Review of Satya Nadella's 'Hit Refresh': Windows to many worlds

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella   | Photo Credit: AP

Of cloud and computing technologies, leadership and transformations, IIT failures and H-1B queues, the Microsoft CEO pulls no punches

The founding fathers of the digital world, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, the great among them, made fashionable a leadership style that tolerated no dissent and took no prisoners. Bezos, according to his biographer, “abhors…what he calls ‘social cohesion,’ the natural impulse to seek consensus,” epitomising a leadership style that celebrates conflict, disruption and domination as virtues and signs of limitless creativity and advancement.

In his debut book Hit Refresh, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella blends autobiography, biography of the company and techno futurism, but ethos, empathy, empowerment and democratisation are its keywords. Nadella sounds passionate about two topics — leadership and transformation, and he makes a strong case for a new social contract that must guide the values of the evolving, nay exploding, digital era.

Nadella is protagonist and observer of three transformations that the book is about. The first is his personal journey, starting as a privileged kid who played cricket and loved coding, but loses out in the IIT entrance test. Turnarounds can be dramatic — cricket had taught him. He goes on to lead Microsoft but in his modest telling, the route is too mundane, including bouts of green card angst and H-1B visa queues at the U.S. Consulate.

Hit Refresh
Satya Nadella
HarperCollins India

Hit Refresh Satya Nadella HarperCollins India ₹599  


The second transformation that he leads is of Microsoft, from being a desktop-era entity to aiming for the cloud, the new mode of computing that the company appeared to have lost out on. Microsoft is now on its way to its own cloud business that will exceed $20 billion.

The third transformation is of computing technology, which will overcome the existing limits of physics and chemistry that is plateauing out the growth of transistor-based computing. Transistors have already reached subatomic sizes, and further squeezing of them may get impossible — early day super computers had 13,000 transistors, but Microsoft X Box One has five billion of them, he notes — but that is no end to the growth of computational power. “The search for a quantum computer has become something of an arms race,” in which a leading player is Microsoft itself.

Importance of empathy

Through all this transformation, empathy is the touchstone of leadership for Nadella — not a powerpoint, but a living, loving experience that he has imbibed, also through caring for a child with special needs. Nadella arrives at the conclusion that “the choice of leading through consensus versus flat is a false one.”

“Any institution building comes from having a clear vision and culture that works to motivate progress both top down and bottom-up.” Nadella is unafraid of making top down decisions — he politely terms them “not universally loved”; he thinks that C in the CEO stands for culture, and culture building becomes the core of his leadership style. Leaders need clarity, energy, and execution in a manner that balances long term and short term goals. Humility as opposed to hubris, empathy over envy and enmity are the values that strive him. Cooperation and competition can coexist, he says, illustrating the example of allowing Linux applications to run on Windows as well — a dramatic turnaround in the company’s approach to competition. Such ties — one could call them ‘Co-Co’ partnerships — between Microsoft and other giants such as Google and Amazon are an inevitability of technological progress. This equally applies to strategic partnerships among countries also, which are a mix of cooperation and competition in most cases.

Microsoft’s own reputation had not been about empathy, and the CEO is candid about it, when he says its style “that was once seen as crushing the competition is now focussed on achieving business growth by empowering everyone on the planet.” He concedes that “diversity and inclusion is a bedrock strategy... but as a company and as an industry, we’ve come up far too short.”

Leadership is an “art form, not a science” for him, and so is innovation. Poignance and excitement do not stand apart in his writing, but melds, and evokes layers of thoughts in the reader’s mind, including the unsettling promises of mixed reality, Artificial Intelligence and quantum computing. But fear not, Nadella tells you, his reassurance is based on some generous assumptions that he makes about the nature of technology and human beings. At the centre of the vision that transformed Microsoft has been the emphasis that it is the human, not the machine, that is mobile, and the empowerment of humans will make technological progress an unalloyed good for society. But the impending technological wave will make machine mobility independent of human mobility and could question this assumption.

Technology diffusion in a society appears to be an apolitical phenomena in this telling. The influence of finance capital on it, and on the creation of technology itself, is touched upon only in passing. The CEO’s responsibility is to the investors, but he must also be accountable to the citizen, Nadella says at one point, mindful of a serious flaw in what American economist Robert Reich calls ‘Supercapitalism’ where investors and consumers are richly rewarded at the cost of citizens and labour. Nadella quotes one of his favourite authors, Tracy Kidder, to say that “technology is nothing more than the collective soul of those who build it.” Nadella’s book is undoubtedly an exposition of his empathetic soul, but its survival in the collective is not as indubitable. And the finance capital that underwrites it all is evidently soulless.

If you are excited about the future, read this. If you are scared of it, even more so.

Hit Refresh; Satya Nadella, HarperCollins India, ₹599.

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Printable version | May 24, 2020 10:02:25 PM |

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