Get ready for something completely different.
That’s the word from technology executives who have worked with and for new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella over the course his 22-year career at the Redmond company. Nadella might have been a relative unknown in the broader technology world until today, but he is widely respected inside the company.
And in the words of one two-time Microsoftie, Nadella is “a complete 180″ from Steve Ballmer, the outgoing CEO who led Microsoft for more than a decade with an often-booming style of leadership.
“Satya is thoughtful, articulate and well-spoken but quite low-key,” said Scott Moore, president of Seattle startup Cheezburger, the former MSN executive producer whose tenure at Microsoft gave him a window into Nadella’s leadership of Microsoft’s Bing search engine and Online Services group. “He possesses vast technical knowledge and expertise and unlike many senior execs, he understands the products he oversees at a deep level.”
Despite his outward demeanor, Nadella is an “aggressive business leader” who is willing to take on difficult challenges, Moore said.
Nadella is not the type of leader who would pound the table with his fist, instead taking a more thoughtful approach to problem solving. In that regard, he’s more in the mold of Nike CEO Mark Parker, said John Connors, the former Microsoft CFO who now works as a venture capitalist at Ignition Partners.
“He’s more cerebral and has great product depth, and is very, very good at getting the right people in the right jobs,” said Connors. “Very hard working guy. Very outward focus, and very product oriented. He will be a guy that people enjoy working for, but at the same time, if you don’t deliver or don’t have the right skill set, he won’t hesitate to make changes.”
Those comments reflect a general consensus among current and former Microsoft employees and executives who have worked with Nadella, and help to explain why Microsoft’s board chose the 46-year-old native of Hyderabad, India, to lead the company as only the third CEO in its history.
A Strong Business Sense
Some shareholders — and employees — will be disappointed that Microsoft didn’t pick a high-profile CEO from outside the company, with a higher likelihood to make major changes. But those who have worked with Nadella say they’re excited to see how his leadership impacts the company.
“I don’t think he’s going to go in with a set view,” said former Microsoft executive Sanjay Parthasarathy, who hired Nadella into Microsoft’s product groups in the early 1990s, and has remained friends with the new Microsoft CEO since working with him in those early days. “He’s going to operate based on what he sees.”
In those early days, Parthasarathy recalled, Nadella was studying on the weekends to earn his MBA from the University of Chicago. “He just had the most incredible work ethic and bandwidth,” said Parthasarathy, who is now the CEO of Seattle-area technology startup Indix.
Before joining the product groups, Nadella actually started in Microsoft’s Corporate Account Technical Marketing Team, where he was hired by Richard Tait, who would go on to become co-founder of the Cranium board game, among other entrepreneurial ventures.
Vijay Vashee, a former Microsoft executive who attended the same school in India as Nadella, also recalled the story of Nadella studying to get his MBA while working at Microsoft. “This is incredibly tough to balance,” said Vashee. He described Nadella as a balanced and humble techie who is a “great listener” and possesses a “strong business sense.”
Connors, the former Microsoft chief financial officer, said Nadella is the right choice for the job. That’s in part because he has not always taken the easy path, choosing instead tougher challenges within the company, such as trying to improve Microsoft’s search position or running the Microsoft bCentral small business online service. Some of the experiments he embarked upon worked, others did not.
No Room for BS with Satya
When Nadella came in to run Microsoft’s Internet search engineering team, he had not previously worked directly on cloud services at such a massive scale, recalled Ken Moss, a former Microsoft web search executive who is now vice president of eBay marketplaces platform. Despite his previous lack of experience in that area, he was able to get up to speed extremely quickly on the search business and underlying technology, Moss said.
“He earned instant respect of everyone he worked with, because it was clear at all times that he would make hard decisions to do the right thing, and base those decisions on a deep understanding of reality,” Moss explained. “There’s no room for BS with Satya in the room.”
Nadella, of course, has never run a company of Microsoft’s size. And he’s never had to deal with the whims of public stock holders. But Connors thinks Nadella can shine on Wall Street, noting that he will likely form a powerful team with CFO Amy Hood. The company also is in a much different spot compared to when Ballmer took the reins back in 2000, a time in which the company’s price to earnings ratio stood at about 90. It is now 13.
“He’s got a whole different dynamic than what Steve (Ballmer) faced, so there is a good opportunity for value creation, and I think investors will like that,” he said.
In terms of dealing with Wall Street, Connors said that the most important thing for Nadella is to “get the business right, and that will take care of itself.”
One key advantage for Microsoft is that it is already a leader in the enterprise software arena, a business that is growing extremely fast and one where Nadella has plenty of experience. That’s not to say there aren’t big challenges. In fact, Connors said that large global companies like Microsoft “are almost inhumanely complex to run.”
And one very big complexity will emerge almost immediately when Microsoft absorbs Nokia and its 30,000 employees. Microsoft is already far behind in the mobile business, with its Windows Phone operating system hovering at just 3.1 percent market share in the U.S.
“If you look at the shifts in the device world, the shifts have happened pretty regularly,” said Connors. “So they’ve got to emerge as a leader in the next big shift, and that will be his great challenge, but also his great opportunity.”
Connors believes that Nadella is the best person suited to help the company extend its lead in the enterprise and regain its mojo in mobile. “I think the Microsoft diaspora — if you were to do a poll would say: ‘Yeah, this is a great hire,’” he said.
Moore agreed, saying he believes Microsoft employees will be happy with the change.
“He is not a rah-rah cheerleader,” said Moore. “I’m sure employees will miss Ballmer’s passion, but I suspect they will welcome Satya’s steady hand and clear strategic focus. Among the senior execs I got to know at Microsoft (and Yahoo! for that matter) Satya inspired me and earned my deep respect.”
GeekWire co-founder John Cook contributed to this report. Updated on Feb. 5 with additional quotes.