Satya Nadella, born and raised in Hyderabad, was appointed CEO of Microsoft on February 4, 2014, becoming only the third CEO of the iconic company.In the 10 years since, Nadella has transformed Microsoft, which was then muddling along having missed the mobile boom, into the world’s most-valued company at over $3 trillion. The company’s stock has soared by more than 1,000% since he took the helm. Microsoft’s turnaround under Nadella first came from his big push into cloud computing. Now, with his huge investments into artificial intelligence (AI) infrastructure and solutions, he’s pulled Microsoft’s valuation ahead of even Apple. Nadella was recently on a three-day visit to India, where it has 23,000 employees, and a growing part of its business. On the final day, at Microsoft’s massive facility in Hyderabad, he took time out to have an exclusive interaction with TOI.
Your ten years at the helm of Microsoft has been nothing short of stunning. Analysts are calling you the most impactful tech executive since Steve Jobs. What do you think enabled you to accomplish this?
Every 10 years, something very big happens in our industry. I’ve had the privilege to be part of four of these technological waves: PC client-server, web/internet, mobile cloud, and now AI. The mindset I have is: This is year two of AI, where we are scaling AI. I look back, and see, how was it in year two of PC client-server, what are the things we did, both right and wrong. What did we do when it came to the browser and the internet! What did we do in mobile cloud! And that’s kind of the most important thing. And what will really matter is our ability, long before it’s conventional wisdom, to have a real point of view on what the arc of technology is. And then to go all in and build something of value. Even as we are doing this, it’s also important to be grounded. After all, we are Microsoft. Microsoft exists because of its sense of purpose and mission. Here we are in the Microsoft campus, talking to our folks on why we innovate, how we innovate, how do we meet unmet, unarticulated needs of customers, curate those continuously. So, I go back to those pillars of sense of purpose and mission and culture, and a real sense of where the arc of technology is, and not rest on what happened before.
You would have had to change the culture of the organisation as well to get here.
You have to be able to achieve things by working with people all around you, and especially in organisations like us, where there’s a lot of talent. And the question is, can we all collectively be that learn-it-all organisation, ultimately in service of a mission and a set of customers and partners – have that hunger, that humility. One of the things I always say is that there’s a thin line between confidence and hubris. You should have confidence that you can learn from mistakes, but you can’t have hubris that you are somehow God’s gift.
You have one of your biggest engineering and R&D centres in India. A lot of work around AI and even AI infrastructure happens here. How do you see India’s engineering capabilities and the larger Indian developer ecosystem?
One of the things I’m really tracking is where India is, and how is Indian human capital, Indian businesses, and Indian public sector organisations adopting these new waves of technology. If I go back to the four platform shifts, we had some moderate success with PCs in India, the web was big, mobile and cloud were really big. But I think AI can be even bigger. In the three days I have spent here, I have seen some of the use cases. What is unique is India’s digital public goods (like Aadhaar, UPI) now being juxtaposed with, say, some of the innovations that Microsoft is bringing in terms of AI stack to allow Bhashini (AI-driven language translation system), Jugalbandi (multilingual chatbot) to create scenarios that are allowing students to summon AI tutors just in time. That’s an unbelievable innovation, which I had not even thought of. The fact is, Indian software developers, Indian users, NGOs, are all coming together to conceive of putting these things together in unique ways. Same thing with businesses. For Air India, the Tatas have an ambitious goal of saying, let’s change how Air India operates and really provide great service. They built one of the best customer-facing agents. A 100-year-old textile company like Arvind says, let’s bring efficiency to how we do contracts and legal documents, but then really make our commercial organisation even better at doing these contracts. And you see that even in our development centre, where we are sitting, we have unbelievable talent and they’re all contributing. Someone asked me, in Microsoft, what’s the AI product; I said everything – there’s not a single layer of the stack that is not touched by AI. And we have people here contributing to the entirety of what we’re doing. So, it’s an exciting time.
Should India build its own sovereign AI infrastructure? There are those who say this is necessary for India to build solutions for its unique requirements.
