‘I like to compete, which is why I took this job’

Mteto Nyati

When I meet Microsoft SA MD Mteto Nyati, it isn’t long before the conversation turns to Windows Vista.

Except, I don’t steer it there, Nyati does. He volunteers that Microsoft has “learnt a lot” from the “disaster” (his description) that was Vista.

Reviewers and commentators met Windows Vista, the company’s much-maligned operating system released in late 2006, with derision.

Not only did it run slowly on older hardware, it did not support a wide range of computer hardware devices at launch.

“People were extremely disappointed with Vista,” Nyati says. “There would never have been something of the sort of quality of Windows 7 (Microsoft’s latest offering) if we hadn’t had the Vista disaster.”

Do Nyati’s words signal a change in approach by Microsoft? I don’t think the Microsoft of 10 years ago would have admitted it screwed up.

The company has changed. Or so it seems.

Gone is much of the hubris and aggression that landed it in hot water with US and European competition watchdogs.

In its place, there seems to be almost an air of contrition.

Is it an act? After all, the bombastic Steve Ballmer is still the company’s CEO. But a new set of leaders, like chief software architect Ray Ozzie, seem to be setting a new agenda for the company — and maybe even changing its culture.

“We have gone back to our roots as a company, of really listening to our customers, integrating that feedback, and even doing things that customers never expected,” Nyati says.
So, what went wrong? “Sometimes success creates a situation where people become complacent,” he offers.

“The company was complacent and took things for granted, but Vista re-energised us and made us innovative and hungry again.”

Like Ray Ozzie, Nyati is not a life-long Microsoftie. In fact, he was recruited from IBM, one of Microsoft’s fiercest rivals, and so brings a fresh approach to the company’s SA office.

TechCentral People ProfileBorn in the Eastern Cape into a family of nine siblings, Nyati went to St John’s College, a missionary school in Mtata in the old Transkei.

His parents wanted him to be a doctor — “it was drummed into me from a young age” — but after he won an international science Olympiad in his matric year and was given the given the opportunity to travel to the UK, he realised he wanted to study engineering instead.

That led him, a bursary from Afrox in hand, to the University of Natal in Durban and to a degree in mechanical engineering, which he completed in 1985.

“In those days, you had to get ministerial permission to study engineering if you were black.,” he says. “But because I won the Olympiad the previous year, it was fairly easy to get this permission.”

University was the first time Nyati lived in a mixed-race environment. However, he was barred from the main residence because of apartheid laws. “I must compliment the white colleagues I worked with then. They were very helpful and supported me through those four years.”

In 1986, Nyati joined Afrox in Johannesburg as an engineer-in-training. He stayed at the company for seven years, during which time he completed an MBA, before later joining Tastic Rice in Pietermaritzburg.

Small-town life didn’t appeal to him, and, once he had completed the project he was hired for, he returned to Johannesburg and joined packaging company Nampak for a four-year stint during which time he helped the company re-engineer its manufacturing processes and become more competitive.

As a direct result of his work there, he was recruited by IBM SA to help the IT company develop more of a business focus. Starting in 1996, he held down various roles at IBM, and helped establish its focus on telecommunications small and medium business sectors.

This eventually led him to Paris, France where he worked for IBM for four years, helping the company build its partner strategy in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “It was fulfilling being exposed to all those different cultures,” he says.

In 2005, when then IBM SA MD Mark Harris called and asked him to head up the company’s then-struggling services business, he decided it was time to return to the country.

Nyati, who in 2004 was named as a Yale University World Fellow, was hugely successful in the role, setting up a large technical call centre operation providing support to IBM customers around the world.

By the time he was approached by Microsoft in 2008 to head up the software company’s local office, IBM had already offered Nyati a job in the US to head the strategy division for emerging markets worldwide. In fact, he’d already put his Johannesburg home up for sale.

But the thought of running the local Microsoft office made him change his mind.

“Traditionally, Microsoft SA had been an order-taking business but was at a stage where it needed to be more aggressive and seek new business,” he says.

His wife and 11-year-old daughter were disappointed at the news that they were not going to the US, Nyati says. But he hopes eventually to live overseas again. Two of his predecessors at Microsoft, Mark Hill and Gordon Frazer, have gone on to senior jobs internationally — Hill in the US and Frazer in the UK — and Nyati, 44, says it’s likely he’ll eventually do the same.

“I would be sad to leave, though, because there is something about this country, despite all of its challenges,” he says. “We are building something that can work and can have a huge impact on the rest of the continent.”

For fun, Nyati says he enjoys travelling abroad with his family. They make time to travel at least twice a year, he says. On a day-to-day basis, he cycles with his daughter and in his spare time he likes to write. “Maybe I can start working on a blog within the company,” he muses out loud.

Nyati is also a chess fanatic and plays online with people from around the world. He particularly enjoys fast, time-based chess.

“I like to compete, which is why I took this job. Microsoft right now is faced with all sorts of competitors.”

And, as Nyati points out, it’s when it’s coming from behind that Microsoft has traditionally been at its best — and its most dangerous.

Maybe things haven’t changed so much after all.  — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral

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