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John Warren

A week in the life of a University Relations manager

John WarrenJohn WarrenA week can be a very long time in any job, in any company, but for those who work in the Microsoft Research Asia University Relations team no two weeks seem to be the same.

This means that we have a very exciting life; rarely is our life boring, routine or mundane, rarely do we sit at our desks and think “what am I going to do now?” In fact the thoughts we have are more along the lines of:

  • “Have I prioritized my tasks correctly for today?”
  • “Do I have a good understanding of what I am about to do?”
  • “Have I communicated to the other members of the UR team what help I need from them in order for me to achieve my objectives?”
  • “Have I identified all of the dependencies in my project plan?”
  • “Am I ready for the campus visit I am about to do with Hon and Lolan?”

So let me try to describe a week in the life of a University Relations Manager; hopefully it will give you an understanding of what we do and how we do it.


One of the academic engagement models the Microsoft Research Asia University Relations (UR) Group has is called “Theme” projects. Every couple of years we identify, together with some of the Research Managers, a “theme” that we can adopt for a couple of years that reflects current challenges in specific areas of computer science. Some examples of current themes are Internet services (or Search) and Natural Language Processing. Each UR Manager determines which academics in his/her geographical area would have an interest in responding to an “Invitation for Proposals” (IFP) and enters the details of those academics into a UR database. We call them IFPs to distinguish them from the Redmond process of issuing RFPs (Request for Proposals). The two documents are very similar but we do not want to confuse the academics so we have adopted a different name to reflect the Microsoft Research Asia approach.

The plan for the Theme project I am responsible for needs to be issued to the UR Managers this week for their final comments. After this the IFP will be distributed to the UR Managers and subsequently by them onto their academics. However, I have just realized that I have yet to receive the final legal agreement from LCA. Now I have to chase them up, ensuring that this agreement is sent to the UR Managers so they are aware of the Microsoft Research Asia requirements in relation to IP and commercialization issues. LCA is currently on the phone, so instead of repeatedly pressing “redial”, I decide to run up to see them so that I can discuss any final issues requiring clarification face to face. I arrive, breathless (and because I haven’t already received the legal agreement, anticipating the worst), at LCA but fortunately there are no issues to discuss; they were just extremely busy last week and were not able to get the finalized agreement to me.

With everything now in place, I email the Project Plan to the UR managers, together with a final draft of the IFP and the LCA requirements. I ask all of the UR Managers to complete their final review of the documentation and to then nominate in the UR University Management System (UMS) the details of the relevant Professors to whom they will send the final IFP and the final LCA agreement.

I am about to email the documentation when the phone rings; it’s one of my academics who has called to request a visit the lab in August (doesn’t he know about the Olympic Games in Beijing in August?!). I discuss this with him and politely suggest that he might want to delay his visit until late November or early December. I remind him that in early November we have the Microsoft Research Asia Faculty Summit, followed by the 21st Century Computing Conference, which this year is followed by Innovation Day. He agrees that this is not a good time to visit the lab; however we are very interested to develop a deeper relationship with this Professor so I invite him to attend the events in early November, which will also give him the opportunity to get to know Microsoft Research Asia better. Before anyone else can interrupt me, I click “send” and email works its magic, delivering the documents to the UR Managers.

It’s now time to attend the Public Sector (PS) meeting and give an Microsoft Research Asia UR update so that the PS people in the subsidiary are aware of the latest UR initiatives (a side project for me is to write a full sentence in nothing but acronyms – I think I’m getting close!). I inform them that we are about to issue a new IFP and I discuss the nature of this IFP with them and outline the LCA requirements. I also listen to their programs and issues, fortunately being able to make a considerable contribution to their debate as to how best to engage with academics and Chief Information Officers (CIOs) at those Universities that are target accounts for them.

I chance a look out the window and discover that the sun had set long ago, realizing at the same time that these PS people never go to sleep (reminding me of some research managers!). So, it is time for me to go home, have some dinner and help my wife with the children.


I arrive at work early because later this morning I have to visit the campus of one of my tier 1 Universities and meet with the Head of the Computer Science School and one of his researchers. They have submitted what we call a “faculty-specific” research project proposal and I need to discuss with them what they see as the project duration, the project objectives, how many students will be involved and what level of funding they require. It is also important to identify the appropriate Microsoft Research Asia researcher/research manager who will evaluate their proposal. The researcher will determine for me the level of interest Microsoft Research Asia has in a proposal such as this, identify who the researcher will be (who will have on-going contact with the University researcher/s) and how much assistance from Microsoft and Microsoft Research they will require. The academic that has submitted this proposal has had limited contact with Microsoft Research Asia and therefore this meeting is crucial to the final funding/no funding recommendation I will put to Lolan.

While I am on campus I intend to meet with a PhD student who won the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship Award last year and who spent 3 months as an intern at the lab. These students generally find an internship to be a great experience and they highly value the opportunity to work alongside some of our researchers and other students. When they are studying for a PhD at their University they can feel somewhat isolated as they generally interact with very few people; their day-to-day interaction can be limited to 6 people or less.

