May 26, 2021 - Technology

Exclusive interview: Microsoft's Nadella is through being cool

Illustration collage of Satya Nadella and the Microsoft logo on a sign

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photos: Microsoft, Toby Scott/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

If software developers don't see Microsoft as the coolest trillion-dollar tech company out there, CEO Satya Nadella is OK with that, he told Axios in an exclusive interview as Microsoft's annual developer conference kicked off Tuesday.

Driving the news: "My sales pitch to anybody, whether it’s an intern or a college grad joining Microsoft is, hey, if you want to be cool, go join someone else," Nadella said. "If you want to make others cool, join Microsoft."

Why it matters: With Windows less dominant, and Microsoft having given up on its own smartphone platform, the company is trying to woo developers by embracing rivals' platforms, offering tools that can write programs that run just about anywhere.

While Apple, Google and Facebook typically spend a lot of their developer conferences focused on their own products, Microsoft used this week's Build event to focus almost entirely on a bunch of under-the-hood changes that Nadella says will help other companies succeed.

  • "In fact, you could be building an iOS app or an Android app, or an app for (Google's Cloud) or AWS, and still, you’ll want to come to a Microsoft developer conference," Nadella told Axios.

Between the lines: Tech giants have always competed for the attention, enthusiasm and labor of independent software makers.

  • Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer used to run around on stage yelling "Developers, developers, developers!"
  • Nadella says coders remain just as important to today's Microsoft, but he prefers to show his appreciation in other ways.

Rather than promoting Microsoft's own image, Nadella aims to paint coders themselves as cool. He has characteried them as "the original creators" and points to Microsoft's transformation of GitHub into a service where programmers can not only share their code, but also get paid.

  • "The sponsorship program on GitHub is the biggest program for essentially tipping software developers in the open source community," Nadella said. "We have lots of plans to expand that. You can even have organizations supporting our open source projects."

Yes, but: One area where Microsoft badly could use some cool points is with Windows, its 35-year-old operating system.

  • Nadella teased a significant update to Windows, noting during his keynote that he has been testing it in recent months.
  • He declined to share any further details, but did say he thinks Windows is exiting the pandemic stronger than it was coming in, as many people rediscovered the power of a PC.

Context: A number of Microsoft's efforts to modernize Windows have stumbled, including the recently shelved Windows 10X — the company's latest attempt to create a slimmed-down OS to better compete against Chrome OS and other mobile devices.

The big picture: Nadella notes that more software programmers are being hired today in traditional companies than in technology businesses.

  • "It’s not about the West Coast of the U.S. or the East Coast of China, but pretty much every company in the world, in every sector," Nadella said
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