‘Everything in technology looks like a failure until it’s not’

Thomas K Thomas Mumbai | Updated on January 09, 2018


CEO Satya Nadella says he measures Microsoft’s success by the software giant’s ability to create a buzz around it in India

Satya Nadella’s initial three years as CEO of Microsoft has been remarkable for the Redmond-headquartered company. The software giant, which was once struggling with internal cultural issues and failure to keep pace with changing technology landscape, has since pivoted to newer technologies such as cloud computing, mixed reality and artificial intelligence. In a new book titled Hit Refresh, Nadella has written about how he led this transformational journey. In an interview with BusinessLine, the Hyderabad-born Microsoft chief speaks about the future of technology, impact of digital economy on privacy and dealing with failures. Excerpts:

You decided to hit refresh after you took over as CEO in 2014. With technology changing rapidly, do you think you will have to undertake many more hit refreshes in the coming years before the transformation is complete?

The whole transformation journey has been framed not as a one-time episode but as a continuous process of renewal. In some sense, business success is only possible when you break the virtuous lock that happens between concept that once was novel, and capability and culture. You ought to have a culture that is not ‘know-it-all’ but ‘learn-it-all’. It allows you to come up with new ideas. Everything in technology looks like a failure until it’s not. So you need to have courage to let people learn and also fail. Here we are, 43 years after Microsoft’s birth, talking about a whole set of new technologies. During these years, we have had to hit refresh every 2-5 years, and I am sure in the future, we will have to do the same.

One of the critical issues in the digital age is that of privacy, which at times gets compromised with governments across the world increasingly seeking access to data. You have prescribed a six-point agenda in your book, including creating an environment of trust and empathy. In reality, most State actors have a short-term view. Do you think this approach could jeopardise faster adoption of technology?

As a global society, we have to deal with some core challenges related to new technologies. For example, the balance that is required between national security and public safety. This is something that, especially in democracies, the legislative process and the courts have to create a framework of law for. We are certainly advocating that in the US. But beyond the US, we need a modicum of international order that spans the EU, China and India. Then there is the issue of how State actors behave in a world where cyber security is a super important thing for citizens. One of the things we advocate is the need for a digital Geneva convention. I am actually optimistic because the global community has come together in the past to tackle some of the unintended consequences of new technologies so that progress is not impeded. There will be ups and downs, but I believe in our collective capabilities to solve problems.

On one hand you are advocating more responsible behaviour from governments when it comes to privacy of digital citizens, and on the other hand tech companies survive and thrive on accessing user data. All of the new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning need access to large amounts of user data. Isn’t there a conflict here?

The data belongs to the user and it is our responsibility to make sure that data is used for the benefit of that consumer only. It’s transparent, it’s in their control and it’s secure. Building that trust with the consumer is super important. That’s why there has to be trust on business models, where you are not turning data from one place as a source of income in another place or to create value for someone else. There has to be a simple, straightforward and transparent transaction that builds trusts. Privacy is something that every user should value, but at the same time, they need to be able to permit their data to be used so that there is value for them. To say that I will not use my data to create better value for myself will be a mistake.

The rise of digital economy is being labelled as the next industrial revolution. The previous industrial revolutions have created haves and have-nots. Will new technologies reduce these gaps and be more egalitarian?

I do believe that the world needs more egalitarian growth. The question though is how to make it happen.

Research has found that countries that were able to get new technology fast, but most importantly, and were able to turn it into intense use and take advantage of it by turning it into productivity gains — were the ones that were successful.

So whether it’s in India or elsewhere, it should not be about diffusion of technology alone. It’s not just enough to be, for example, a smartphone nation. The question is what are you doing with technology to have an impact on things such as education, healthcare, supply chains. Merely celebrating consumption of some technologies alone will not make it equitable.

One of the things missing from your book, I thought, was how you felt when things did not work out. For example, you have written about how you worked on a platform for offering video-on-demand, but then it had to dropped due to the advent of internet. How did you deal with disappointments and failures?

Failures in technology are part and parcel of what we do. I can trace back some of the distributed systems knowledge we have today, that allows us to build the cloud, to what we had built for the video-on-demand server. Sometimes concept do not work out, but the capabilities get reborn in different ways. I don’t think of technology failures as things to get emotional about.

While every tech company is obsessing with technologies such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality; you have talked about quantum computing. How will this unfold in the future?

We are in the early stages of this. When I look at computational problems — whether it’s the catalyst that’s going to be able to absorb the carbon in the air or being able to model the enzyme that’s involved in natural food production — these are computational problems that have not been solved. In order to solve them, we need a new approach. It speaks a lot about Microsoft’s ability to go long, invest in long-term research and also remain true to our identity. What we have done with quantum is not a gimmick or just some press release highlighting our achievements around quantum. We have put it out there so that others can create quantum-computing algorithms. It’s not about celebrating technology for the sake of technology, but what we can do to unleash the power by putting it in the hands of everyone else.

There is a debate raging on the possible negative impact of new technologies such as artificial intelligence on humans. You clearly believe it is for the good. How do you ensure that any negative fallout is eliminated?

The responsibility that creators of technology have is to ask key questions: is technology empowering people, can it be trusted. These are design choices that we make so that people get the benefits of technology while being clear eyed about the unintended consequences of technology.

Where does India figure in your entire scheme of things?

India is a very important of source of learning. I measure myself in terms of the progress we make by enabling small businesses to be more productive, public sector to be more efficient. For example, we have announced a partnership with Ola where they can use our technology to not only be competitive in India, but also globally. I measure our success by the ability to create success around us in India and it is tremendous to see that happening.

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on November 07, 2017
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor