Satya “Nutella” Nadella may be Microsoft’s next CEO. Regardless he remains a powerful person within the Redmond software giant as Microsoft Cloud & Enterprise chief and has reported directly to Ballmer over the last 3 years. Nadella talked with Mary-Jo Foley about some lessons he has learned from Steve Ballmer.
Ballmer “is perhaps one of the most grounded people I run across in this place around what our current realities are,” Nadella
Nadella recalled a performance review he had with Ballmer two or three years ago.
“I went to him and sort of said, ‘Hey, you know, how am I doing?” The first thing he said is,’Dude, you’re going to know it, I’m going to know it, so don’t keep asking me. You know, we’re all going to know what is happening because it’s going to be in the air.’
“The second thing I asked him, ‘Hey, what about all these past grades and how did they do? And how am I doing relative?’“ Nadella said. “He said, ‘Why does that matter? Look, this business is not about longevity of any idea. It’s all about inventing new formulas. So the thing that I would want to really evaluate you on and I want you super focused on is not how I did or anyone else did with any opportunity we had, because that’s not going to tell you anything about the future opportunity.’“
While Ballmer is extremely detail-focused, Nadella said there’s never been a meeting in which Ballmer asked something like “have you optimized this CAL (client-access license) with this thing or what have you.” Instead, it’s “mostly all about what is the next play,” Nadella said.
The notion is “there’s nothing in this industry — and definitely in this particular segment — that’s built to last,” Nadella continued. “It’s all about being able to reinvent yourself.
“And that, I think, is his lasting legacy,” said Nadella of Ballmer. “As he would say, it’s about batting averages. You’re not going to take everything and be a hit. It’s not like, oh, we have a great enterprise business. In fact, we have had many enterprise business births and deaths in his tenure.”
Nadella said Ballmer told him “all formulas have a timeline or a half-life. And if you don’t sort of get focused on inventing the new formula at the right time, you’re dead in this business.”
Nadella cited device management as an example of Ballmer’s long term thinking.
“There is a very important (management and security) construct called domain join we invented. You could say the IT folks may have misused it to screw up some of the experiences in some cases. But you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
“You have to reimagine and build new constructs, which we have done with this workplace join,” Nadella continued. But we also have to grandfather in other devices into this concept. That doesn’t mean we somehow go away from speaking about the virtues. In fact, the fascinating thing that we’re seeing now is customers are all realizing, in fact, even our competitors are realizing that this information assurance is probably what enterprises need. They can’t willy-nilly let any device come into the enterprise, install any application with no data protection and no ability to test to the device state.”
“You come up with an idea, he’ll say, ‘That’s the dumbest thing.’ Or, ‘I don’t buy that,’“Nadella said. “But with him, you’ve got to just keep going back. You keep going back.”
There is a trait Ballmer shared with Chairman Bill Gates, Nadella said:
“They (Gates and Ballmer) yell at you, they’ll scream at you, they’ll sort of say you’re crazy and you’re destroying this place,” Nadella said. “And all the melodrama aside, you come back at it with the data, with the — with your own conviction, because a lot of that stuff is all to test whether you know what you’re talking about.”
“I keep my score on that. And whenever he does, and he’ll sort of say, ‘Yeah, you were right.’ And he’ll move on,” Nadella said.
“He’s one of our best and most critical users of all our stuff, as we find out the hard way,” Nadella (who, himself, has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and master’s degrees in computer science and business administration) admitted.
“Steve’s contribution to broadly computing as well as to this company I think will be better told, quite frankly, in five, ten years when there’s more distance,” Nadella said. “It’ll be shaped by, in fact, what we do next.”