Will Nadella appointment weigh on debate over tech visas?

In what some might call an advertisement for the classic story of an immigrant pursuing the American dream, Redmond's new boss, Satya Nadella, was born in Hyderabad, India. Now he's running Microsoft.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Handout
In his first e-mail to Microsoft employees in his newly-minted role as chief executive, Satya Nadella included a brief but important section titled, "Who am I?"

Over the last week especially, the world came to know a lot more about the executive, after the news was leaked that Nadella was the expected choice for the company's top job. But still, a dark horse he was, beating out splashier choices like former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop and Ford CEO Alan Mulally. So we've still got a lot to learn about the new leader in Redmond.

His answer is only a few lines long, and he mentions basic points: 46 years old, married for 22 years, three kids. "So family, curiosity and hunger for knowledge all define me," he wrote.

But also important to the story is his personal journey as a naturalized US citizen from his familial home in Hyderabad, India, which coincidentally also happens to be the home of the largest Microsoft research and development center outside the US.

As the debate over immigration reform and work visas has heated up in the tech industry, the fact that someone born and partly educated in India is now CEO of Microsoft is sure to be seized upon by proponents of issuing more H-1B visas as being in America's enlightened self interest. Sure, there are other Indian-born tech CEOs, like Shantanu Narayen at Adobe and Sanjay Mehrotra at Sandisk, but taking the top job at Redmond is an outlier.

"Microsoft is in another class. Apple, Google, Microsoft -- these are the few companies defining the future of tech," said Venktesh Shukla, president of TiE Global, a venerable Silicon Valley organization closely associated to the South Asian business community (Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures is a charter member). Nadella was even a keynote speaker at the organization's annual TiECon conference last year. Pepsi, helmed by the Indian-born Indra Nooyi, is another example of one of those preeminent global companies.

In the 2012 fiscal year, more than 135,000 people were issued H-1B visas, a type of visa that allows US employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in "specialty occupations" -- fields like engineering, biotech, education or law, according to the US Bureau of Consular Affairs. The heads of many of the world's largest tech companies have called for an increase of the cap in H-1B visas, the idea being to attract the brightest minds in the world to work in the US. Critics are opposed to raising the cap during an era of high unemployment, arguing that plenty of US tech workers are still looking for jobs.

Click to expand US Bureau of Consular Affairs
To that last point, Vivek Wadhwa, the veteran entrepreneur and outspoken Stanford professor who's written frequently on the topic, said that it is not a zero sum game: If a company like Microsoft has a good leader, then it will be adding jobs, he argues. "It should reinvigorate [the debate]," he said. "If the most qualified person for the Bill Gates job was a foreign-born person, it says something about immigration. We would have been reducing the pool."

Of course, the state of immigration in the US is utterly complicated, and can't be illustrated by one person's success. For one, Shukla concedes that things have changed a lot since Nadella first came to the US, likely on a student visa. ("The lines for green cards are a lot longer now," he said.) But he said Nadella's appointment illustrates the kind of impact intelligent, foreign-born people can have.

According to Reuters India, Nadella's father was a member of elite government organizations under the country's prime minister. Growing up, he attended the prestigious Hyderabad Public School. Later, Nadella attended Mangalore University, studying electrical engineering. He then moved to the United States to get his masters degree in computer science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, then another master's in business administration from the University of Chicago. After that, Nadella went to work at Sun Microsystems before joining Microsoft in 1992.

Nadella's ascension to Microsoft's helm also sheds light on other issues. In a business climate where companies have been scrutinized over racial and gender diversity -- especially recently -- it's a rare appointment. According to Fortune, only 23 of all Fortune 500 CEOs are minorities, a term that includes African Americans, Asians, and Latin Americans.

In the tech industry, things are statistically a little better for people of Indian decent. Wadhwa cites his own research, which says that as of 2012, of all companies in Silicon Valley that have a foreign-born CEO or chief technologist, over 33 percent of them were founded by Indians.

But that track record could be undone without proper reform, he said. "How many more Nadellas are there that are being turned away?"

Watch this: Why Microsoft named Satya Nadella CEO