Book Review — Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella

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Early this morning I finished Satya Nadella’s “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone”. Satya Nadella is the chief executive officer of Microsoft — only the third in the company’s forty-five-year history. The book was published in 2017.

Satya weaves three distinct but intertwined elements into his book — his journey as an Indian immigrant in America, the transformation happening within Microsoft with him at the helms proclaiming himself the Chief Culture Curator, and the arrival of arguably the most disruptive wave of technology in humankind’s history: artificial intelligence, mixed reality and quantum computing. So it’s part memoir, part leadership guide and part futurist vision of technology.

Usually we imagine that a brilliant engineer who climbed the ladder to become Microsoft’s CEO would be an academic wizard, especially since he comes from India. Right? Well, in his words, “I was not academically great”. He even failed the entrance examination into Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the holy grail of all things academic for middle-class kids growing up in India at that time. It was a curious thing to see the kind of high (secondary) school he went to. Unlike the stereotypical Indian schools where kids are pressured into the sciences, his school wasn’t like that. If you liked to study physics, you studied physics. If you felt like, oh, science was too boring and you wanted to study history, you studied history. There wasn’t that intense peer pressure to follow a particular path. Satya considers HPS the best break he had in his life.

#NewWordAlert persnickety

The way he ended up at Microsoft is interesting. At the time he was recruited into Microsoft at the age of 25, his first inclination was to go to business school. One wonders what would have happened to him if he passed on that opportunity. We may never know.

He has glowing words for the United States. He posits that it is only in America that someone like him could get the chance to prove himself rather than be typecast based on the school he attended. The civil rights movement which culminated in the change in immigration policy in the United States, and the global tech boom felt in hindsight like a lottery. He considers himself at the right place at the right time.

It was devastating reading the story of his first born. How utero asphyxiation confined him to a wheelchair, and would thus be reliant on them because of cerebral palsy. That and the experience of one of his daughters who has learning differences, he said has helped him to develop empathy and it shows as he navigates the leadership of Microsoft.

Everyone knows how great the story of Microsoft is. But in the late 2000s and 2010s, the story reads more like that of a company which was unable to evolve with the times. Its mission of “A computer on every desk and in every home” became outdated with the rise of smartphones.

Microsoft was losing itself. Talents were leaving. An attempt to compete in mobile led to the ill-fated acquisition of Nokia which eventually became the stuff of jokes. As he assumed the leadership of Microsoft he knew he had to do things differently. It was at a time Amazon began its ascendancy as the undisputable cloud giant. So while Microsoft were very publicly missing the mobile revolution, they decided they were not going to miss the cloud.

He posits that a leader must see the external opportunities and the internal capability and culture and respond to them before they become obvious parts of the conventional wisdom. It’s an art form, not a science. And a leader will not always get it right.

This mindset led to the acquisitions of products like Minecraft — which became the best-selling game of all time after the purchase — and LinkedIn — the talent and employment-oriented social networking service.

This mindset also encouraged Microsoft to partner with many more companies than it used to. In case you don’t know, Microsoft has the largest ecosystem of partners in the world. Millions of customers in every sector have built their businesses and organizations using Microsoft technologies. Satya has as his ultimate goal for Microsoft, to be the biggest platform provider underneath all of the entrepreneurial energy in the world today, with an unrelenting focus on creating economic opportunity for others.

(Microsoft also has the world’s largest corporate philanthropy with more than $1 billion in contributions.)

Like I say all the time, I always read books with Nigeria in mind. Microsoft launched Windows 10 in Kenya. Why wasn’t my dear nation the African country chosen? Satya says Kenya is a nation with great promise, one that with digital transformation could leapfrog over others by getting infrastructure and skills in place. Over to you, Nigeria!

I was surprised to learn that even though we didn’t see them from Microsoft, many of the products we have come to associate with other tech brands have had variants of them being developed at Microsoft around the time others were released. They actually had a tablet before the iPad; they were well along the path toward an e-reader before the Kindle. They just struggled to get the balance right.

It’s noteworthy that he spoke about on his well-known gaffe. He had been asked what advice he had for women seeking a pay raise who were not comfortable asking. He responded, “It’s not really about asking for the raise but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” That was wrong no matter how you look at it. And so it was heartwarming that after the event, he shot off an email to everyone in the company, encouraging them to watch the video, and quick to point out that he had answered the question completely wrong. Any advice that advocates passivity in the face of bias is wrong.

Satya poured his heart into the future of technology. He believes that artificial intelligence, mixed reality and quantum computing are the future. And he talks up the potential of these technologies to make life easier for humankind. While he acknowledges that we tend to overestimate what we can achieve in the short run but underestimate what can be achieved in the long run, he stakes his reputation on these three key technologies that will shape the tech industry and others in the years to come. It’s 2020 and the years have been kind to that prediction so far.

#DoYouKnow In the 1450s there were only about 30,000 books in Europe — each one handcrafted by someone working in a monastery. The Gutenberg Bible was the first book produced using movable type technology.

Of course he is also aware of the inherent dangers of these technologies. Who remembers the hacking of Sony in 2014 when a tranche of stolen emails were revealed to the public by hackers backed by North Korea? These and many other hacking events make people dread these technologies. But Satya posits that rather than cower, organizations and governments at all levels must make investments in these technologies and their securities. They are here to stay and those who snooze lose.

#DoYouKnow On average, countries tend to adopt a new technology about 45 years after its invention, according to Economists Diego Comin and economist Bart Hobijn after examining the time frame over which 161 countries adopted 104 technologies.

The author advocates for a Digital Geneva Convention. What does it mean? Read the book.

Here’s a real life scenario: In December 2015, a husband and wife pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked celebrants at an office party, killing fourteen and injuring twenty-two. Believing that the iPhone used by one of the shooters might contain information that would illuminate just what had happened and thereby help prevent future attacks, the FBI filed suit to force Apple to unlock the phone.

Should Apple unlock the phone?

Apple pushed back and sued the FBI. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, argued that his company could breach the phone’s security only by creating new software that would expose a so-called backdoor that anyone could then infiltrate. He argues, this makes it worse for every user of iPhone in the long run.

These scenarios and other very interesting ones (like how to grow jobs as machines take over more and more jobs) narrated in the book pose difficult questions and Satya offers great suggestions on how technology companies and lawmakers can work together and increase societal trust in this era of digital transformation.

Some countries are ready; some are clearly not. He wrote glowingly about Malawi and Rwanda. No, this 287-page book has no mention of Nigeria. I can relate when he said that in many underserved parts of the world, public and private attention is focused on attracting Silicon Valley companies rather than on growing local tech entrepreneurs. He expressed concerns over how developing countries court Western CEOs like himself when local entrepreneurs complain to him about their inability to get meetings with these same leaders. He considers it shortsighted because these entrepreneurs are the keys to long term prospects for these economies.

Satya is someone I have largely being indifferent about, unlike Tim Cook, but I finish this book having an overall positive view of him. Yet I can’t help asking myself — why is Microsoft Teams such an inferior product in terms of user experience compared to Zoom? Also, in the book he says Microsoft guns for “technological advancements in services like LinkedIn and Office they help people…become more productive rather than software that is simply entertaining — memes for conspicuous consumption.” Then why is Microsoft on the verge of acquiring TikTok, a chief example of a purely entertainment application?

Hit Refresh is an interesting book for people thinking about the future and what it CAN hold for all of us.

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