With his new book, Satya Nadella takes control of the Microsoft narrative

Microsoft CEO and “Hit Refresh” author Satya Nadella, mid-quest.
Microsoft CEO and “Hit Refresh” author Satya Nadella, mid-quest.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich
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Satya Nadella is only three and a half years into his tenure as the CEO of Microsoft and he has already written a book about his experiences. Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone will be released on Sept. 26.

As he acknowledges in the book, it’s an odd time to write about running the tech giant. Nadella, getting out in front of the “why” question, says he wanted to write from the middle of the “fog of war”—the battle to rescue Microsoft from a slow fade into the background of the tech landscape. And there’s plenty of material here. In stepping out of the long shadow of former Microsoft leaders Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Nadella has already accomplished what seemed impossible, increasing Microsoft’s market cap by $250 billion since taking control. As Fast Company recently pointed out, this adds up to “more value growth over that time than Uber and Airbnb, Netflix and Spotify, Snapchat and WeWork” combined.

The timing of the book’s arrival from Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, is even less peculiar when you also consider that one of Nadella’s central missions is to recreate Microsoft’s culture and image in the eyes of its employees, business partners, customers, investors, and, finally, the world. In Hit Refresh, the chief executive details the ways he seems to have made formerly disillusioned and perhaps embarrassed Microsoft employees proud of their work and employer again, partly by refocusing their sights on where the company was going, and why, rather than where it had fallen behind. He describes his pioneering approach to partnering with “frenemy” corporations.

The book itself is another way that Nadella is taking control of the Microsoft story, and the results are mixed.

For the average reader, Hit Refresh will be most compelling in the more personal sections, where Nadella describes his early life in India; the influence of his mother, a Sanskrit scholar; and his arrival in the US, where he attended University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee to complete his Master’s degree in engineering, and, with other Indian students, gave up smoking rather than stand outside during the shockingly cold winters. Nadella describes his awkward first interview at Microsoft, which he joined in 1992, when he was 25 years old. He eventually became head of the company’s cloud and enterprise group, and was credited for moving Microsoft to the cloud when he was tapped as CEO.

It’s intriguing to learn of the methods Nadella used as CEO to disrupt culture in the company, to change the style of communication from one that was top-down and rigid to one that was empathetic and collaborative. For instance, he recounts the time he used a company-wide spat over milk routinely being left to spoil out on the counter to drive home—with some levity—his belief in the “growth mindset,” and personal empowerment, as a way to solve problems, rather than complain about them.

In another instance, he recalls an early meeting with his senior leadership team in which he brought in sports psychologist Michael Gervais, who had worked with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, to meet with Microsoft’s executives and bring their self-awareness to a deeper level. During that meeting, held on soft couches arranged in a circle, the managers opened up about their personal passions and philosophy. Nadella writes:

“We were asked to reflect on who we are, both in our home lives and at work. How do we connect our work persona with our life persona? People talked about spirituality, their Catholic roots, their study of Confucian teachings. They shared their struggles as parents and their unending dedication to making products that people love to use for work and entertainment. As I listened to them, I realized that in all my years at Microsoft this was the first time I’d heard my colleagues talk about themselves, not exclusively about business matters. Looking around the room, I even saw a few teary eyes.”

Unfortunately, the strange narrative arc of Hit Refresh means we soon lose these vivid, ground-level reports from inside Microsoft. The book moves from being a personal story, to a management how-to, to a series of long sections in which Nadella reflects on the future of digital rights and freedoms, artificial intelligence and augmented reality, quantum computing, and what he thinks countries will need to do to be included in the next wave of tech-enabled globalization (one that companies like Microsoft hope to lead, naturally). Those chapters read more like keynote speeches—albeit thoughtful, insightful speeches that include literary references and lovely summaries of various economic and philosophic theories.

The “refresh” in the title is meant to refer to the “refreshing” of a web page, which Nadella admits is a quaint notion in today’s web culture. It’s also his way of signalling his respect for the Microsoft that came before him, one that, by the time he took over, had turned into a collection of fiefdoms where secrecy ruled and hostility ran high between competing Microsoft businesses.

The empathetic spirit he begins to emphasize as CEO, as a way to bring the workforce together, is a value he also connects to Microsoft’s ethos more broadly: he argues that the company exists to help democratize the tremendous power of today’s computational abilities, the way Gates and co-founder Paul Allen democratized access to computers period. Nadella makes the case for the company becoming a ubiquitous tool in the lives of its users, who will soon be living in a world of ubiquitous intelligence. What end users will do with those tools—build companies, schools, or cure cancer—is where each of Microsoft’s 100,000-plus employees is supposed to find meaning. He links the company’s purchase of LinkedIn to democratizing employment opportunities, and emphasizes the value of Minecraft in classrooms, in his nod to that unexpected acquisition.

Nadella claims in the book that he has seen a “tangible shift” in Microsoft culture, though he considers the job a work in progress. Whether insiders will challenge this depiction remains to be seen, but Nadella’s personal dedication to seeing his work through an existential lens is convincing, most especially when he talks about his son, Zain, who was born with severe disabilities. He credits his experiences raising Zain, and his wife’s approach to parenting, with teaching him the meaning of—and need for—empathy. He writes:

During one ICU visit, after I took on my new role as CEO, I looked around Zain’s room, filled with the soft buzzing and beeping of medical technology, and saw things differently. I noticed just how many of the devices run on Windows and how they were increasingly connected to the cloud, that network of massive data storage and computational power that is now a fundamental part of the technology applications we take for granted today. It was a stark reminder that our work at Microsoft transcended business, that it made life possible for a fragile young boy.

The experience helps him see Microsoft’s mission in a new light, and in the process convinces the reader.