing environment,” says Scott McNealy, cofounder and former CEO of Sun Microsystems, one of Microsoft’s principal rivals in the 1990s and Nadella’s first employer. “He’s brought a level of diplomacy to it.”

Future seer: Nadella has embraced the HoloLens research project because he is open to the idea that augmented reality could be the future of computing. [Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]
When Nadella hired Peggy Johnson from Qualcomm in 2014, it reinforced this message. Her job, as executive VP of business development, would be to strengthen Microsoft’s ties with Silicon Valley and pursue deals with companies it once solely considered rivals, such as Box and Dropbox. “Satya was already on a regular cadence of visiting the Valley, which was new for the CEO of Microsoft,” Johnson says. “And he said to me, ‘I want you to be outside of Redmond as much as you are inside of Redmond.’ ” Today, some of the startups that once would have defaulted to Amazon Web Services are choosing Azure, which—though still playing catch-up—posted 93% revenue growth in the most recent quarter.


Related: After Lots Of Talk, Microsoft’s Bots Show Signs Of Life

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Nadella also updated Microsoft’s mission statement—once, in Bill Gates’s words, “A PC on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software”—with a more modern mantra: “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” Then he began refining the company’s efforts to reflect it. Gone are the days when Microsoft glommed onto every new trend in technology, often unsuccessfully. (Exhibit A: The Zune music player, which became so synonymous with failure that its cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 provokes audience laughter.) Instead, Nadella has leaned into areas with ambitious strategic promise (Surface, HoloLens) and pruned smaller-impact initiatives like the Fitbit-esque Microsoft Band (which he had proudly sported the first time I met him, during a press dinner at a Tuscan restaurant near Microsoft headquarters in November 2014). When Nadella first saw the top-secret HoloLens project, before being named CEO, “the mean time from ‘I don’t understand this’ to ‘this is the future of computing’ was the fastest I’ve ever seen,” says Microsoft mixed-reality honcho Alex Kipman. “And he’s been a strong supporter ever since.”

Nadella wrote off Ballmer’s $7 billion acquisition of Nokia’s mobile phone business as a loss, eliminating more than 20,000 jobs in a tacit acknowledgment that Windows was not going to catch the iPhone and Android on mobile any time soon. Rather than clinging to Windows like a security blanket, the company has released more than 100 iOS apps and even embraced Linux, the open-source Windows rival. Microsoft joining the Linux Foundation was a hell-has-frozen-over moment, given that Ballmer famously called Linux “a cancer.”

Microsoft research chief Harry Shum leads the effort to build new features based on data from Office 365—and now LinkedIn. [Photo: ioulex; Groomer: Brent Henry]
And then there’s Nadella’s $26 billion deal for LinkedIn. Investors have largely applauded the move. Combining Linked­In’s 500 million professional users with the 85 million people who use Office 365 gives Microsoft a formidable data hoard from which it can glean insights—arguably as valuable and impossible to clone as Facebook’s social network or Google’s search engine. (This past January, Microsoft acquired a hotshot startup in Montreal called Maluuba with technology geared to parse such data.) “We get very excited about this unique Microsoft AI,” says Harry Shum, executive VP of AI and research at Microsoft.

Nadella doesn’t seem to be letting all this activity and achievement swell his ego. As he told me at one point, describing the benefits of the dark-horse perspective he developed during his ascent at Microsoft, “When everybody’s celebrating you is when you should be most scared.”


Nadella’s management worldview is deeply influenced by Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, which outlines two types of thinking. Those who operate with a fixed mind-set are more likely to stick to activities that utilize skills they’ve already mastered, rather than risk embarrassment by failing at something new. Those focused on growth make it their mission to learn new things, understanding that they won’t succeed at all of them.

Nadella’s wife, Anu (whom he asserts is the real reader in the family), turned him onto the book a few years before he became Microsoft’s CEO. They found its guidance useful as parents. But it’s easy to see why Nadella would apply its concepts to Microsoft, a company whose philosophy was once so fixed that it could be summed up as “everything has to be on Windows and God forbid we do something that works well on another platform,” as Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi puts it.

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After Nadella’s promotion to CEO, as he was crafting a new manifesto for Microsoft employees, he consulted with Dweck and incorporated themes from her work. “We needed a culture that allowed us to constantly refresh and renew,” he explains. For her part, Dweck pronounces Microsoft a “spectacular” example of a large organization with a hunger for new knowledge, and praises Nadella for leading by example. “We’ve seen a lot of places where leaders preach growth mind-set but don’t practice it,” she says. “It’s not easy to grasp it and implement it, especially in a culture of scientists, who tend to worship natural ability.”

Nadella admits that some Microsoft managers have misunderstood the concept of fixed and growth mind-sets, seeing them as unalterable personality traits rather than behaviors. He says that some of his colleagues have even attempted to sort members of their team into these two buckets. Mostly, though, he believes that people get it. “No one at Microsoft is inspired by growth mind-set because of Satya Nadella, the CEO,” he says. “It’s because of what it means to them as a better parent, a better partner, a better colleague.”


