Saturday, February 08, 2014

Satya Nadella's ascent

Despite India's vastness and heterogeneity, some events evoke a near-unanimous reaction from its citizens. Recent examples are Devyani Khobragade's tribulation in America and promotion of Satya Nadella as CEO of MicroSoft.

Most Indians were angry with Uncle Sam for what was regarded as unfair treatment of the diplomat. Even more Indians are exultant about 'meritocracy' in America which according to them enabled and justified choice of Nadella as CEO. There are many similarities between the two protagonists.

Both are middle-aged. She is 40 and he is 46. Fathers of both are former IAS officials. They are both professionals. She is a medical doctor and is in diplomatic service. He is an engineer working for MicroSoft. The glaring difference between them is the attitude of their parents. Uttam Khobragade exploits his connections to the fullest extent to his and his daughter's benefit. He is convinced that the country owes a lot to his family. His political ambitions are unconcealed.

B.N.Yugandhar, father of Satya Nadella, is self-effacing and withdrawn. He does not favour public celebration of his son's success. Satya's spouse Anupama's father, K.R.Venugopal also is a retired IAS official. Yugandhar and Venugopal joined civil service together and were members of Planning Commission. Both were secretary to prime minister, P.V.Narasimha Rao.

Another major difference is that one's name is 'Satya' and the other's acts are characterised by 'asatya'.

Anita Raghavan, the author of 'A Billionaire's Apprentice', a popular book on the rise and fall of Rajat Gupta, says the following about Devyani:

 “She was one of the highest consular officials, and what do consular officials do? They approve and give visas to people. If there really is a difference between what she declared and what she actually paid her maid she is denigrating her office by lying on a visa application. It’s cowardly to hide behind diplomatic immunity.”

Satya Nadella's educational journey was not the traditional IIT-IIM combination. He was perhaps not academically 'smart enough' or was too active in extra-curricular activities to get into these premier institutions. (This is not to deny that much less smart students have been able to get into IITs and IIMs. Similarly, some such students have shone much more in co-curricular activities.) Satya has proved that IIT-IIM connection is not a necessary condition for an Indian to make a mark in the US.

Is his 'coronation' a proof of American 'meritocracy'? Difficult to say. 'Merit' is a flexible term that is interpreted variously in different contexts. It is possible that the merit that Bill Gates sees in Satya are his loyalty (working for more than two decades in the same company is an atypical behaviour these days) and his unwillingness to gamble on novel strategies that may rock the boat. Bill Gates is heavily invested in the company. His spectacular wealth consists mainly of MicroSoft shares. Therefore he abhors any uncertainty for the company. Who can be a better hedge against uncertainty than the time-tested Nadella?

Bill Gates is legitimately protecting his interests. It is a bit of a stretch to claim that he has rewarded 'merit'. This, of course, is not a reflection on the new CEO's credentials. The fact that he has been considered as worthy of this enviable assignment is an incontrovertible testimony to his prodigious capacity. Satya's performance as CEO is bound to be closely watched by his supporters as well as his detractors.

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