From Engineer to MBA to CEO: Satya Nadella

It was an exciting time to be at the Harper Center when one of Booth’s most distinguished alumni, Satya Nadella, came to visit his old stomping grounds. Satya shared his path to becoming the CEO of Microsoft and the experiences that led him there, starting with his time at Chicago Booth.

Personal journey:

Satya began by discussing how the economic foundation he built at Booth helps him consider how technology is changing the world today. By thinking about the microeconomics of a world that is increasingly digitized, he is better able to assess new technology products and assets. As digital technology is a new commodity, Satya noted the importance of recognizing the malleability of how digital technology changes marginal costs.

But what was the real value of an MBA for Satya? Confidence. Satya stressed that the MBA gave him the confidence to handle things he felt ill equipped for. He further discussed the current renaissance of education and how courses today at the intersection of microeconomics, computer science, and neuroscience are helping shape future product managers to create products people love.

Leadership formula:

Satya mentioned three key attributes that one needs to grow as a leader: creating clarity when there is confusion, creating energy in your environment, and delivering success with limited resources. He described life as an over-constrained problem, thus figuring out how to effectively deal with ambiguity, acquire and maintain followership, and work through obstacles is invaluable to you as a leader.

But what, according to Satya, was the one skill you need the most? Empathy. Satya mentioned that empathy was core to the creation of value. This is particularly true when building products—managers need the ability to understand the unmet and unarticulated needs of the customer. You can’t just A/B test your way to success.

Student perspectives:

“Hearing Satya speak has been one of the highlights of my year thus far. I really enjoyed how down-to-earth and relatable he seemed. As an aspiring Product Manager, it was great to hear his perspective on the key attributes leaders and product managers should have to build successful products for customers.” – Jessica Lai, Class of 2019

“Having studied the trends in technology academically and professionally, I was excited to hear from Satya because few people have as complete an understanding of the industry. I was fortunate enough to ask him a question, and his thoughtful answer on how Machine Learning can improve access to technology showcased the notion of empathy that he is known for. I left thinking about technology a little differently thanks to that interaction.” – Luca Ferrara, Class of 2019

“The thing that struck me the most was how honest he was about his experiences… it showed who he was as a real person rather than a CEO figure. It’s very lucky to hear that perspective from someone in his position and it speaks to the culture that he’s bringing to Microsoft. I hope as all of us come through business school we remember how to tell overarching truths like Satya.” – Neil Sethi, Class of 2020

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