Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft's Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone
September 26, 2017
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, asks some existential questions about himself, his company, and the future of the world.
Satya Nadella is the third CEO of Microsoft, following in the footsteps of the iconic Bill Gates, and the ball of energy they call Steve Ballmer. Those are some big shoes to fill. But Nadella, a Microsoft insider who started with the company in 1992 and had been a part of the senior leadership team before his ascension to CEO, didn't feel that he needed to fill those shoes, so much as change them. He didn't want to break with the past; he simply wanted to recapture the energy and enthusiasm he knew resided in Microsoft's employees, and rekindle the empathy for the human experience behind the technology Microsoft built.
So, renewing the company's culture was his first priority. His new book, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft's Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, could be seen as a bit of a risk considering that the job is still unfinished, that "even today Microsoft is still very much in the midst of change." But it is about so much more than that. The book is not a memoir (Nadella insists he's saving that for his dotage), but it does tell you quite a bit about his life, his philosophy of life, and his vision of life on earth. I know that sounds a bit grand, but considering that the company he heads has already changed the way we all work, and is in an industry that is fundamentally changing how we live, it seems appropriate.
We learn so many of our lessons from books. Many business books try to make that process direct, streamlined, and step-oriented. But I believe we learn best from stories, and Nadella has quite a story to tell. It begins with his childhood in India, and moves through his twenty-plus years at Microsoft, but Hit Refresh is mostly an intellectual history. And that brings us to the books that have influenced him, like Tracy Kidder's Soul of the Machine:
Kidder teaches us that technology is nothing more than the collective soul of those who build it. The technology is fascinating, but even more fascinating is the profound obsession of its designers. And so what is soul in the context of a company? I don't mean soul in a religious sense. It is the thing that comes most naturally. It is the inner voice. It's what motivates and provides inner direction to apply your capability. What is the unique sensibility that we as a company have? For Microsoft that soul is about empowering people, and not just individuals, but also the institutions they build—enterprises like schools, hospitals, businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits.
There are not many institutions in that group that don't have a Microsoft product in the suite of technologies they use. But Nadella's focus is not on the technology, per se, but on the human experience. That leads him to tackle some of the most pressing social issues of the day, from privacy, intellectual property, cybersecurity, and individual liberties, to the rise of artificial intelligence and what that means for our future. He is here, as always, "as much a humanist as a technologist," which leads him to eschew the more prophetic proclamations of an AI future for a more nuanced position:
I would argue that the most productive debate we can have about AI isn't one that pits good vs. evil, but rather one that examines the the values instilled in the people and institutions creating this technology. In his book, Machines of Loving Grace, John Markoff writes, "The best way to answer the hard questions about control in a world full of smart machines is by understanding the values of those who are actually building these systems."
That leads him to an interesting historical analogy:
When history was made at Kitty Hawk, it was man with machine—not man against machine.
Today we don't think of aviation as "artificial flight"—it's simply flight.
His last chapter, then, is about economic growth and the need for a new social contract in an age of AI, which is surely coming. There are two things he never loses sight of—productivity and purpose, and the two are inextricably linked in his quest for the soul of Microsoft. When he speaks of Microsoft, he speaks more of its values than its value, more about creating economic opportunity than capturing marker share. The questions he's asking, all the while, about himself and the company he leads, are existential rather than transactional. And that makes Hit Refresh, well, refreshing.
We have 20 copies available.