In one of his first utterances as the newly appointed CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, a 46-year-old engineering executive originally from India, said something you don’t usually hear from a person elevated to such a height of corporate America. He spoke not merely about what he already knows or intends to do, but about his “curiosity and thirst for learning.”
In an email to Microsoft employees this morning, Nadella, a 22-year veteran of Microsoft, drove home the point about habitual learning. “I buy more books than I can finish,” he wrote. “I sign up for more online courses than I can complete. I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things.”
Reporting on the announcement for the New York Times today, Nick Wingfield observed that Nadella’s style—cerebral, collaborative and low-key—stands in contrast to the “bombastic manner” of outgoing Microsoft CEO Steven A. Ballmer. (Microsoft also announced that founder Bill Gates is stepping down as its chairman and will serve as a technology adviser to the new CEO.) If that is a fair characterization, it fits well with the fresh attitude that Nadella is bringing to the software giant.
That he didn’t start off simply by reciting his 37-point in the next few weeks is a good sign. Too many companies in the tech sector seem to be running out of the ideas needed for bold planning. Too few leaders realize that what they’re thinking is every bit as important as what they’re doing. Nadella is sending the message that one of the most urgent priorities in that sector (and every sector, I’d say) is to get serious about learning and innovation.
On a different topic today, Times columnist David Brooks makes a similar argument about what will be the successful traits of various kinds of professionals in the coming years. Brooks emphasizes that in an age when computers are performing an ever-increasing amount of mental functions, curiosity and the desire to learn are more, not less, important than ever.
In his column titled “What Machines Can’t Do,” Brooks explains …
The amount of information in front of us is practically infinite; so is that amount of data that can be collected with new tools. The people who seem to do best possess a voracious explanatory drive, an almost obsessive need to follow their curiosity. Maybe they started with obsessive gaming sessions, or marathon all-night study sessions, but they are driven to perform extended bouts of concentration, diving into and trying to make sense of these bottomless information oceans.
Accepting this, in principle, is only part of the challenge. You also have to figure out a way to do the learning, in the middle of everything else you’re paid to do.
Will Nadella and Microsoft Follow Through?
I like the approach taken by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner. When he was a young lawyer, he decided that he would, as he put it, “sell the best hour of the day to myself.” In other words, he would take otherwise billable time at the peak of his day and dedicate it to his own thinking and learning. “And only after improving my mind—only after I’d used my best hour improving myself—would I sell my time to my pro¬fessional clients. And I did that for a number of years,” he said at a shareholders meeting in 2008.
Some companies have begun to institutionalize the notion of “sell the best hour.” For example, 3M has long made it a practice to let employees set aside 20 per¬cent of their time for work unrelated to the core busi¬ness—in search of ideas and innovations. Some years ago Google began following the same drill. Most of its employees were allotted one day a week to follow their inter¬ests and passions.
“This has produced more than a few of Google’s technological breakthroughs. Just as im¬portant, it conveys a sense of freedom,” Ken Auletta wrote in his 2009 book Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, adding that the 20-percent rule also en¬courages engineers to “push the envelope, to assume that their mission is to disrupt traditional ways of doing things.” There have been reports more recently that Google is backsliding from this policy and making it harder for employees to get approval for those kinds of projects, although the official word from Google is that 20-percent time is “alive and well.”
Like many observers, I’ll waiting to see how Nadella and Microsoft take on challenges in such vital areas of product development as cloud computing and mobile technology. But I’ll also be interested in whether or how he follows up on his bracing words about the pressing need to “learn new things.” What will he do to promote “curiosity and the thirst for learning” among Microsoft’s engineers and other employees who will supposedly forge the innovations?