Dr S. Somasegar is a technology guru at Microsoft
He sees himself in two roles: as an innovator, and as a mentor and coach for other Microsoft techies. “We have a special breed of people here,” he says
Microsoft’s Dr S. Somasegar wants to “win the hearts and minds” of the software developers and designers he works with, customers, users, and the young techies-in-the-making who will comprise the IT workforce of the future.
Somasegar already has the ear, and very likely the heart and mind, of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, one of the world’s prime technology leaders. Currently SVP of the developer division of Gates’ Microsoft Corp (Redmond, WA), Somasegar was part of the team of pioneers that created Windows and its multiplicity of operating systems.
He was also an original architect of globally distributed development for Microsoft. With Gates’ approval, he sparked the setup of a world-class R&D facility in Hyderabad, India and, more recently, another in Vancouver, Canada.
He sees himself playing two roles: as an innovator, and as a mentor and coach for techies who work under the Microsoft standard.
“We have a special breed of people here,” he explains. “As much as they want to be successful, they also have a passion for their work. They are highly creative people who want developers to have fun with the technologies they’re creating and be inspired to build innovative solutions. That means our goal is to create a platform and technologies that win the hearts as well as the minds of our customers.”
Somasegar joined Microsoft in 1989, and quickly rose through the ranks. He was named an SVP in 2008, and is the company’s senior exec of Indian origin.
As SVP of the developer division, he oversees teams that provide tools and platform technologies for developers, designers and other folks involved in software development: products like Visual Studio, Expression Studio, Silverlight and Popfly. His teams also own key Microsoft Web properties: Microsoft.com, MSDN and TechNet.
The developer division has about 3,500 employees, reporting up to Somasegar’s thirteen direct reports. He travels about a dozen times a year, to the R&D centers in India and Canada and to visit other development groups in North Carolina and China. His trips also involve meeting with customers and partners, and he even fits in some public speaking engagements.
His days in the Redmond, WA headquarters of Microsoft include meetings, email and updating his blog, which is available at blogs.msdn.com/somasegar. He also “makes it a point to interact often with people who are lower in the organization.” In fact, his open-door management policy encourages employees to send him emails directly without going through their managers.
“We don’t follow an organizational hierarchy here,” he says. “My managers know this is a way for me to stay in touch with people so I understand what they are thinking.”
From India to Microsoft
Somasegar grew up in Pondicherry, the former capital of French India, in the southeastern part of the country. He received his BS in electronics and communication engineering from Guindy Engineering College of Anna University (Chennai, India) in 1986.
“At that time we had to go to the college mainframe and do our programming using punchcards. The fascinating thing was being able to create and debug and make things work. That caught my attention!” he says.
After graduation he moved to the U.S. where he got his MS in computer engineering from Louisiana State University in 1988. He was a PhD student in computer engineering at the State University of New York-Buffalo when he got the call from Microsoft. In 2006 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, Anna University.
“I was always interested in systems programming and Microsoft offered me the opportunity to do just that, so I was delighted to accept,” he says. He started in 1989 as a software development engineer in test for the OS/2 operating system, which was initially created by Microsoft and IBM.
Eight operating systems
The next year he became a software design engineer on Microsoft’s NT team, which developed one of the corporation’s earliest operating systems. He thinks his NT work is among his greatest accomplishments, although so far he’s worked on eight OS releases: OS/2 2.0, four versions of Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.
“It literally took four years to build an operating system from scratch. All the Windows systems are built on that base,” he says. He did hands-on coding and developing and debugging. “We’ve been able to sustain that product line for eighteen years, which is where we are today, and hopefully we’ll have it for the future.”
Somasegar has been moving steadily up in the company. He became a manager in 1992, “quality czar” for NT4 in 1994, director of NT in 1996 and general manager of NT releases in 1998. He became corporate VP for Windows engineering services in 2000, and took his current post of corporate VP for the developer division in 2004.
The R&D center in India has grown tremendously since it was first launched in 1998. From a startup crew of twenty, it now has 1,400 employees.
Somasegar recommended India for the first center because so much English-speaking talent is available there. “The number of people we had here was finite, and our aspirations were infinite,” he says. “In the mid-‘90s we were heavily focused on product development, so I felt we should learn what it means to do global work.”
More global development
He continues to champion global development. There are 430 people in the Vancouver R&D center now.
“We have to think in terms of the next thirty to forty years,” he says. “We need to always take the long-term view when we make a decision. The best thing I can do is continue to get the best and brightest talent from around the world.”
He started his blog, he explains, to create a dialogue about the future of the industry. “I enjoy getting the feedback. It’s a fantastic way to stay in touch with customers and help to focus our efforts.”
Engineer of the year
This February Somasegar received the Asian American engineer of the year award. It was presented jointly by the Chinese Institute of Engineers-USA and the National Engineers Week Foundation as part of the celebration of National Engineers Week.
“People of Asian origin in the U.S. are doing phenomenal things. It makes me humble that they think what I’ve done is meaningful,” he says.
Looking back over his career, he realizes that a good manager must combine leadership skills with enthusiasm for the task. “The more you lead and manage effectively, the higher you’ll grow. Follow your heart, and whatever you’re doing, make sure you’re fascinated with it and passionate about it,” Somasegar advises.
“If you’re not interested in what you’re doing you’re in the wrong place, and you won’t have any fun.”
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