The Microsoft CEO’s appointment to the Hutch board is the latest in a string of philanthropic commitments that are raising his local visibility. It’s part of Satya Nadella’s evolution from a driven engineer to a high-level corporate leader.
When he was named chief executive of Microsoft in 2014, Satya Nadella was respected at the company and in the technology business. Outside those circles, he was virtually unknown.
That’s changing a bit in his third year at the helm of Washington’s largest publicly traded company.
The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is expected to announce Monday that Nadella will join its board of directors along with four other new members, the most prominent of a string of local commitments the 48-year-old executive has picked up.
Born: Hyderabad, India
Family: Married, three children
Education: Manipal (India) Institute of Technology (B.S.), University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (M.S.), University of Chicago (M.B.A.)
It’s part of an evolution for Nadella as the driven software engineer and career Microsoft executive grows into the portions of the CEO role that extend outside the corporate board room.
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Nadella’s appointment to lead Microsoft instantaneously transformed him into one of the most powerful and highly visible business executives in the country, not to mention a leading technologist and sought-after person for a wide swath of issues.
Less visible has been the local prominence that comes with the job, partly because of the role played by Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and the leader of its legal and lobbying units, as well as its de facto ambassador to the region.
But after spending his two decades in the Seattle area climbing the corporate ladder at a demanding company while raising a family, Nadella is starting to show up locally in his own right.
In an interview, Nadella said he doesn’t lack for invitations to board memberships and other responsibilities.
Two-and-a-half years into the job, he said he wants to reach into that pile for a Seattle nonprofit doing top-of-the-line work. In an ideal scenario, he could learn a bit from the philanthropic field he contributes to, and maybe pitch in a thing or two from his own deep technology background.
And for an executive who tacked empowering “every person and every organization on the planet” onto Microsoft’s mission statement, the Hutch’s lofty aim — curing cancer — is a draw.
“I’m excited about the opportunity,” Nadella said. “It is fantastic to have a world-class organization, doing world-class work with an ambition to find cures for cancer.”
In addition to joining the board of the Hutch, Nadella is participating in Challenge Seattle, a group of chief executives meeting regularly to help address regional sore spots like infrastructure and education, and to raise the profile of the area globally.
The group also includes participation from Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos; Ray Conner, the chief of Boeing Commercial Airplanes; and other business leaders.
Nadella also has headlined fundraisers for the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Technology Industry Association lobbying group.
To a large extent, Nadella’s participation comes with the job. Microsoft, which employs 43,600 people in Washington state out of a global workforce of 112,000, is eager to project the image of a civically engaged company with a big hand in local causes and charities.
There’s plenty of history to back that up.
Mary Gates, Bill Gates’ mother, was a prominent philanthropist. Bill Gates and co-founder Paul Allen have both spent a large part of their post-Microsoft careers on philanthropic and civic causes.
The company continues that tradition, most visibly in an annual philanthropy push that recently has distributed more than $100 million to nonprofits.
For some at Microsoft, though, the demanding workplace doesn’t leave much room to extend efforts at community involvement throughout the year.
Terry Myerson, an executive vice president and one of Nadella’s chief lieutenants, has lived on the Eastside for nearly two decades since joining Microsoft.
Last year, following a promotion that gave him oversight of much of Microsoft’s engineering work, Myerson joined the board of the nonprofit Seattle Foundation, an umbrella group that funds programs from homeless shelters to arts and cultural organizations. The range of programs and the local societal issues they highlighted was eye opening, he said.
“I’m just not as aware of everything going on in our society that I probably should be,” Myerson said.
“There are just so many people on this team like me who just love their work, love their families, and they kind of define their life around that,” he said.
That can be true of Nadella and many of the people Microsoft drew to the Puget Sound region who first planted roots among groups of employees who practically lived on the company’s campus.
Sanjay Parthasarathy, like Nadella, an Indian-born engineer who grew up at Microsoft in the 1990s, said that what was then a small group of immigrants at the company served as “a built-in community.”
“The optimum was to roll out of bed and get to campus,” said Parthasarathy, who left Microsoft as corporate vice president in 2009 and now runs Indix, a software startup. “There was kind of both a good and bad about it.”
