Microsoft’s Satya Nadella Seen as ‘Safe’ CEO Choice

Nadella would be the third CEO in Microsoft's history, after Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer

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Satya Nadella, executive vice president, Cloud and Enterprise, addresses employees during the One Microsoft Town Hall event July 11, 2013.

Satya Nadella, the senior Microsoft executive who is now reportedly the front-runner to take over as CEO from Steve Ballmer, isn’t as well-known as some of the other candidates who have been mentioned for the top job, but he’s a well-respected Microsoft veteran working at the forefront of the company’s next-generation computing platform. Nadella could be named Microsoft CEO as early as this week.

The appointment of Nadella, a 46-year-old native of Hyderabad, India, would make him the most powerful Indian-born tech executive in the world, according to Reuters. It would also end a five-month CEO search that has included such high-profile executives as Ford CEO Alan Mulally and former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, as well as other internal and external candidates.

Nadella runs Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise group, where he’s responsible for the tech giant’s ambitious “Cloud OS” effort to move software and storage from on-site computers to the Internet. Previously, Nadella was president of Microsoft’s $19 billion Server and Tools Business, where he’s credited with spearheading the company’s recent push toward cloud-computing. Over the last two decades Nadella has worked closely with Ballmer and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Nadella would the third CEO in Microsoft’s history, after Gates and Ballmer.

“It’s a safe choice,” Kevin Walkush, a business analyst at Jensen Investment Management told Bloomberg. “There’s a large faction that wants a disruptive tech visionary to take over Microsoft and that group will probably be disappointed. Another group of people think we need a person like Satya who knows the business because it’s so complex and needs someone who has the inside knowledge.”

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Microsoft has struggled to keep up with Apple and Google in the booming mobile computing market. Despite pouring billions of dollars into mobile software and gadgets like the ill-fated Surface tablet device, the company has not been able to find a formula to compete successfully with Cupertino and Mountain View. Last fall, Microsoft announced a $7.2 billion deal to buy Nokia’s mobile phone business, but it may be too little, too late.

The latest U.S. mobile device and software market numbers underscore the uphill battle Microsoft faces. Microsoft’s mobile software accounts for a just 3.6% of the market, compared to 81% for Google’s Android platform and 12.9% for Apple’s iOS, according to research firm IDC. And Nokia is nowhere to be found on IDC’s list of the top global smart phone manufacturers, which is dominated by Samsung and Apple.

Nadella joined Microsoft in 1992 from Sun Microsoystems, according to the company. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Mangalore University, a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee and an MBA from the University of Chicago.

In an interview last year with the Deccan Chronicle, an Indian English-language daily newspaper, Nadella called Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates “an amazing person” and recalled “the first email I got from him with some pointed feedback on a set of features in a product that I was building.” Nadella said he would go on to work closely with Gates on projects like the Bing search engine.

“It was exciting that the CEO was directly sending me mail on a feature that I never thought he would notice and then spending all of my weekend crafting my response to his email,” Nadella said. “When I started at Microsoft, I was lucky enough to be part of the rise of the client-server paradigm. Now to have a chance to be part of the Cloud wave, which is amazing in terms of the sheer ability to impact every walk of life.”

Asked by the Deccan Chronicle what suggestions he would like to give aspiring students, Nadella responded: “Be passionate and bold. Always keep learning. You stop doing useful things if you don’t learn. So the last part to me is the key, especially if you have had some initial success. It becomes even more critical that you have the learning ‘bit’ always switched on.”