Summer in the Cloud(s)

I went on an adventure in Seattle this summer to a new industry—technology. The title of this article is not a reference to the mostly overcast weather in the Pacific Northwest, but rather to Microsoft’s cloud, Azure. Working in the Cloud Infrastructure COGS Finance team, I sought to build a framework to assess margins of various cloud computing products and to find solutions that enhance efficiency.

As I spent the first few days learning about the cloud from various experts in engineering, program management, demand forecasting, and capacity planning, it became clear that the problem we were tackling was complex, salient, and interdisciplinary; cloud growth and margins are key drivers of valuation. I found the process of understanding various stakeholders’ perspectives thoroughly exciting. Being able to translate the language of engineering or economics research into that of finance and vice-versa was something my liberal arts education at Wellesley College, followed by investment banking for two technical industries—power and renewables, and financial institutions—had prepared me well for.

The intellectual firepower at Microsoft was striking. Even more fascinating was the insatiable curiosity of my colleagues and the eagerness to debate and discuss ideas to do what is right for the company. Along with effective leadership, there appeared to be two larger forces driving this uniquely high engagement: selection and incentives. Microsoft seems to attract smart and curious people who are also open, unafraid to be wrong or vulnerable, and able to work across functions. Teamwork across the company is further supported by two of the three performance metrics outwardly focused on how one leverages the work of and contributes to the success of others.

The management principles at the company also translate into trust in one another and others’ capabilities. My third week of work included a meeting with another team to seek data and feedback for the framework. As I waited for my supervisor to start the discussion, he said something along the lines of, “Narayani, this is your meeting. You know everything you need to know. Tell us what you are doing and how we can help.” Over the next nine weeks too, ideas that I had shared in passing and not committed to active memory were recalled in meetings weeks later, catching me by surprise each time.

When I started the summer, I was curious to gain a broad view of the organization and to better understand the drivers of Microsoft’s stellar growth. The answer came very clearly in my last week when I had the opportunity to share the analysis and make recommendations for engineering efficiencies, pricing and discounting, hardware strategy, and global expansion strategy to two Corporate Vice Presidents and a dozen senior engineers and program managers. I saw some magic while sharing the framework, making recommendations, and fielding questions in the charged discussion. If it was intelligence, hard work, and resilience that had led to Microsoft becoming the world’s most valuable company, it was endless curiosity and the deep desire to empower each person and organization on the planet that allowed the company to successfully continue pushing out the technology frontier.

There were adventures outside of the cloud this summer too: learning how to blow glass and to bartend, visiting the abundantly hipster Portland, driving by myself for the first time (on a scoot coupe with no reversibility or phone coverage in San Juan Island), co-piloting a sea plane, experiencing massive glaciers in Alaska, and exploring all of Seattle’s fabulous farmers markets. There were plenty of sunny days.

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