As you’ve likely heard, Satya Nadella has been named as Steve Ballmer’s successor as CEO of Microsoft. The succession seems to be going well, with more than a couple employees telling me that they’re “relieved” to have the situation finally resolved. “Now I can focus on my work without having to worry about who’s upstairs in a week,” as one employee told me under conditions of anonymity.
And I can agree with that employee: There have been millions of pixels spent on who’d be replacing Ballmer, and we finally know the answer to that question. But it raises another more nuanced question: Who is Satya Nadella?
He’s a fine choice as CEO of one of the largest technology companies in the world, that’s who. And I can back that up.
Unlike Ballmer, Nadella is an engineer foremost. He has a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Manipal University as well as a master’s in computer science from the University of Wisconsin. In contrast, Ballmer – who did study engineering in prep school – sports a bachelor’s in applied mathematics and economics from Harvard. In other words, he’s a numbers guy. He’s a really good numbers guy, and Microsoft’s profits show it.
While a company like Microsoft does need its numbers guys, a numbers guy shouldn’t be the CEO of a company like Microsoft. That office and executive parking space belongs to someone who knows tech and tech trends and has the technical background and mind to make things happen without going to committee. That’s a lot of “ands”, but it’s also part of what helped Apple transform from a jejune dinosaur in the mid-90s to the most recognized brand in the world today: It was headed up by an engineer who had a brain for tech.
Ballmer was good at keeping the books balanced, but for the last decade Microsoft’s big consumer products have been reactionary, not revolutionary. The Surface is a reaction to the iPad; today’s Windows Phone (while excellent) are re-imaginings of the iPhone; let’s not talk about Zune.
There are exceptions, of course. The Xbox is a standout example of an excellent consumer product by Microsoft, but it was planned and developed before Ballmer took over from Bill Gates (who is another engineer, it should be noted).
Some cynics will point out that while Nadella is indeed an engineer, his work has been of the more esoteric nature, having held sexy titles like the “VP of development for the business solutions group” and the “senior VP of search, portal, and advertising platform group”. His pre-CEO job was as “VP of the cloud and enterprise group”, which manages products like SQL Server and Windows Azure. But that department is booming, and it’s a large part of why Microsoft can still post positive quarterly results when the rest of the PC industry is taking a nap. It’s not hard to imagine Nadella’s obvious influence could improve all kinds of products company-wide.
Other cynics, of course, will question if Nadella will be able to also handle the day-to-day workings of a company as colossal as Microsoft, the rationale being that Microsoft is a much larger entity than Apple is, and thus needs a more generalized manager with an eye on the “bigger picture” (AKA a “numbers guy”). No problem, Nadella also has an MBA from the University of Chicago for good measure. Even engineers have hobbies, I guess.
While we don’t know the details of his plans yet – which is something we tech journalists are thankful for – it’s not hard to presuppose a future consumer-focused Microsoft that’s a little more agile, a little more ahead of the game, and a little more “hip”, while still maintaining the massive amounts of profits that the enterprise side brings in as well. And it’s because it really isn’t difficult to imagine such a future that makes Nadella a solid pick.