Personal history may thrust new Microsoft CEO into visa debate

Nadella's personal story may become an argument for backers of immigration reform

Microsoft's new CEO , Satya Nadella, was born in Hyderabad, India, one of that nation's largest IT centers, and graduated from Manipal University in India before heading to the U.S. to earn an advanced degrees in business and computer science.

Satya Nadella (3)
Satya Nadella's personal history could put him at the forefront of the U.S. immigration debate

To travel across the world to start a new life and achieve great things is an old, familiar and still powerful American story, and one that Microsoft could try to capitalize on in Washington.

While Nadella may want to avoid the U.S. immigration debate and policy issues generally, and leave that work to Microsoft's lobbyists, it won't be easy.

Nadella's personal story could humanize Microsoft's argument for liberalizing access to visas. When the new CEO sits down for interviews and profiles, it's certain that he will be asked to share his personal story and views on immigration and visa-related issues.

Microsoft, when queried, declined to say what visa Nadella, 46, may have held when he started working in the U.S. It's widely reported that his first U.S. job was at Sun Microsystems, where he worked before joining Microsoft 22 years ago.

Nadella earned a master's degree in computer science at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and an MBA from the University of Chicago.

Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, doesn't believe that Microsoft is trying to make any policy points with the Nadella appointment. But by nature of his background, "he can add a more human touch to the Microsoft message" in the immigration debate.

Congress now is considering a major rewrite of immigration law.

The U.S. Senate has already passed legislation that will increase the annual limit of H-1B visas to 180,000 and make green cards for advanced degree graduates widely available. The House Republican leadership has indicated a willingness to take up immigration, but the debate has a long way to go.

Microsoft has been the most visible tech company on the immigration issue in Washington, and one of the largest U.S.-based users of H-1B visas, nearly 1,500 in 2012.

Microsoft frequently argues that demand for computer science graduates is outpacing what U.S. colleges are capable of producing. It says that labor data shows that that during every year of this decade, the economy will create 120,000 new jobs that will require a bachelor's degree in computer science.

"We basically have created jobs, and then imported people to fill them," said Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president of Microsoft, in a speech one year ago this month in Seattle. "That is the history of the last three decades of economic growth in Washington State. We have imported people, in part, because when we started the 1980s, we didn't have the capacity in our higher education institutions to produce the degrees that would be needed to take these new jobs."

The 120,000 jobs claim is disputed in an Economic Policy Institute report, authored by policy analyst Daniel Costa. The report says that Microsoft's data only assumes that individuals with a bachelor's degree in computer science can fill jobs in computer-related occupations. About one-fourth to less than one-half of workers in computing occupations have a computer science degree, the study concluded.

Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the CEO appointment likely won't impact the policy debate, and he expects Nadella will continue Microsoft's current course on lobbying.

"Microsoft's lobbyists and executives have played the leading role in misinforming the public and policymakers about how the H-1B and L-1 visa programs are used in practice," says Hira.

This is the storm that Nadella, whether he wants to or not, will now be part of.

In his letter to employees, Nadella, didn't explore such global issues, but told his employees: "Like you, I had a choice about where to come to work. I came here because I believed Microsoft was the best company in the world. I saw then how clearly we empower people to do magical things with our creations and ultimately make the world a better place."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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