Related: The 7 Books Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Says You Need To Lead Smarter


Encouraging a growth mind-set among all employees, Nadella adds, carries some responsibilities, including “flying air cover for someone at some point when they’ve gotten something wrong.” So it was in March 2016, when the researchers at Microsoft’s Future Social Experiences (FUSE) Labs unveiled Tay, an AI-based chatbot trained to converse in the slangy patois of an 18- to 24-year-old American woman (“omg totes exhausted”).

Twitter trolls discovered that if they pummeled Tay’s account with racism, sexism, and other hateful rhetoric—a scenario Microsoft had not accounted for—she would spew some of it back. Over the course of one day, trolls brainwashed the bot, who tweeted 96,000 times in increasingly vile fashion, turning Microsoft’s public experiment in AI into a humiliation. “In the morning it was great, and by the evening it wasn’t so great,” says Lili Cheng, FUSE Labs’ general manager.

Lili Cheng, general manager of Microsoft’s experimental FUSE Labs, has been empowered under Nadella to take risks—and recover from any missteps. [Photo: ioulex; Groomer: Brent Henry]
“Satya was just so sweet,” Cheng adds, smiling at the memory of his response. Offering encouragement to Tay’s creators, he wrote in an email, “Keep pushing, and know that I am with you.” And push they did: That December, Microsoft launched Zo, another bot similar to Tay, but designed to be more troll-resistant. (She’s available on Facebook Messenger and Kik, but so far not the mean streets of Twitter.)

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The CEO experienced his own difficult lesson in growth just eight months into his tenure. Invited to participate in a Q&A at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a major annual event, he told the largely female audience that women in the tech industry should forgo asking for raises and instead trust that the system would reward them appropriately. The negative reaction was swift, with attendees quickly tweeting out their pushback.

Nadella realized his mistake, and the next day issued an apology. “I answered that question completely wrong,” he wrote in an email to Microsoft employees. Today, he describes his onstage comments as “a nonsense answer from this privileged guy.”

But Nadella did more than deliver a mea culpa; he explored his own biases—and pushed his executive team to follow suit. “I became more committed to Satya, not less,” says Microsoft chief people officer Kathleen Hogan, the former COO of worldwide sales, whom Nadella promoted into her current role soon after the kerfuffle. “He didn’t blame anybody. He owned it. He came out to the entire company, and he said, ‘We’re going to learn, and we’re going to get a lot smarter.’ ”

It was a rare public falter for Nadella, but Microsoft got stronger. In the aftermath, one longtime rank-and-file Microsoftie told me, the company stepped up internal messaging that encouraged employees to respect diversity and combat their unwitting biases. Nadella set an example for the rest of the company: We make mistakes, but we can learn to do better.

Nadella and Hogan’s efforts to change how Microsoft thinks have had a formality to them, typified by the tastefully-framed aphorisms on the walls in Redmond and other company outposts. (Examples: “Designing products for 7.4 billion starts with design for one” and “The world is better viewed through a window than a mirror.”) Other nods to empathy, inclusion, and accessibility are tucked all over campus like Easter eggs. A cafeteria napkin holder encourages employees to be lifelong learners (and includes a plug for Bing); an elevator door is decorated with the Chinese symbol for “listen”; a tiny placard stuck in some outdoor foliage promotes a computer science co-teaching program.

Even the coffee containers are part of the effort—which caused a minor moment of angst when one employee felt that it would be disrespectful to chuck one with a portrait of Gandhi and an inspiring quote into a recycling bin.

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You don’t have to be a hopeless cynic to wonder how far signage and cups can go to change behavior in a company with more than 120,000 employees, many of whom spent years thriving inside the earlier, sharper-elbowed Microsoft. Nadella, however maintains that the effort is less about reeducation than stimulating empathy that was there all along. “It’s just a question of invoking it,” he says. “And expressing it.”

One of the places where Microsoft employees now express that empathy is an annual hackathon, which Nadella instituted as part of an event called OneWeek that replaced Ballmer’s annual meeting, which involved filling a stadium with cheering employees. (“I started realizing that I’d stopped going unless and until I had to speak,” Nadella explains.) Over its first four editions, the hackathon has grown to include 18,000 participants in the U.S., China, India, Israel, and beyond.

After one visit to Nadella’s Building 34 office, I cross the Microsoft campus to check in on the local portion of the hackathon, where 2,000 people—employees, customer and nonprofit guests, and students—have been cranking away at passion projects at folding tables in two tents pitched on a soccer field.

Though many of their efforts involve cutting-edge technology—I don a virtual-reality headset to experience life in rural Kenya—one team is simply working on cleaning up Windows’ settings so it’s easier to find and tweak accessibility features for the vision- and hearing-impaired. The group’s hope is to have something ready to ship as part of the next update to Windows, code-named “Redstone 4.”