Strong work ethic
Nadella was born in Hyderabad, India, and came to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree in computer science.
In 1992, working at Sun Microsystems in California, he fielded two offers: acceptance at the University of Chicago’s business school, and a job in Redmond working for Microsoft.
Not wanting to pass on either opportunity, Nadella deferred business school and moved to the Northwest. He wound up earning his degree later over 2 ½ years by flying to Chicago on Fridays, taking classes on Saturday, and returning to Seattle before the next workweek began.
That kind of work ethic defined Nadella, colleagues say.
And, in a rarer trait at a company that grew famous for sharp elbows, Nadella was always eager to listen and learn, they say.
S. “Soma” Somasegar, who left Microsoft last year after 27 years, was introduced to Nadella professionally in the mid-1990s when he received an email asking to meet.
Nadella, Somasegar later learned, had been told that work he was doing overlapped a bit with a project of Somasegar’s, a common issue at the sprawling company that has led to more than one turf war.
Nadella didn’t come seeking favors or bearing corporate intimidation.
“He right away said ‘I want to learn,’ ” Somasegar said. “That symbolizes for me what this guy is all about.”
Doug Burgum, Nadella’s supervisor at Microsoft for six years, said Nadella’s attitude was the opposite of what you might have expected of leaders of that era.
“You’re talking about the most profitable company the planet had ever seen. It’s natural that a lot of people would (display) a sense of that success. But Satya always had humility.”
Nadella succeeded Burgum as chief of Microsoft’s Business Solutions unit in 2007 and later took on roles overseeing engineering for the company’s Bing search engine, and the company’s Server & Tools business.
Since being named Steve Ballmer’s successor in February 2014, Nadella has taken on some of the unofficial trappings of the role.
That year he moved from the Clyde Hill home his family had lived in for more than a decade, trading up for an $11 million mansion in Medina, the lakefront town that counts as residents Gates, Bezos and a roster of current and former Microsoft executives.
Nadella also joined the default tour circuit for the masters of the universe, stopping by the Davos economic forum in Switzerland for two years running, and mixing in trips to the first lady’s box at President Obama’s State of the Union address and meetings with other world leaders.
Nadella’s priorities, though, lie elsewhere.
One of his early local engagements after taking the top Microsoft job wasn’t on behalf of the company.
In November 2014, he spoke at a fundraising breakfast for Little Bits Therapeutic Riding Center, a Redmond nonprofit that uses horseback riding to provide speech and other therapy for people with disabilities. Two of Nadella’s three children have been riders at the center. His son, Zain, is quadriplegic.
Nadella says his sense of community was shaped by his kids, “their relationships, and the relationships we, as parents, formed because of them with a very diverse group of people.”
That includes therapists at the riding center, speech and physical therapists, a universe of caregivers and their families.
“My son is going to be 20 in August, and every year that we’ve celebrated his birthday has been this grand celebration of all the people we’ve met because of the life that he’s led,” Nadella said. “That’s the Seattle I know, that’s the community I know. And it is family to me because I can’t think of anything else that is that close to that.”
Full plate at work
Nadella says he isn’t exactly fielding offers for more extracurriculars. He’s busy enough fighting to keep Microsoft’s technology relevant in the company’s fifth decade.
He says he hopes to make an impact on Seattle and the wider world primarily as a caretaker of a culture that encourages employees and alumni to change the world.
“Growing up as a middle-class kid in India, I don’t think I grew up with this much of an understanding of how important it is not only to succeed, but to think about giving back to (your) communities,” he said.
He’s also a believer in changing lives through the company’s core businesses, which supply Windows and Office software, and a growing array of business-focused services delivered over the internet. There are constant reminders of that reach, he says, including a recent visit to a classroom in Indonesia where he met students using the same set of Microsoft tools his daughter uses.
“The core business that we do, I think, is what makes Microsoft pretty unique,” Nadella said. “That’s why people join Microsoft.”
“When you’re in a company that has a billion customers around the world, how do you balance improving that impact vs. getting involved on the local level?” Burgum said. “Because it’s not like your day job isn’t having a big impact on people. That’s the balance that (people like Nadella) have to find.”