Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella

Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella book cover
Hit Refresh, by Satya Nadella

Satya Nadella’s book on transforming the culture at Microsoft, Hit Refresh, is a fascinating read. I know many people with long-held anti-Microsoft sentiment, but I’d say it’s well-worth a read, even if you don’t like the company. Nadella has overseen the company through recent, and unusual or especially out of character initiatives for Microsoft, such as Microsoft Loves Linux. At least from what he covers in the book, his role as CEO has shifted the company by honing in on what they see as their value to businesses and society through collaboration, in contrast to the 90s and 2000s era of promoting Windows at all costs.

But the more interesting focus of the book is on empathy. It’s a theme that runs throughout the book, beginning with his story of immigrating to the US, to raising children with disabilities, to working on initiatives to encourage economic growth for the poorest in African countries, and using their machine learning technology for medical research. While I’d just encourage you to go read the book if you’re remotely interested in leadership, technology, and the impact of multi-national corporations in a post-digital world, here are some of my highlights.

Nadella cites the 1960s civil rights movement in the US as the main cultural change that enabled a success story such as his. Prior to the 1960s, and lifting the country of origin cap on immigration, only a few hundred Indians were allowed to migrate to the US each year. By the 1990s, with the introduction of H1B visas, engineers such as he and his friends could go over to the US and study, get jobs, and eventually rise up to lead some of the richest companies in the world. His story of the challenges he and his wife Anu went through to be together in Washington state gives a personal side to stories of immigration that is especially timely. It feels like one of the main reasons Nadella wrote the book was to showcase how immigration dovetails into American values of innovation, opportunity and the idea of the American dream in the face of particularly xenophobic times.

In contrast to the usual capitalist success story, he doesn’t promote a ruthless approach to career advancement. Instead he talks of his mother’s philosophy of “Doing your thing. At your pace. Pace comes when you do your thing, so long as you enjoy it, do it mindfully and well and have an honest purpose behind it, and life won’t fail you.” He was also inspired by his Marxist father, and through much of the book he talks of leadership and team building, and the success of teams and communities over that of the individual. He uses cricket as a metaphor, and describes brilliant but arrogant players who are difficult to work with and ultimately bring the team down: “You don’t want to work with people like that.”

He says that real leadership plays the long game, describing leaders who step in when needed, but then give responsibility back to less experienced people to help build and rebuild their confidence.

In going for the CEO job at Microsoft, he didn’t chase after it, and from his earlier experiences when he’d side-stepped promotions to learn from those more experienced than he is, he really captures an attitude toward relishing learning and growing, over attaining or succeeding. What I found most inspiring about this, is the narrative of someone who has managed to grow their career over time, while maintaining their own values, personality, and it seems, integrity. One quote from the book that I really liked, which was advice from one of his friends, a fellow engineer was, “I must work hard not to climb the ladder, but to do important work.”

In discussing building trust in teams, he describes an equation. Empathy + shared values and reliability equals trust over time. Trust isn’t something that happens immediately, that you can ask for of people, but something that grows over time thanks to reliability, shared values and empathy.

He expands on the idea of trust to talk more broadly about the trust we place in tech companies, governments, and surveillance, highlighting San Bernadino, and Edward Snowden. The principal challenge, he explains is balancing the trust in personal privacy and 4th amendment rights versus the trust in ensuring public safety. The responsibility of large companies to society weighs heavily throughout the book. This book came out late last year, but the chapter was especially relevant in light of Microsoft employees recently complaining about the company’s involvement with ICE in the US. Books like these of course give a positive light to the author’s approach, but it was refreshing to see that these are issues that seem to weigh heavily on the CEO’s mind.

This question of responsibility fed into a long-term view of the future, and the impact of automation. He says that we need to move from a labour reduction and automation mindset to one of a maker and creative mindset — AI and new technologies should augment the human experience and allow us to work on higher level work, and avoid dangerous manual work like mining — instead of cutting costs for big businesses. He describes the anxieties that have played into recent elections and Brexit, and that the solutions for governments and multi-national corporations like Microsoft is to invest in and foster local innovation and startups, education, and career re-training, with a particular focus on inclusion and diversity. For example, in Vancouver, Microsoft has a paid 6-8 month contract position for women who’ve been out of the work-force for at least 12 months, to provide an opportunity to up-skill and re-enter the workforce.

I’m always a bit skeptical of stories from big companies, giving overly positive visions of the future. Particularly as they seemingly focus their efforts on worldwide issues and revenue generation when there is great income inequality in their own neighbourhoods, with Seattle in particular (home to so many of these companies) facing a massive homelessness crisis.

It’s refreshing to hear one of the big tech companies’ CEOs talk about these issues, though, and the impact of wealth inequality, and strategies for companies and governments to take to address it, even if it feels very big-picture.

On a personal level, as a developer who’s focussed a lot of time and energy on building my skills over the past few years, it was very grounding to read a book on the importance of learning and going at your own pace, instead of the usual advice of hustling, grit and succeeding at all costs.

Nadella is setting a good example by leading with empathy and inclusion, collaboration over personal greed and ambition. I hope that the optimistic future he describes, one where new technologies help us address things like climate change and enable economic growth for all, is one that Microsoft and the other tech companies jump on-board and commit to.

The only part I majorly disagreed with (aside from bits that were a bit too “trickle down economics” for my tastes) was the Elon Musk quote that if we don’t find a way to interface our brains with computing technology and AI, we will become “little more than house cats.”

I don’t know about you, but my vision of personal happiness is most certainly to be “little more than a house cat.”