Microsoft hits Refresh

Chris Bunch 6th December 2017
Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella

Over the past few years, I’ve read a number of interesting books relating to “business”, and a few of those have linked to Cloudreach’s key partners, for example: Amazon, Google (and Google’s HR approach).

More recently, I found some time to read Satya Nadella’s book on his Microsoft journey entitled ‘Hit Refresh’ – and as I sit here on a long flight I decided I’d share my thoughts with you, dear reader.

 

An impressive job

 

That heading reflects how I’d describe the work of Satya Nadella. Cloudreach has been an Azure partner since I reached out to connect with them in late 2014 on the back of increasing customer demand and massive investment in R&D on their part. We’ve seen Microsoft change and evolve significantly in that period, but you could already see the changes back then – with senior staff using Apple devices, talking about open source (not things Steve Ballmer was known for supporting…), and really understanding the opportunity cloud presented to their business.

Since then, we’ve seen Microsoft change and evolve further, both commercially and technically to really regain some of their mojo and become a strong player in the world of cloud computing – as a credible leader in SaaS, PaaS and IaaS. If all three elements are combined, they are the biggest global player in fact.

Is this all down to one man? Definitely not. But can a strong leader, with an equally strong vision inspire and change a gigantic organisation like Microsoft? Undoubtedly. It would be harsh (and untrue) to say Microsoft was on the rocks pre-Satya, but he has massively invigorated their business. In his own words, prior to picking up the CEO mantle in 2014, there was red tape and politics everywhere – stifling innovation and creativity.

 

The man

 

We learn quite a lot about Satya in the opening chapters, it’s quite personal in terms of reflection into what has shaped him over the years – perhaps a little too much in parts in fact for my tastes, I’m more interested in the nuts and bolts of what works and what doesn’t in a company.

Having said that, we learn he’s been with Microsoft since 1992. To all those who think you need to job hop to advance your career, this is a man who laughs in your face – with only really a few years in a techy role at Sun before that.

Nadella talks repeatedly about the importance of empathy, and whilst I’ve not met him in person, it comes across as genuine. It’s a value we admire here at Cloudy Towers, and if he ever wants a new role, I suspect he’d fit it well here ;-).

Empathy, in his view, is key to redefining culture to focus on what a customer and potential customers really need. In parts it’s also about empathy with the world in general, and how Microsoft can make it a better place. This empathy has been driven by some disabilities faced by his children, and again he’s candid about how that changed his world view.

Satya makes references to lessons he’s learnt from cricket, India’s most beloved sport, and how these can be applied to business:

  • Yes, admire your opponents, but compete *hard* to beat them
  • Put the team before your own achievement. Also recognise that just one bad apple within a team can significantly impact performance for all
  • Strong leadership is crucial if you are to win

I also enjoyed a few snippets like learning that he only originally stopped smoking as it was too cold (for a recently migrated Indian) to go outside in the US winter. Everyone is human.

 

The company

 

If you weren’t already aware of the type of stable company Microsoft is, Satya confirms this by reminding readers he is their third CEO in forty years! That’s impressive, but of course that kind of stable leadership can also lend itself to a lack of innovation.

In 2011 when he became involved with cloud computing, he found an organisation divided by this new approach. How could Microsoft capitalise on this, whilst protecting existing lucrative revenue streams? I see companies impacted by this dilemma every day, talking to clients engaged with large systems integrators who are essentially paralysed by their existing profitable businesses – meaning they don’t want to change anything to try something new… It’s great for us of course, as we can help them become more nimble companies, without such baggage.

Microsoft could have milked their business as a cash cow – but opted instead under Nadella, to take a longer term approach and make big bets (they are investing massively) in cloud, software and AI especially.

My take on this is a mix of fast(ish!) follower on cloud, combined with genuine innovation in AI, augmented reality and quantum computing. I’m a huge believer in all of those technologies, and support the view that it’s not safe to just be a fast follower… even if you are *very* good at it.

 

How to make change happen?

 

The advice is to start by listening. Listen to your customers, listen to your business. Understand what they need, and what they believe in. In order to drive a cultural change from the top down, you must live by a consistent set of values – “consistency is better than perfection”. Once you know what you need to do, make it happen – with firm decisions. When Satya essentially canned Nokia overnight, 20,000 jobs were lost. That’s a huge decision, and one that no one takes lightly. It was however, the right thing to do.

Nadella cites a Drucker-ism that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. I think a combination of the two is vital, but if push comes to shove, I’d agree and say culture is what really makes a business successful – and indeed should guide key strategic decisions.

As noted above, you need strong leadership or this change won’t happen. A name (and balance sheet) like Microsoft’s meant they could bring in proven heavyweights, alongside the founders of smaller companies they acquired, to form a leadership council that sounds pretty dynamic.

He is smart enough to note that this is an ongoing process which never ends. Customer obsession, diversity, “one company” are all values espoused – and which Cloudreach shares. Our theme for FY18 is in fact “One Cloudreach”.

 

Responsibility

 

This is a topic that clearly weighs large on Satya’s mind. He talks about many things in this area, including diversity in the workforce and how we all have a responsibility to not be passive. I think that’s an important point. It’s easy to say “the demographic is x or y, we can’t change it”, but with hard work and focus, much more can be done. He’s linked executive pay to diversity in fact, and lists gender specific pay publically (I haven’t checked the numbers!). He is open about blundering through a Q&A on this topic, and learning some important lessons which shaped his future behaviour and the company direction.

Satya talks about the need for a ‘Geneva Convention’ to stop state cyber attacks on other nations, and to ensure bugs are reported not exploited (take note NSA…). On the future of the AI world, he stresses the importance of a society where people can keep their jobs and dignity, and where technology enhances rather than replaces humanity.

Most notably, he pushes hard on a theme of global education as both a force for good, and an enabler for change. I suspect Satya is a man who pushes government statesmen hard when he meets them – good for him.

 

Closing words

 

I enjoyed the book, and it’s hard not to admire the work Satya has done at Microsoft. The next 5 years of execution will be key to their longer term success. My closing words from Satya are that you shape your own success. Keep learning, and push yourself at all times. That, I wholeheartedly agree with, and he is a superb example of this.

 

What’s next? Why, Alibaba of course. I’ve downloaded a book on Jack Ma’s mighty machine for my next flight. More to come.

 

Keep it Cloudy.

 

Chris Bunch, Head of Cloudreach Europe

@cloudychrisb