New Microsoft Board Member Maria Klawe on Bill Gates, College Students, and Seattle Innovation

On Monday, Microsoft announced it had appointed Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, to the company’s board of directors. Klawe’s appointment makes Microsoft’s board 10 members strong again, after longtime director Jon Shirley (a former Microsoft president and chief operating officer) stepped down last November. I had the opportunity to speak with Klawe yesterday about her new role, and what she brings to the Redmond software company.

Klawe (pronounced “Claw-vay”) has been president of Harvey Mudd, an elite college in Claremont, CA, focused on science and engineering, since 2006. Before that, she was dean of engineering at Princeton University. She had previously spent 15 years at the University of British Columbia in various leadership roles, including head of the department of computer science and dean of science. For good measure, she also spent eight years at IBM Research. (And for any math geeks out there, her Erdős number is 1.)

A highly respected mathematician and computer scientist, Klawe has done seminal research in areas like multimedia, functional analysis, human-computer interaction, and gender issues in information technology. University of Washington computer scientist Ed Lazowska, who has known Klawe for 30-plus years, touts her smarts and leadership. “She’s impatient and persistent in the best senses—she wants things to be done right, and she wants them to be done right now,” he writes in an e-mail. “She’s very strong on gender equity, which will be good medicine for Microsoft—although she’s by no means a one-issue person. Her only idiosyncrasy is that she paints watercolors during meetings.”

Klawe has a disarming modesty about her, though she says she was “difficult” and “arrogant” growing up (hard to believe now). Having followed her research over the years and talked with her a couple of times, I think it’s fair to say Microsoft is gaining a wealth of perspective on computing, basic research, and consumer-tech trends among young people—mainly through Klawe’s deep connections to student life at her school. She also has plenty of connections to Microsoft and the Seattle area, and some compelling thoughts on local innovation.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Xconomy: So tell us about your new role as a board member of Microsoft, and what it means to you.

Maria Klawe: I just started as a director. They voted me in on Monday, so I’m not assigned to any specific committees yet; it’s the middle of the year. So I have the generic responsibilities of a director. I attended my first board meeting on March 9. I’m absolutely thrilled about it.

X: How did the board appointment come about? Who were your connections, and had you been thinking about this for a while?

MK: Two things happened independently. I was thinking about the next role to play externally that would be a good learning opportunity for me, and good for the college. I discussed it with my board chair, and said, ‘I want to be on the board of a technology company.’ I made a list of three companies: Microsoft, Amazon, and Intel, in no particular order. Google already had two university presidents on its board. So that was on my to-do list for the next few years. I hadn’t actually told anybody else that was what I wanted to do.

The next thing that happened: I know people at Microsoft Research, foremost among them Rick Rashid [senior vice president and head of research]. I got an e-mail from Rick in October asking if we could talk by phone. Given our schedules, it wasn’t until halfway through November that we talked. He said, ‘Microsoft is thinking about putting an academic on its board, and your name has come up.’ Rick thought for sure I wouldn’t be interested; he seemed sorry to be the one to have to ask me. I said, ‘Actually, it’s on my to-do list, to go on a corporate board.’ He said, ‘Really? If you are interested, you should meet with Brad Smith [senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft] and Bill Gates.’ It just so happened I was going to be in Seattle the next week. Lo and behold, on November 19, I had a meeting with Bill Gates and Brad Smith.

X: I’m guessing the meeting went pretty well. (No word on whether any watercolor paintings came of it.)

MK: As a university president, you want to talk about your college. For the first 45 minutes, Bill just asked me about Harvey Mudd. Towards the end of the hour, he said, … Next Page »

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