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Microsoft's Satya Nadella Travels The World Looking For The Next Big Idea


Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was in Mexico last week on a high-profile visit. He took over the company last year, and ever since, he's been traveling the world, developing a big theory about how to change it. NPR's Aarti Shahani joined him for a day.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Before Satya Nadella takes his seat, he eyes my MacBook. I assume he's trying to cheat, have a look at the questions, but, no.

SATYA NADELLA: No, no, I'm just looking at - oh, at least you have Excel. That's good.

SHAHANI: Nadella has this mildly obsessive reflex to make sure every computer he sees has a trace of his company in it. He spots the Excel icon in my taskbar.

Do you approve?

NADELLA: It's always good to see icons that I recognize.

SHAHANI: The attention to detail surprises me because by now, this man's brain should be total mush. He flew to four countries in four days - Chile, Brazil, Colombia and now Mexico. When you count the time difference...

NADELLA: We've had these 28, 29-hour days.

SHAHANI: Still, the thing he's most proud of...

NADELLA: All four days, I was able to get up and make sure I was able to run.

SHAHANI: CEO Nadella is 6 feet tall but not imposing. He's got a gentle handshake and unusual accessories. When I glance down to see what smartwatch he's wearing, I find instead, tied around each wrist, thin, cream-colored strings.

NADELLA: People of the Arajocos community in Columbia, that's where I got these threads from.

SHAHANI: An indigenous group from up in the mountains showed Nadella how they use Microsoft to preserve sacred texts on the Internet. And at this little nonprofit we're visiting, two hours outside Mexico City, people with tiny, cash-only businesses are learning to log sales with the help of Office. Nadella is not on a charitable mission for the Gates Foundation. He's scouting for profit. Now that smartphones and Internet access have become so universal, the next billion-dollar idea could come from anywhere.

NADELLA: I'm here mostly to make sure that we are learning and we are doing things to drive our growth and participation.

SHAHANI: Any CEO of a multinational thinks globally. It's in the job description. But to appreciate how distinct Satya Nadella's global may be, you need to meet the last guy who had his job.


STEVE BALLMER: How much do you think this advanced operating environment is worth?

SHAHANI: This is a completely overwhelming joke sales pitch from the 1980s by Steve Ballmer. When the former chief ran around the world, it was to meet with capital-I important people, Microsoft's big clients. Ballmer was an aggressive, let-me-tell-you-what-you-need kind of guy.


BALLMER: Five-hundred, a thousand?

SHAHANI: Nadella has all the trappings of 21st-century CEO.


NADELLA: Let me start here with a phone. It's actually an iPhone. It's not my phone, but it's an Iphone.

SHAHANI: He's on stage trying to convince local developers to make apps for Microsoft, not just Apple or Google.


NADELLA: I sometimes refer to this as an iPhone-Pro because it's got all of the Microsoft applications on it.


SHAHANI: He looks hip, wearing black slacks and a slim button-down shirt - no suit and tie. And one other thing that works for him, people in the audience, like Armando Delgadillo - they can't really make out what Nadella is, racially, ethnically speaking.


(Through interpreter) No, he's Hindu I think. I'm not sure. I think he's Hindu. He's not the typical American. Satya seems different.

SHAHANI: Nadella is different. He grew up in Hyderabad, a city in southern India. His father, it so happens, is far left of center, a Marxist economist, Nadella says. And Nadella's upbringing in a poor country, sometimes it shows. For example...

NADELLA: There are companies that truly can contribute to the broader growth of the market that they are participating in versus just extracting rent.

SHAHANI: Extracting rent, which typically means manipulating government officials to turn a bigger profit, that's a very popular term in the developing world. But by now, Nadella has spent more years at Microsoft than he ever spent back home. And he's adamant his work habits, his judgment, it's all an artifact of what he's learned in the U.S.

NADELLA: I'm a story completely of the U.S.

SHAHANI: The man he appointed as president of Microsoft disagrees completely and told me Nadella's upbringing outside the U.S. is central, a huge asset. It'll be interesting to see, as his travels continue, how the CEO's story about himself and his company evolves. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.

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