The next CEO of Microsoft Corporation – and only the third chief executive officer in the famed company’s history – has strong Milwaukee ties. Satya Nadella, an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), is remembered as an extremely talented graduate student who was one of scores of students from India attracted to UWM’s strong computer science program.
Watch: The UWM community reacts to the naming of alum Satya Nadella as CEO of Microsoft. View full size on YouTube
Nadella, who was once described by Business Week as a member of Bill Gates’s “kitchen cabinet of techno-whizzes,” was about 20 years old when he began the master’s degree program in computer science at UWM’s College of Engineering & Applied Science (CEAS).
“His prior academic background was in electrical engineering,” says K. Vairavan, emeritus professor and former chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “But he took less time to complete our challenging and strong MS program than most students who already had a solid computer science background. I would attribute his impressive success to his intellectual ability, hard work and razor-sharp focus.”
In fact, Vairavan remembers finding a sleeping bag in his lab on the seventh floor of the Engineering and Mathematical Sciences building. “I was told by another student that Satya had slept there several nights, after working late hours on his research. Such was his dedication to his goals.”
A native of Hyderabad, in south-central India, Nadella earned a master’s degree in computer science from UWM in 1990, after completing his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Mangalore University in India.
“I think Satya being named CEO of Microsoft really gives our students hope to know that the kind of education they get on our campus can take them anywhere they want to go,” says Chancellor Michael R. Lovell.
Professor Hossein Hosseini, Nadella’s former thesis adviser, agrees that Nadella is the perfect role model for students. “You got a sense that he had a burning passion for learning,” says Hosseini. “I have always used him as a good example of student success: how to dream big and work hard in developing strong interpersonal and technical skills that foster success in life and career.”
Nadella has been with Microsoft for 21 years, mostly recently as executive vice president of the Cloud and Enterprise group. He succeeds Steve Ballmer, who is stepping down from the Microsoft helm after 14 years, and Bill Gates, the company’s first CEO and current chairman.
As a graduate teaching assistant at UWM, Nadella participated in the CEAS Upward Bound program, helping to teach college preparatory courses to inner-city high school students and hosting them on campus for a summer.
“Satya Nadella is, first of all, brilliant. He’s also a very humble individual,” says Lovell. “When he came here and we gave him the [Chancellor’s] Innovation Award, instead of talking about all the wonderful products he developed for Microsoft, he actually talked about how he learned empathy on our campus by working with students from local high schools and getting really engaged in their success.”
After graduation from UWM he joined Sun Microsystems’ Chicago office and earned a master’s degree in business from the University of Chicago. By 1992, he had taken a job with Microsoft in Seattle.
Early in his Microsoft career, he stood out. In a 1999 BusinessWeek article Nadella and four other Microsoft employees were described as the “new crew” needed at Microsoft to implement Gates’s technical vision for the company.
In 2000, Nadella was recognized with the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement from CEAS.
When he was named president of Microsoft’s $19 billion Server and Tools Business in 2011, Ballmer told the media that Nadella “will define the future of business computing” and help the company realize the business potential of the cloud “in game-changing ways.”
He has also served as senior vice president of R&D for the Online Services Division, which includes the Search (Bing), Portal (MSN) and Advertising platforms, and vice president of the Microsoft Business Division.
Most recently, he has been responsible for building and running the company’s computing platforms, developer tools and cloud services, including “Cloud OS” – Microsoft’s next-generation back-end platform.
Last year Nadella visited the UWM campus to accept the Chancellor’s Innovation Award and speak with students and faculty. The award recognizes a visionary whose professional achievements show entrepreneurial drive; creative, intelligent risk-taking; transformative thinking; effective change management; and a passion for lifelong learning.
Just the year before, UWM Chancellor Michael R. Lovell met with Nadella in Seattle and discussed ideas for advancing UWM, including a possible link between UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts in clean water research.
At that meeting, Nadella also expressed interest in the UWM partnership with Johnson Controls Inc. around battery research, and in UWM’s computer science program.
Nadella and his wife have three children and reside in Washington State.