At first, the effort struck some at Microsoft as too straightforward to be worthy of the hackathon. But 30 developers, product managers, researchers, and marketers joined the team, won over by the potential to reach millions of people around the world. “We’re passionate, but we’re not zealots,” explains one team member. “It’s because it’s achievable. That’s what Satya has done.”


If you rummage around on YouTube, you can unearth an entertainingly archaic 1993 Microsoft “DevCast” video, produced in the pre-broadband days for distribution to developers via satellite uplink. Nadella, then a youthful technical marketing manager a little over a year into his time at the company, appears an hour and 45 minutes into the clip. He sports bushy black hair, and his accent is pronounced. Watching the confident but raw effort today, it’s clear just how far he’s come.

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Charismatic host: In a 1993 satellite broadcast to Microsoft developers, a young Nadella proved himself to be a confident presenter, a skill that would continue to serve him well.

At Microsoft’s Build developer conference this past May, Nadella publicly wrestled with the implications of artificial intelligence. Within the first few minutes of his keynote address, he’d flashed on a screen the covers of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as he warned of technology’s dark possibilities. Sitting in the audience, I tried to envision Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Google’s Sundar Pichai indulging in anything so foreboding as part of a public address, and failed.

Backstage after his keynote, in the bowels of Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center, I asked Nadella why he chose to bring up his AI fears. “Everyone in our industry should be able to acknowledge that there are unintended consequences of technology,” he says, leaning forward and laughing dryly. “Our company’s identity is fundamentally about creating technology so that others can create more technology. And it’s essential that it is being used for empowering more people.”

Nadella’s sense of responsibility, for Microsoft and global society, has been on display in the political realm this year as well. When President Donald Trump signed his initial immigration order in January, Microsoft called it “misguided and a fundamental step backward,” and Nadella personally critiqued it citing his own experience as an immigrant: “[There’s] no place for bias or bigotry in any society.”

Tech ambassador: Nadella has engaged with the Trump administration because he believes he has a role to play in helping government deploy technology. [Photo: Chip Somoderilla/Getty Images]
Nevertheless, Nadella traveled to Washington, D.C., in June to participate in the first meeting of the American Technology Council—a group run by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and former Microsoft CFO Chris Liddell and charged with exploring ways to modernize government services. Along with Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, and others, Nadella met with Trump in the White House’s State Dining Room and participated in breakout sessions.

Four days later, back in the Washington on the other side of the country, I sit in Nadella’s office and tell him that my editor and I had puzzled over the expressions on his face in photos from the event, which showed him seated to Trump’s left, head down with lips curled into a half-smile. What, we wondered, was on his mind? He quickly responds with a statement that manages to be pro-American Technology Council but otherwise Trump-neutral. “There cannot be a more important conversation for us to be having with the government, and I’m sort of thrilled to engage in it,” he says. “Quite frankly, this is not about one administration versus the other. It’s not about one party versus the other. It’s about American competitiveness, and I’m glad to see this administration take that on.”

Most major tech CEOs have been loath to poke at the administration, though some in the industry assert that prominent immigrants such as Nadella have a particular duty to speak out, especially in light of comments by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon expressing concern about the number of South Asian and Asian executives in Silicon Valley, which he made during a 2015 Breitbart satellite radio interview with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable or unusual, if Steve Bannon says we shouldn’t have Indian-American CEOs at tech companies, to say, ‘Excuse me, I am one and I think you’re wrong,'” maintains Fog Creek Software CEO Anil Dash.

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In Hit Refresh, Nadella’s new book melding personal memoir and technological futurism, the CEO seemingly alludes to Bannon’s remark without mentioning him by name, writing, “Even when some people in positions of power have remarked that there were too many Asian CEOs in technology, I’ve ignored their ignorance.” He adds that it “infuriates” him to think of his kids and their friends having to grapple with racial slurs. Yet that’s as far as he goes. “I was not elected by anybody,” he tells me. “And so I want to make sure that we don’t act like we have a mandate.”

At Microsoft, however, Nadella has certainly earned a mandate, and in the wake of the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-August, he expressed his vision for leadership in the context of the national conversation, showing just how powerful Nadella’s approach can be. In an email to his senior staff and direct reports on the Monday after the weekend’s violence and racial animus, he shared the “profound impact” the “horrific” event had on him.

“In these times,” he wrote, “to me only two things really matter as a leader. The first is that we stand for our timeless values, which include diversity and inclusion. . . . The second is that we empathize with the hurt happening around us. At Microsoft, we strive to seek out differences, celebrate them and invite them in. . . . Our growth mindset culture requires us to truly understand and share the feelings of another person. . . . Together, we must embrace our shared humanity, and aspire to create a society that is filled with respect, empathy, and opportunity for all.”

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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