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Cerebral, collaborative, not a bombastic boss

Seattle, Feb. 4: The selection of Satya Nadella as the Microsoft CEO, which was widely expected, was accompanied by news that Bill Gates, a company founder, had stepped down from his role as chairman and become a technology adviser to the India-born engineering executive.

John W. Thompson, 64, a member of the Microsoft board who oversaw its search for a new chief executive, became the company’s chairman, replacing Gates.

Gates, who remains a member of Microsoft’s board, said: “Satya is a proven leader with hard-core engineering skills, business vision and the ability to bring people together.”

In a statement, Satya said, “Microsoft is one of those rare companies to have truly revolutionised the world through technology, and I couldn’t be more honoured to have been chosen to lead the company.”

In Satya, Microsoft’s directors selected both a company insider and an engineer as their newest chief executive, suggesting that they viewed technical skill and intimacy with Microsoft’s sprawling businesses as critical for its next leader.

It has often been noted that Microsoft was more successful under the leadership of Gates, a programmer and its first chief executive, than it was under Steve Ballmer, who had a background in sales. Ballmer, 57, said in August that he was stepping down.

Satya is only the third chief executive of Microsoft, an icon of American business that has struggled for position in big growth markets like mobile and Internet search. The company has correctly anticipated many of the biggest changes in technology — the rise of smartphones and tablet computers, to use two examples — but it has often fumbled the execution of products developed to capitalise on those changes.

It remains to be seen whether Satya’s technical background, along with the closer involvement of Gates in product decisions, will give the company an edge it lacked during the Ballmer years. Microsoft said in a statement that Gates will “devote more time to the company, supporting Nadella in shaping technology and product direction”.

Relinquishing his role as chairman will allow Gates to spend over a third of his time with product groups at Microsoft, “substantially increasing my time at the company”, he said in a video made for the news of Satya’s selection. Gates said that Satya asked him to make the change in his duties at Microsoft.

“I think he’s the right person for the company right now,” Frank Artale, a former Microsoft manager who works with Ignition Partners, a venture capital firm in the Seattle area, said of the selection of Satya. “A strong technical leader is truly needed there.”

Satya is a contrast to Ballmer in other ways. Most recently, the executive vice-president of Microsoft’s cloud and enterprise businesses, Satya peppers his conversations and speeches with technical buzzwords that people outside the industry would most likely find impenetrable.

Satya, who has been married for 22 years and has three children, counts cricket and poetry among his hobbies.

Satya showed ambition early in his career. He received degrees in engineering and computer science, then earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business while working full time at Microsoft. He flew to Chicago from Seattle to attend classes on the weekend, according to Steven Kaplan, a professor at the school who taught Satya in a course on entrepreneurial finance and private equity.

“He is take charge, smart, but in a likeable way,” Kaplan said, adding that Satya received an A in the course.

Now, Satya is known as a cerebral, collaborative leader with a low-key style that differs from Ballmer’s bombastic manner. While many executives within Microsoft tend to be polarising figures, Satya appears to be well liked in much of the company. Still, those who know Satya say that he is not a pushover as a boss.

“Managers have to keep proving themselves every day,” Artale said.

Satya’s star at Microsoft rose considerably in the past several years as he took charge of the company’s cloud computing efforts, a business considered vital as more business customers choose to rent applications and other programmes in far-off data centres rather than run software themselves.

For years, Microsoft did not pay enough attention to how the cloud — primarily through services offered by Amazon, its crosstown rival — was attracting the creativity of a new generation of developers. When he got control of the division that included Microsoft’s cloud initiatives, Satya changed that. He began meeting start-ups to hear more about what Microsoft needed to do to become more responsive to their needs.

“When you look at the most exciting things happening in tech, all the platform shifts happening and disruption — social, mobile, cloud — Microsoft has not even been part of the conversation until recently,” said Brad Silverberg, a Seattle-area investor and a former Microsoft executive. “With Satya’s leadership, Microsoft is doing interesting things in cloud.”

As chief executive of the entire 100,000-person company, Satya has to grapple with a much broader set of challenges in markets in which he has little experience, like mobile devices. He inherits a deal to acquire Nokia’s mobile handset business, along with 33,000 employees, and a wide-ranging reorganisation plan devised by Ballmer that is still in progress.

In an interview in July, Satya was supportive of the reorganisation plan, which he predicted would allow Microsoft to adapt to changes in the market more quickly than in the past. “It’s not like our old structure didn’t allow us to do some of this,” he said. “The question is whether you can amplify.”

When Satya joined Microsoft in 1992, it was still a scrappy, relatively small software company led by Gates that was just beginning its greatest years of growth. His familiarity with the company’s history and culture was said to have been an important factor in Gates’s comfort with Satya as chief executive.

But in an interview in April, he said the most important factor in Microsoft’s ability to remain a growing business in the future was its ability to become a player in what he called new paradigms in computing, like cloud computing.

“That is, you could say, the existential issue for us,” Satya said. “I think that with any new paradigm there will always be a couple of new players who come at it,” he continued.

“But to me the thing that is perhaps more interesting and challenging, and gets me excited, is, hey, how can we renew ourselves?”

 
 
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