The reflections on artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential impact on the future of work and life are probably the most compelling reasons to read Satya Nadella’s book Hit Refresh. Aptly describing the huge interest in AI as a result of the confluence of three technologies—Big Data, massive computing power and sophisticated algorithms—Nadella points the CXO suite reader towards a time when a computer will be able to match, or even surpass, human intellectual capabilities.
The three layers of AI, from simple pattern-recognition to perception, including speech and vision and finally cognition, or a deep understanding of human language, are used to predict that, in a matter of 10 years, the second stage will be mastered by AI and the true challenge will be the next frontier—the interaction between computers and humans.
It’s in essays like these and the examples, from McDonald’s to Volvo to Uber and Prism Skylabs, that Nadella is truly in his element, though the examples could have been more compelling if he didn’t feel constrained to illustrate them with Microsoft technologies and the work of people in the company. But then, Nadella can be forgiven for making this book a large-scale plug for Microsoft. He explains many times that he treats this as a CEO’s view from the trenches while he is in the midst of a large technology refresh and cultural transformation in the company, and not a memoir, which he hints at writing much later when he hangs up his boots.
What surprises me in this book are the somewhat obvious steps the new CEO took to rediscover a culture of innovation and discovery in a large organisation that was built by founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen to be a true icon of its time. One wonders that if such a major renewal was needed, and “cultural transformation was going to be slow and trying before it would be rewarding”, what was really happening inside the company on CEO Ballmer’s watch!
The long drawn-out descriptions of cricket and the progress from wanting to remain a Hyderabad boy to his eventual Masters in the US and entry into the Silicon Valley culture tend to make the early parts of the book somewhat trivial, though it will certainly inspire a “he is just one of us” feeling among the troops, particularly the thousands of Asians at the company. A few insights on leadership, particularly from a new CEO tasked with organisation revival, are, however, worth reading for others who find themselves in the hot seat anywhere in the world.
The sermons on leadership and culture building notwithstanding, there are some interesting vignettes of the new atmosphere of collaboration and inclusion that flows in the West these days. The chapter where Nadella talks about “frenemies” is particularly appealing, starting with a Microsoft CEO showing off an Apple iPhone for the first time in the Salesforce’s annual marketing event, albeit to flash the Microsoft app icons on the phone. The new obsession with customer needs has necessitated a “coexist and compete” approach, the pursuit of new partnerships and working across the leader spectrum of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon when needed. The Ballmer doctrine of Concepts to Capabilities to Culture is highlighted as the reason for bringing partners to the table, even if it means challenging old dogmas of friends and enemies.
Nadella makes interesting points on the new imperatives for digital transformation that most large firms are pursuing across industry segments. An estimated value of over $2 trillion in the coming decade will see digital transformation go way beyond the oft-repeated stories of Uber and Netflix to much more traditional companies. And he articulates what most forward-thinking digital evangelists recommend, that every company must embark on four initiatives—leveraging data to improve customer experience; empower employees by enabling greater and more mobile productivity; simplifying, automating and optimising processes across all functions, and transform not just products and services, but also business models.
The book makes a compelling case for the future of Microsoft in the face of global economic and technological uncertainty, as it seeks to invest and lead in three key technologies that are shaping the industry—artificial intelligence, mixed reality and quantum computing. It’s an impressive story and will no doubt enthuse the millions of Microsoft employees and customers worldwide. I am currently in Silicon Valley and the whole ecosystem here is greatly enthused by the rapid strides Nadella-led Microsoft is making. A $20-billion Cloud business in the works, a successful move away from the erstwhile package software leader status to a dominant position in Cloud services and major strides in innovation in all areas—Nadella can surely take a bow!
The author is chairman of 5F World, Global Talent Track and Skills Alpha