Microsoft’s Nadella channels India expat ethos shaping tech
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is part of a generation of Indian immigrants who have risen to prominent positions in the tech industry and American business in general.
Title: Chief executive
Family: Married to Anupama Nadella; three children
Previous positions: Worked at Sun Microsystems. Joined Microsoft in 1992 as a program manager in the Windows developer-relations group, also served as senior vice president of Online Services division and head of the Server and Tools division.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Mangalore University; master’s in computer science, University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee; MBA from University of Chicago.
Satya Nadella was like many newly minted Indian engineers in the ’80s: disciplined, determined, crazy about cricket and in possession of a U.S. visa.
A ticket to America was the gold 20-something techies reached for in his generation. With it, the skinny kid who bit his nails and amused his mates with impersonations of their teachers joined a wave of immigrant talent that helped build Silicon Valley and the software industry.
Now 47 and running Microsoft, Nadella is visiting India this week for the first time as chief executive. It’s where he absorbed lessons that are helping him navigate the company’s fiefdoms.
“In India you learn to be a diplomat and a navigator and a mediator,” said Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at Duke University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization. “The Indian upbringing teaches you a sense of humility. Microsoft today is a series of tribes and it’s a really tough environment, and if you go in with a sense of arrogance you have no chance of surviving.”
Born in Hyderabad, a onetime pearl- and diamond- trading center, Nadella grew up with the privileges of a child of a high-ranking civil servant in the Indian Administrative Service. He was expected to reach academic and athletic heights and never brag about it.
So while he had a wicked throw on the cricket pitch, it came with a crucial dash of diffidence, and his classmate Pramod Chandrasekhar still hasn’t forgotten how it messed up his game more than 25 years ago.
They were in a match between their dorm wings at the elite Hyderabad Public School.
“Before he bowled that first ball, I had the swagger of the guy who would score the winning run and he had the demeanor of someone who was nervous and anxious to perform,” said Chandrasekhar, a human-resources manager in Hyderabad, recalling how Nadella got him out on the first ball.
“That says a lot about how he approaches things, with a lot of humility and a lot of anxiety to do well.”
Nadella may not display nerves these days, but modesty and equanimity have helped him keep the support of managers and employees, according to people at Microsoft, who asked not to be identified because they’re not authorized to speak about the CEO.
Even as the company lags behind rivals in smartphones and tablets, and after implementing the biggest layoffs in Microsoft history, Nadella retains that backing. He also has presided over a changing of the guard on the board, replaced longtime executives and scaled back some of the hardware work of the more boisterous CEO he replaced, Steve Ballmer.
Nadella has focused as well on making Microsoft more reliant on data as it develops and tests products, something else rooted in the Indian education system and culture, said Ash Ashutosh, CEO of Actifio in Waltham, Mass., and a Hyderabad native.
“We are analytical about every problem,” Ashutosh said. “We tend to want a data-driven approach.”
During his trip this week, Nadella is expected to participate in two events with a local trade group, including one dealing with startups, and make a “strategic announcement” in Delhi with Microsoft’s chairman for India, according to an invitation that didn’t provide more details.
Like most any later-in-life immigrant, Nadella is a blend of the country he left and the one he adopted. He lives not far from the Microsoft campus in Redmond, with his wife, Anupama, who also grew up in Hyderabad, and their three children. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
One of his uniforms involves jeans, sneakers and hoodies, showing Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg isn’t alone among tech CEOs in wearing sweatshirts in public. He enjoys Ghazals, a melancholy poetry brought to India by the Mughals, and the Seattle Seahawks. He is, according to friends, self-effacing. While that’s hardly an Indian-only quality, it’s one people of his era and background keep coming back to.
“Our egos are always in check,” said Ramana Jonnala, a Hyderabad native and CEO of Coho Data in Vancouver, B.C. “We don’t think we are the second coming of Christ and can boil the ocean. We know our part.”
There are many Indians in top positions in North American tech, among them Adobe Systems CEO Shantanu Narayen, Google Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai and Thomas Kurian, an Oracle executive vice president. At Microsoft, they include Gurdeep Singh Pall, head of the Skype business, and S. Somasegar, a vice president.
Nadella, Somasegar and Sanjay Parthasarathy were the first three born in India to be promoted to vice president at Microsoft, according to Parthasarathy, who has the distinction of being the first person Nadella followed on Twitter.
“We were all immigrants working in the No. 1 company,” said Parthasarathy, now CEO of Indix in Seattle. “We were all so damn hungry.”
Raised by parents who could remember the time before independence from Britain, the future migrants were educated in a rigorous system; at Hyderabad Public School, modeled after England’s Eton College, students attended class Monday through Saturday, Chandrasekhar said, rising at 5 a.m. and finishing homework before lights-out at 9:45 p.m.
In Hyderabad’s private schools, students went by first names, avoiding the surnames that would give a hint about family status, Ashutosh said.
“If you walk into one of those schools you see hundreds of those kids walk out in the same uniform, and you can’t distinguish if a kid is ultrawealthy or middle class, you can’t differentiate me from the kid of the local Bill Gates,” Ashutosh said. “You are hanging out with a cross section of folks — which is not common in India.”
Though Nadella’s family lived in the city, he boarded at school so he could focus on his studies, according to Chandrasekhar, whose father was housemaster in Nadella’s dormitory. They all were anxious about grades and Nadella, a scrawny athlete, showed the stress as a nail-biter, he said.
Another classmate, N. Chandrashekar, now a business consultant in Hyderabad, said the future CEO was fun-loving too, a mimic “who would have us in splits with the way he would impersonate the teachers.”
An engineering major at Mangalore University, Nadella was smart but not the smartest, and stubborn, said Harishchandra Hebbar, director of the college’s School of Information Sciences and Nadella’s digital electronics professor.
“There were some delays because he insisted on doing things on his own,” said Hebbar, who oversaw Nadella’s robot-building project. “Some mistakes can be avoided if you take help and time can be saved.”
Nadella went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for graduate school. His generation was born after the U.S. rewrote its immigration policy in 1965, abolishing country-of-origin quotas that had for decades favored Europeans. They could take a path that would have been difficult for their elders.
“America was an aspiration for most of us,” Pramod Chandrasekhar said. “It meant having arrived, doing well in your career, being in, at that point in time, the greatest place in the world.”
In Hyderabad, Nadella’s parents assumed he’d earn his advanced degree — a 1990 master’s in computer science — and return home with it. So many were disappointed when children remained in the U.S. that their heartbreak was immortalized in a song the BBC picked as one of the 100 of the millennium’s best, “Chitthi Aayi Hai,” which means “The Letter Has Come.”
“It was never a part of the plan to stay,” Nadella’s 76- year-old father, Bukkapuram Nadella Yugandhar, said by phone from his home in the upscale Banjara Hills neighborhood. “Then at that time, things were booming. He got a job there and went on and on and on.”
And up, from a first job at Sun Microsystems to Microsoft in 1992, where he started out in the developer division. To earn his MBA, he enrolled in an intensive course at the University of Chicago, flying most every Friday from Seattle and catching a red-eye back at the end of the weekend.
When reporters camped outside his parents’ house on the day he ascended to CEO — becoming one of the most famous Indians in America — his father came outside, briefly.
“All this is unnecessary hype. I don’t understand why it is required,” he said, according to the Times of India.
After he arrived in the U.S. in 1988, Nadella may have experienced what many of his socioeconomic class did, Duke’s Wadhwa said. Suddenly, they were outsiders with little familiarity with popular culture, and with accents and habits that set them apart.
“That motivates you like nothing else,” Wadhwa said. “You have to work harder, think smarter. You network. You relate to people better. It really changes your whole outlook.”
Indians of roughly Nadella’s age have made marks in the U.S., with Indra Nooyi running PepsiCo, for example, and Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna showing up on a People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive list. But tech is where they’ve shown disproportionate success, Wadhwa said his research’s found: Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, they founded about 15 percent of Silicon Valley startups.
In 1992, Richard Tait, a Microsoft executive who went on to create the game Cranium, told a member of his staff, Jeff Teper, to find a job candidate with three characteristics: “Smart, gets sh-t done, doesn’t piss off other people.”
Teper, now a Microsoft vice president tapped by Nadella to oversee corporate strategy, said he advised Tait to interview the young Indian.
Early this year, it was Nadella’s humility and collaborative approach that were among the talents that appealed to the Microsoft board as it searched for a new CEO. He started in February, with annual compensation of about $18 million.