Microsoft's chief digital officer, Kurt DelBene (right), and College of Engineering Dean Jeff Goldberg discuss executive leadership with the audience at the inaugural talk in the College of Engineering speaker series, "Lessons in Engineering Leadership."
Microsoft's chief digital officer, Kurt DelBene (right), and College of Engineering Dean Jeff Goldberg discuss executive leadership with the audience at the inaugural talk in the College of Engineering speaker series, "Lessons in Engineering Leadership."

Students Get Rare Glimpse Into Microsoft Executive's Style

Kurt DelBene, a UA alumnus, shares with engineering students his secrets for success, predictions for emerging technologies, and tips for effective management and leadership.
Feb. 6, 2018
Extra Info: 

The College of Engineering has two more presentations scheduled for its 2018 "Lessons in Engineering Leadership" series.

Register here for a Feb. 26 talk with Dave Crawford, a UA alumnus who is the retired CEO and president of Sundt Construction. Registration also is open for a March 28 discussion with Laura McGill, vice president of engineering at Raytheon Missile Systems.

UA students are invited to submit questions to the speakers when they register.

What: 
"Lessons in Engineering Leadership" lecture series
When: 
Feb. 26 and March 28
Where: 
Student Union Memorial Center

You could hear a pin drop as Kurt DelBene took University of Arizona engineering students behind the scenes at Microsoft and on a journey to discover what it takes to lead in a world growing more technologically complex every day.

Software industry leaders must stay engaged in the intricacies and trends of engineering, he advised students — "deep in the weeds" while never losing sight of the bottom line.

"You really have to keep your hands on everything — from a business perspective," said DelBene, Microsoft's chief digital officer and executive vice president for corporate strategy, core services engineering and operations.

At the Jan. 29 in-the-round campus conversation with College of Engineering Dean Jeff Goldberg and about 80 students, DelBene recalled developing and revamping early versions of Microsoft Windows and Outlook and transforming Microsoft Office from a desktop application to a cloud-based service.

DelBene's candor and easygoing manner belied his stature as one of the most influential leaders in the software industry. As former president of the Microsoft Office Division, he led an enterprise generating $25 billion in annual profits — with the expectation that he would increase growth by 10 percent every year.

The stress can get intense, said the 58-year-old DelBene, who races vintage cars to relax.

Software Pioneer

In the kickoff lecture for the College of Engineering's speaker series, "Lessons in Engineering Leadership," DelBene — who has a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from the UA, a master's in operations research from Stanford University and an MBA from the University of Chicago — encouraged students to ask tough questions, challenge what they deem misguided projects or plans, and advocate strongly for their own technical, business and career positions.

"There are certain times in your career when things are not going in the direction you want, and you have to give others a little nudge," he said. "You have to be able to say, 'Hey, I think we need to do things differently.'"

The first time he was promoted to corporate vice president at Microsoft, DelBene was charged with preparing for reintroduction of a glitchy application called Outlook.

"I still remember when a senior vice president said, 'I think you need to wait another year.' I said, 'No, I don’t think that's right," DelBene recalled. "It was really painful."

Years later, his well-known fix-it philosophy and reputation for getting the job done trumped a lack of health care experience when DelBene left Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, in 2013 to fix the Healthcare.gov website at the request of President Barack Obama.

Healthcare.gov crashed because IT people thought they could design it, DelBene explained.

"You're set up to fail when you have folks who have never built a website but have the hubris to think they can," he said.

The team was trying to rush improvements in months that would take years to be done right.

"People didn't challenge the plan and ask the developers about going a different way," he said. "I came and said, 'Technically, it's impossible to do what you're asking.'"

Code for Success

DelBene returned from Washington, D.C., and rejoined Microsoft in 2015. Today, he oversees 5,000 employees advancing longtime top-sellers and new Microsoft products such as the Azure cloud-computing platform and Microsoft Graph.

Asked by a student what he wished he had known when he first entered the industry, DelBene answered, "The importance of building consensus."

"Today, I bring all stakeholders working on a project into a room once a month," he said. "After we walk through the issues, I ask, 'Are we all on the same page? Is there anything else anyone has to offer?'"

DelBene recommended several management and leadership strategies:

  • Beyond effectively allocating employee resources, enable employees to excel.
  • When deciding on promotions, consider how employees have contributed to the success of others and their team.
  • Base promotions on merit and skill to place employees in the right positions for solving particular problems.
  • Embrace diversity and inclusion.
  • Get people to trust their instincts.

Technology Predictions

Many of the UA students sought DelBene's opinions on emerging technologies. He's bullish on artificial intelligence.

"AI is going to permeate everything we do," he said, predicting that it will improve lives in countless ways: make administrative workers' jobs less menial and more meaningful, give corporations and agencies real-time access to expertise worldwide, and even help college students craft better resumés.

DelBene said he is dubious about the digital currency bitcoin but optimistic about the blockchain platform for recording transactions in cryptocurrency, which uses encryption for verification and transfer of digital funds. He also predicts a future for self-driving cars and all big data in the cloud.

He's particularly excited about biomedical software for catching cancer "from the very first cell" and developing and delivering more highly targeted and effective cancer therapies.

"You're going into a great field!" he told the students.