Satya Nadella’s first three years as CEO of Microsoft have been remarkable for the Redmond-headquartered company. The software giant, which was once struggling with internal cultural issues and failure to keep pace with a changing technology landscape, has since pivoted to newer technologies such as cloud computing, mixed reality and artificial intelligence. In a new book ‘Hit Refresh’, Nadella has written about how he led this transformational journey. In an interview withBusinessLine,hespeaks about the future of technology, impact of digital economy on privacy and dealing with failures. Excerpts:
You decided to hit refresh in 2014 after you took over as CEO. With technology changing rapidly, do you think you will have to undertake many more hit refreshes before the transformation is complete?
The whole transformation journey has been framed not as a one-time episode but as a continuous process of renewal. In some sense, business success is only possible when you break the virtuous lock that happens between concept that once was novel, and capability and culture. You ought to have a culture that is not a ‘know-it-all’ culture but a ‘learn-it-all’ culture. It allows you to come up with new ideas.
Everything in technology look like a failure until it’s not. So you need to have courage to let people learn and also fail.
Here we are 43 years after Microsoft’s birth, talking about a whole set of new technologies. During these years, we have had to hit refresh every 2-5 years, and I am sure in the future we will have to do the same.
One of the critical issues in the digital age is privacy, which at times gets compromised as governments across the world are increasingly seeking access to data. You have prescribed a 6-point agenda in your book including creating an environment of trust and empathy. In reality, most State actors have a short-term view. Do you think that this approach could jeopardise faster adoption of technology?
As a global society we have to deal with some core challenges related to the new technologies. For example, the balance that is required between national security and public safety. This is something that, especially in democracies, the legislative process and the courts have to create a framework of law. We are certainly advocating that in the United States but beyond the U.S. we need a modicum of international order that spans the EU, China and India. Then there is the issue of how State actors behave in a world where cybersecurity is a super important thing for citizens.
One of the things we advocate is the need for a digital Geneva convention. I am actually optimistic because global community has come together in the past to tackle some of the unintended consequences of new technologies so that the progress is not impeded. There will be ups and downs, but I believe in our collective capabilities to solve problems.
On one hand you are advocating more responsible behaviour from governments when it comes to privacy of digital citizens, on the other hand tech companies survive and thrive on accessing user data. All of the new technologies like AI and machine learning need access to large amounts of user data. Isn’t there a conflict here?
The data belongs to the user and it is our responsibility to make sure that data is used for the benefit of that consumer only. It’s transparent, it’s in their control and it’s secure. Building that trust with consumer is super important. That’s why there has to be trust on business models where you are not turning data from one place as a source of income in another place, or to create value for someone else. There has to be a simple, straightforward and transparent transaction that builds trusts. Privacy is something that every user should value but at the same time they need to be able to permission their data to be used so that there is value for them. To say that I will not use my data to create better value for myself would be a mistake.
The rise of the digital economy is being labelled as the next industrial revolution. The previous industrial revolutions created the haves and the have-nots. Will new technologies reduce these gaps and be more egalitarian?
I do believe that the world needs more egalitarian growth. The question though is how to make it happen.
Research has found that countries that were able to get new technology fast into their country, but most importantly, were able to turn it into intense use and take advantage of it by turning it into productivity gains were the ones that were successful. So whether it’s in India or elsewhere, it should not be about diffusion of technology alone. It’s not just enough to be, for example, a smartphone nation. The question is what are you doing with technology to have an impact on things like education, healthcare, the supply chains. Merely celebrating consumption of some technologies alone will not make it equitable.
One of the things missing from your book, I thought, was the absence of how you felt when things did not work out. For example, you have written about how you worked on a platform for offering video on demand but then it had to dropped due to the advent of Internet. How did you deal with disappointments and failures?
Failures in technology are part and parcel of what we do. I can trace back some of the distributed systems knowledge we have today, that allows us to build the cloud, to what we had built for the video on demand server. Sometimes concepts do not work out but the capabilities get reborn in different ways. I don’t think of technology failures as the things to get emotional about.
While every tech company is obsessing with technologies like AI and augmented reality, you have also talked about quantum computing. How will this unfold in the future?
We are in the early stages of this. When I look at the computational problems — whether its the catalyst that’s going to be able to absorb the carbon in the air or being able to model the enzyme that’s involved in natural food production — these are computational problems that’s not been solved. In order to solve them we need a new approach. It speaks a lot about Microsoft’s ability to go long, invest in long-term research and also remain true to our identity.
What we have done with quantum is not a gimmick or just some press release highlighting our achievements around quantum. We have put it out there so that others can create quantum computing algorithms. It’s not about celebrating technology for the sake of technology but what we can do to unleash the power by putting it in the hands of everyone else.