Fall 2015 Perspectives The Book Of Booth Satya Nadella 96 Sunil Kumar Illustration
Illustration by Olivier Kugler

Satya Nadella, '97

The Microsoft CEO talks about empathy and hard-won hard skills with dean Sunil Kumar.

I will start with this: What’s your vision for Microsoft?

Having grown up in the company, what is it 23 years or so, I always come back to the very first thing Microsoft did, the BASIC interpreter. It was this notion of empowering others to do great things.

And how do you do that as  a business?

I also think, in Chicago style, we’re all victims of our economic model. In our case it’s about your product. We want to do the best job of making the tools you use. It could be a student writing a term paper or a developer writing an app. My vision is to take that productivity and empowerment of individuals and organizations and express it in this new world, which is mobile-first, cloud-first. The only way you’re going to have that mobility of the human experience—not the device—is by having cloud orchestrate the movement.

Regarding that Chicago-style thinking, is there a Booth class that was particularly memorable?

It was a class that I took with [now-retired] professor Marvin Zonis on leadership. He stressed that EQ trumps IQ in the long run—the E is for empathy.

How did you carry this into your career at Microsoft?

When I’ve had my failures—when I’ve been impatient or not listened to someone—it was because I didn’t enlist my sense of empathy. Empathy helps me understand what others expect, what they need to succeed, and what the authentic ways are to communicate. We’re all  social beings. 

What about the hard-skills classes?

Cost Accounting was painful. But I tell you, cost accounting is everything. When we think about a new storage system or the amount of bits that we are moving into a data center, it comes down to the cost of photons.

Managerial Accounting was perhaps the best class. That’s because the biggest mistakes we make lie in not knowing which are variable and which are fixed costs. That’s especially true as we move to the cloud. You can make all kinds of pricing mistakes.

Is there a role for nontechnical MBAs at tech companies?

It takes all functions. If you’re an expert in finance or marketing, there are fantastic opportunities. At the end of the day as a tech company, it’s about the innovation. It’s about the product. And in our case it’s about computer science. Of course you need the engineers. But it’s really the interdisciplinary work that is going to create the magic.

What magic comes next?

There is a real possibility now of super intelligence—in 20 years, 50 years, but it’s going to happen. What it is going to do to humanity and human evolution is fascinating. I’m an optimist, because we in the technology industry have to be. We’re going to get more out of our time. Technology has always led us to have better lives.