As The Microsoft CEO Race Tightens, The Company’s Satya Nadella Sits In The Spotlight

Ford’s Alan Mulally was going to save Microsoft from obsolescence through his storied leadership and management skills. Until he wasn’t. For a hot minute Qualcomm COO Steve Mollenkopf was on the list. Until he, too, was not — about seven seconds later.

As Bloomberg noted before Qualcomm hung a “hands off” sign around its executive: “Mollenkopf is on a list of several candidates who are under serious consideration [….] [the] list also includes Microsoft executive Satya Nadella and other outside candidates.”

What’s interesting is that, through several rotations of CEO bingo, Nadella has managed to remain a leading candidate, as others fell in the stakes. AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher notes, for example, that incoming executive president Stephen Elop has seen his fortune slip:

Elop was considered the top contender (by me, at least), after Microsoft bought the mobile phone division of Nokia. But — for a variety of reasons — he soon fell behind two other internal candidates, Bates and Nadella.

Nadella, in the meantime, is on something of a media tour, speaking at LeWeb about his vision for cloud computing and the future of Microsoft. He also gave an interview to Quartz. You can divine this flash of face time as a comically timed fluke, but Microsoft’s board must be watching to see how Nadella performs with a far bigger spotlight on his back.

And how is he doing? Well, Nadella’s a nerd, which is a pretty good thing at a technology company. He’s certainly warm in person, at least in my experience. That said, he does speak like what he is: An experienced technology executive working on cloud computing.

Apart from his core domain, Nadella can meander a bit. His talk at LeWeb included an answer about Xbox that made me giggle:

Recently, Xbox One shipped, and we have Forze Motor 5, and there’s this one feature of it which is  just stunning, right, so you are playing, you are racing, [and] it’s learning how you race, it creates a digital avatar, that then on behalf of you, races with others, and you get points for it.

Nadella manages to look at the new Xbox One console from a data analytics perspective. Later on he did discuss the console more holistically, but it was a humorous way to start his thoughts.

With his technical chops all but unimpeachable, Nadella’s prowess is less-proven prowess with consumers. During his time working with the Online Services Division, he had surface area with consumers, but it certainly isn’t the bulk of his experience.

However, the simple answer to that argument is that if it were perfectly acceptable for Mulally to not be a technologist, the fact that Nadella might not be a hep cat about phones doesn’t matter.

One interesting facet of the most recent Microsoft reorg is that anyone who steps in to lead the company will find a competent leader at each of the company’s divisions (how competent in each case is your own value judgment). So, as Mulally would have had to lean heavily on his captains to run the ship, Nadella simply being better at cloud than Xbox isn’t much of a critique.

While Microsoft turns over Nadella in its head, we in the public get to enjoy watching a company select its next head, a person that is widely expected to serve for a decade. It’s no small choice, which I believe is why Microsoft gave itself a full year to make the choice.

Some are starting to question the process’s length, which I don’t understand. To get a person of the caliber that Microsoft wants — needs, even — takes time. People with resumes that strong are in short supply, and have an annoying tendency to be currently employed.

Nadella would make a fine Microsoft CEO in my estimation, but there are others who could also find success in the role. For now, the 44-year-old Nadella’s public profile has never been larger.

Top Image Credit: Flickr