9 Lessons Engineering Students in India can learn from Satya Nadella

After Satya Nadella was named as one of the front runners to succeed Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, a friend of mine, at Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal asked me what were the key things that we – regular students at MIT, Manipal – could learn from him.

My answer first was Satya who? I hadn’t come across the name before, not being related to the technical field and also not knowing the history of this MIT Manipal alumnus, I was surprised at this question directed to me. Once I came to know that he is a 1988 alumnus of the Manipal Institute of Technology, I dug a little deeper to get to know more about Satya Nadella, and decided to pen a few thoughts about what his rise could mean to the regular students with ambitious dreams at Manipal Institute of Technlogy.

I agree that it would be silly to start a graduate degree program in “Being Satya Nadella.” I don’t want my friends to be Satya Nadella, but I want them to learn from Satya Nadella.Satya Nadella

Truth be told. There was nothing spectacular about Satyanarayana Nadella, registration number 8419218. He was among the hundreds who passed out of Manipal Institute of Technology in 1988 with a degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering.

I sat down and wrote this list of Satya’s life lessons that may help engineering students across the country:

1. You do not have to go to IIT’s to make it big

Satya Nadella did not go to any Indian Institute of Technology, those temples of higher education in India. Instead he graduated from Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal in 1988. Remember, Manipal in those days was practically unheard of, let alone MIT. It was still a part of Mangalore University. There is a lesson in this for all of us – You do not have to go to a top ranking institute in the country to be a bigshot in your life, it’s your work that makes you.

2. Get your basics right

Mary Jo Foley, a journalist and blogger at ZDNet says ” I was impressed by how technical Satya was, all about Microsoft. He can go really deep technically as much as any programmer”.  This suggests that to excel at the top, you need to have a solid grounding in your field of work. Getting the basics of your field of study right, should be first and foremost in any engineering students quest for fame.

3. Do not hesitate to change careers or companies

Before joining Microsoft, Nadella was a member of the technology staff at Sun Microsystems Inc. If he had continued his career at Sun, he may have made it to the top as well, but he decided to shift to Microsoft in 1992 and has not looked back since.  Nadella also seemed to take on a role where the odds were stacked against him. When he was appointed to the Search division at Microsoft, it ranked a distant third behind Google and Yahoo. Today Bing is ranked second behind Google and has made rapid strides.

The lesson we can learn here is that it is better to be bold and change careers or companies to pursue your dreams and not stagnate in one single job!

4. Be open about your plans

In 2008, when Satya Nadella was appointed to head the Microsoft’s search, portal and advertising platform group, he was perceived as a greenhorn, even though he was with the company for 15 years! Nadella sent out a memo to employees laying out objectives for the year that gave analysts a glimpse into his plans. His goals outlined in the note included developing a strong “destination search experience,” reinventing the MSN portal, scaling the company’s ad platform and emphasising innovation and agility at the group. In his role in the Online Services Division, he led the overall R&D efforts for some of the largest online services and drove the technical vision and strategy for several important milestones, including the critical launch of Bing, new releases of MSN, Yahoo! integration across Bing and adCenter, and much more.

5. Don’t hesitate to redesign yourself

In 2011, Nadella was moved away from the search division at Microsoft and thrust into Server and Tools Business with Windows Azure at the forefront. Steve Ballmer said ” In deciding who should take the business forward, we wanted someone with the right mix of leadership, vision and hard-core engineering chops.”

Despite spending 4 years in the search division and doing quite well there, he was thrust back in to a key position in the Server and Tools business at Microsoft. In this role over the past couple of years, he has demonstrated the ability to cultivate talent and build a world-class engineering organization, attracting some of the brightest technical minds from within Microsoft and across the industry. You can also learn the Microsoft Azure fundamentals through online courses to join in on the future of cloud computing.

6. Have Varied Interests

Satya Nadella in various interviews and talks calls upon entrepreneurs to work hard, innovate, be bold, and take risks. He thinks you can train your brain to learn more things. He’s an avid reader; he starts more books than he finishes. But at the same time be focused. While you’ll think $19 billion in revenues is huge, Nadella is often found telling his folks, “We’re only doing 19 billion of 2.2 trillion dollars of IT.”

7. Continuously re-invent yourself

When Satya Nadella joined Microsoft in 1992, no one had visioned cloud computing. In his own words a couple of months ago, he says  ” …it was all about business process automation and communication driving productivity in the previous generation. The key trends emerging now are software defined data centers, application platforms, storage, and big data. Ten years down the line, he envisions the most innovative work happening around the conversion of data into meaningful insights and actions.”

So we need to learn to adapt and move along with the times in the nexus of concept, capability and culture.

8. Know about your competitors, but focus on your strengths

In his current job in the Servers and Tools business at Microsoft, Satya Nadella focuses on improving both Windows Azure and Office 365. But he does keep a track of what Google and Amazon are doing with their systems. In his own words “If you look at Amazon or Google, the two other providers in the cloud, we have a very unique way to tell a customer that it is not just about building an application in the Azure platform but [also] having a way to take it out or to extend it.”

The lesson Engineering students can take from this is to always stay focused on your strengths, but, do not discount your competition. Learn a few things from your competitors as well and try to improve upon that.

9. If you want to sell an idea, product or service, put yourself in the other person’s shoes

A well known fact about Satya Nadella is that he has a Master’s degree in Management in addition to his Masters in engineering. This gives him insight into the workings of consumer behaviour and helps him take decisions that will be appreciated by the end-users.

The key lesson learnt here is to always know whether what you are planning will be appreciated by the person who uses your stuff in the end. That’s empathy. That’s seeing the world not as it is but as it should be.  It’s started from that first touch the user has with a product and says “ahh” to the beginning and building what is needed which may look nothing like what exists today.

Finally in the words of Steve Jobs

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

1 Comment

  1. There are many inaccuracies in this piece. Eg: Satya was not hired by Microsoft to head the Search group. He was hired into the Business Applications group. In fact he’s never headed the Search group. He reported to Qi Lu. This and many others. But I can see your intent is noble and your heart is in the right place. So keep at it. You have the potential to help young minds aspire for lofty heights and believe they can achieve it…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.