I arrive on campus early and the Head of the Computer Science Department and his researcher are waiting for me; they are anxious to hear my reaction to their research project proposal. We discuss the alignment of their proposal with the Microsoft Research Asia research areas and find that this alignment is actually very weak. I explain to them that I doubt we will find a researcher who will be interested in their project and I encourage them to review the Microsoft Research Asia web site, identify researchers who they might have met at conferences or elsewhere and try to better align their future proposals. As I mentioned above, this is critical to the success of any “faculty-specific” proposal and if UR is to invest in these projects we must ensure that they will have impact and will advance the state-of-the-art.

After this meeting I catch up with the former intern who is preparing a paper for an upcoming conference. He asks for my advice on certain aspects of the paper and is a little nervous about presenting it as this is the first time he will have presented at an academic conference. I encourage him to get lots of feedback on the paper prior to his submission and presentation; his PhD supervisor should be a great source of encouragement and inspiration. We chat for a while and he gives me excellent feedback on his internship. When I get back to the lab I will certainly give this feedback to Xin MA who manages the internship program for Microsoft Research Asia.


It’s now early Wednesday morning and I have to review the comments on the IFP and LCA documentation emailed in overnight by the UR Managers. I now need to finalize all of the paperwork, which I successfully complete in a couple of hours, meaning that the final documentation is ready to go.

I now have to update UMS with the results for my academics from the most recent IFP, which was managed by another UR Manager. We keep a record in UMS of who submits responses to IFPs, who won awards (and the amounts of the awards) as well as measuring the impact of these IFPs. Impact is very difficult to measure but we consider measurements such as PR, incremental funding sourced from areas other than Microsoft Research Asia and papers submitted by the academics that were accepted at major conferences.

While I am updating UMS the phone rings. It’s an academic I know from one of my tier 1 Universities, who is complaining that he did not receive an award from the last IFP we ran. He says that it took him and one of his students two full days to compile the response to the IFP. He then attended the workshop which, this time, was held prior to the awards being announced and his expectation was that he would win an award. I explained that we have limited budget and the awards are given to the best-of-the-best responses. After almost 30 minutes on the phone he accepts my explanation and apologizes for being a little rude at the start of the conversation. Phew!! I don’t enjoy these calls and fortunately I do not get many of them but they really challenge my communication skills when they come through.

It’s time to update the PR summary for the quarter we have just finished and to review the PR plan for the coming quarter. There is a lot happening and I must make sure that we get the PR coverage we deserve.

I also take the opportunity to review the campus visits scheduled for the next quarter and to update the UR calendar. We keep an online calendar so that all the UR team members can monitor who is visiting a particular campus at any particular time and communicate any requests or special needs for the visits.

Tomorrow I need to get ready for a campus visit to one of our Tier one Universities in 2 weeks with Hon and Lolan. I managed to complete the preliminary planning three weeks ago, however it is now time to check the details of the plan and make sure I dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s.


First thing Thursday morning I review the draft “briefer” I prepared three weeks ago. Hon and Lolan need to know who they are meeting, the title of each person and their role at the University. They also need to know specifically what collaboration the academics have had with Microsoft Research Asia so far. There are several areas that need to be anticipated by the UR Manager for such a visit:

  • Has the collaboration to date been for research or curriculum purposes?
  • Have the academics visited the lab?
  • If so, when and who did they meet with?
  • How do they feel about their collaboration with us, has it been a positive experience?
  • Which research managers do they work with?

In addition, I need to prepare Hon and Lolan and let them know precisely what I want them to do during this visit. In fact one important task I have for Hon is to present a Fellowship award to one of the PhD students. I have the US$6,000 check ready for this student and I also have her plaque ready to take with me on the trip. I have booked a photographer and her PhD supervisors have confirmed that they will be available to meet with Hon and Lolan and also be available for the photo.

Most of Thursday is allocated to fine-tuning Hon and Lolan’s campus visit. Everything must run smoothly.


Wow, it’s monthly report time; that came around quickly. I need to detail all of the important tasks I completed last month, identify what I will be focusing on in the current month and what help I need, and from whom, over the next 4 weeks in order for me to be successful.

This morning I will also need to access MSMarket so that I can raise some Purchase Orders to pay two academics for a faculty-specific project that has just been approved by a Research Manager and Lolan. This project was submitted by a different University to the one I met with on Tuesday. The project will run for 12 months and has already attracted incremental funding from the University and from a Government agency. This is a really great project as there will be 3 students engaged, the project team will visit the lab and meet with the relevant Microsoft Research Asia researchers and there will be true collaboration for the duration. We have also identified clear project outcomes and the opportunity for publications and presentations at upcoming conferences.

It’s now 12:30 and I need to attend the student Bar-B-Q being arranged for the interns in the lab. Every now and again we like to bring the interns together, have some fun and provide them with the opportunity to get to know each other. Microsoft Research Asia is known as the “hottest lab in the world” and Beijing in summer can certainly be very hot. So a casual lunch such as this, together with some cool drinks, a game of soccer and a good chat is a great way to end the week.

Here comes the weekend and looking back it’s been a very busy and varied week. No two weeks are the same and that’s one of the reasons why I find the UR Manager’s life so exciting.