I think the government in India has always had a pretty enlightened view. As I said, India is leading the world in some sense with these digital public goods. That’s why I was so impressed with the fact that the ministry of information technology was the one behind Bhashini. They sponsored the speech-to-text and text-to-speech stack, so that it’s truly democratised and available for any application in India to always be multilingual. And now you can daisy chain that with, let’s say, the latest model like a GPT-4 Turbo and you can have a startup that can offer in any Indian language, some very sophisticated AI capability. And that is the magic – sovereignty’s success absolutely comes from being able to tap into what I’ll call a commodity that is available and then add unique value to it, use it intensely and reduce the barriers to adoption. That’s the way to development – development doesn’t come by reinventing the wheel. The development comes from making sure that you’re not dependent on any one person or any one company, like even Microsoft. Our goal as a platform company is to invest in India, whether it’s capital, whether its data centres, which are like the modern factories. We are making in India the compute utilities, so it’s also sovereign, because it’s on Indian soil.
Any one suggestion to the government, something they should be thinking more about?
One thing I know the government cares deeply about is, how is all this technology ultimately benefiting the Indian citizen, and how is it safe. Those are two things that matter. Therefore, it’s important to continue having a rich dialogue with the private sector – participants like us – and then be able to come up with the right set of guidelines and norms. And, ultimately, regulations too. There are regulations in food, in automotive, in finance. There’s no reason why it should be different in tech, especially tech applied in healthcare, applied in finance. So, the key suggestion would be to really make sure that you’re getting the benefits, and the unintended consequences are the ones we’re mitigating, as opposed to stalling the overall progress.
You’ve been a part of four tectonic shifts. Do you think the disruption in the labour market is going to be profound with AI?
I think it’s a great question. I start from fundamentally saying, look, let’s not fall for the lump of labour fallacy. That said, I’m also clear that there will be displacement, but I would submit a couple of things. One is, in this shift, you could say that the expertise to some degree is easier to pick up in order to get better wage support. Let’s say you’re a frontline worker in manufacturing. You have domain expertise, but you can now easily pick up some IT skills in order to build an application just by using natural language prompts. So suddenly, you’re not only a very valuable member of the manufacturing staff, but you’re now also a member of the IT staff. And that would provide more employment opportunities and better wage support, and drive productivity. I think that will happen in healthcare, that will happen in retail. In fact, one of the things I’m most looking forward to is our frontline jobs participating in what is the increasing digital economy of ours. The other thing is, the learning curve and experience curve are coming down. I graduate from a college, but then I want to pick up real-world skills quicker, now we have tools for it. We will have the ability to turn more of our graduates to be more productive, with better wages, in more industries. One of the best examples I came across in India this time around is what Karya is doing – the fact that they’re creating jobs for rural Indian women to participate in what is an emerging AI economy. It’s not something we could have conceived of two years ago. When I met this lady from rural Maharashtra, she was so really enthused by what she was doing. She was both making economic benefits accrue to her and she was learning, and she was enjoying it. That sense of empowerment was awesome to see.
If you had a suggestion for an Indian youngster, what would that be?
Be it anyone – youngsters or mid-career professionals – what’s important I think is that sense of curiosity, the fearlessness to go pick up new things. When I am with my Copilot, I have that sense of exploration, that sense that I can learn anything, I can get well-versed about things. I always sort of say, God, I wish I had Copilot when I was studying electrical engineering and I couldn’t figure out Maxwell’s equations. That’s when I needed it. We sometimes are afraid to go do new things because we feel the learning curve is steep. We now have a tool that makes the learning curve easy to transcend. And so, I think there is no better time to be more fearless.
You spoke about how developers are in a golden age. But is AI going to create some sort of an existential risk for them, where it can replace humans in the loop?
As AI evolves, we all can use AI to help us remove the drudgery in our work, improve our ability to learn things, and the ability for us to participate in the world more fully. I go back to what I saw last time here, with Jugalbandi, where an Indian farmer was able to really access services from the government through the help of AI. So, the human is not being cut out. If anything, the human agency is being amplified because that linkage between, let’s say, a college degree and lots of knowledge, and human smarts is now being broken. Therefore, I feel humans can flourish. We do have to think, if there’s an AI take off, how is it in control? The one thing humans have done throughout is harness powerful new technology to benefit us. I feel we can do the same with AI, but it will require us to establish these norms and then translate those norms into laws and law enforcement and technical guardrails.
You have a big interest in cricket. The US is co-hosting the T20 World Cup. Are you going to the India-Pakistan match in New York?
I hope so. If I can get my tickets, I will go. I’m a minority owner of one of the teams out of Seattle (Seattle Orcas). There’s not a South Asian you’re going to meet anywhere in the world who doesn’t love cricket and I love it as much as the next person.
How do you excite Americans to watch cricket?
They will excite themselves (laughs).