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Discovering Microsoft’s Corporate Culture
By Jia Wu, China Internet Weekly
January 5, 2009 2:00 PM PT

All commercial transactions take place across globally interconnected networks, on which no one can escape software and data, in a process that moves from one island of information to the next. Anything that one might need is just a simple search away. One’s life, regardless of station, is driven by technology. Economic development, propelled by digitalization and computing, is advancing at the speed of light.

This is what Dr. Wei-Ying Ma, assistant managing director at Microsoft Research Asia, envisions as the Internet-based economic model of the future, and it’s the direction in which he is leading the research lab in Beijing. Despite recognizing, after a visit to the country in 1997, that China’s economic development was primed to burgeon, Bill Gates could never have imagined that the idea he planted in Beijing 10 years ago would blossom into what some have called "the world's hottest computer lab." Neither could he have expected that researchers at Microsoft Research Asia would have exceeded all expectations for the ideas and wealth they could generate.

Microsoft may appear to some people as a company without culture, but that impression changes upon entering the Sigma Building, which houses Microsoft Research Asia. Chatting with the great minds at Microsoft Research Asia, one is reminded of an open university that knows no boundaries. “Mentors” here are erudite but never short on passion; “pupils" are diligent and willing to take risks. This is where “Microsoft culture” resides.

Standing Tall Amid Brick-Tile Structures

Bill Gates’ trip to China gave the legendary computer genius a glimpse of the local people’s creative potential. In 1998, one year after the trip, Microsoft air-dropped one of its basic research think tanks into the Sigma Building, located in Zhongguancun, also known as the “Chinese Silicon Valley.” In the 11 years since Microsoft Research China was born, the lab has been on the front lines of Microsoft’s increasing intellectual presence in China and other parts of the Asia Pacific region.

"We use three words to summarize what attracted us back to our homeland,” said an enthusiastic Wei-Ying Ma, “China, Microsoft, and research.” Ya-Qin Zhang, Harry Shum, Baining Guo, and Wei-Ying Ma were among the batch of overseas-educated technical elites who flocked back to China—a land full of potential—to start businesses of their own between 1998 and 2001. They chose to join Microsoft’s basic research arm in Beijing, which, amid continued growth, was upgraded in November 2001 from Microsoft Research China to Microsoft Research Asia.

An eight-year veteran at Microsoft Research Asia, Ma still vividly remembers his job interview here. He recalls growing apprehensive at the sight of rows of the slightly outdated brick-tile buildings surrounding the Sigma Building. The vibrant atmosphere that surrounded the research inside the building, though, put any fears he had to rest. He was convinced he had made the right choice.

By the time Ma came onboard, the lab already had 12 fully established research groups, each focused on one area. Ma formed a motley crew with other colleagues who could not be assigned to any of the existing groups. Their diverse professional backgrounds made it difficult to find focus in their research, and as a young team, they felt a need to prove themselves. The pressures of work and the challenge of acclimatizing to a new environment and city prevented Ma from getting a good night’s rest for months, which, in turn, affected his health.

Obstacles often lead to change, and change can lead to an entirely new path, says the Chinese idiom. If the team was not able to choose from existing fields of research, they thought, why not create a new one? Ma chose Internet search after carefully considering each team-member’s specialty. As newcomers to this area, researchers would be granted new opportunities for their academic endeavors. In 2003, Microsoft Research Asia’s encounter with Internet search brought it one step closer to its goal of becoming the world's top research lab.

Change, it seems, may be the best word for describing what is most important to Microsoft. And working within a culture that encourages change is nothing short of an adventure.

The “Best of the Best” of the IT Business

Microsoft has sometimes been likened to China’s acclaimed Whampoa Military Academy, not just because Microsoft products are ubiquitous across China, but because Microsoft has given the IT and Internet industries what Whampoa has given the military: a numerous supply of respected leaders.

The secret behind such brilliant success? The importance that Microsoft attaches to talented people. This is particularly true at Microsoft Research Asia. Ma likens Microsoft's human-resources strategy to a circulatory system: The first batch of world-class researchers who were attracted to Microsoft Research Asia have been serving as the company's “magnets, attracting more and more talents to the lab. "Research work often relies on brains,” he said, “and the cleverest brains can always lure more of them, thus forming a virtuous circle of talent."

Ma is in love with research and likes to work with the most intelligent people. He often discusses his work with the young researchers under his supervision, whom he does not hesitate to praise. "My apprentices are the best of their kind in China,” he said, “and I believe many of them are CEO and CTO material whose future achievements will certainly dwarf ours. We usually learn from each other."

It’s for precisely this reason that Microsoft Research Asia is taking admirable steps forward in the academic community. In recent years, Ma’s team has accounted for some 10 percent of the adopted papers at sessions of the SIGIR (Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval ) conferences, which have long been among the most authoritative and influential academic events.

"I have the ideal job in the world," Ma is often heard saying, a sentiment stemming from the belief that his passion for research can find no better home than Microsoft Research, where Ma is able to regularly engage in creative brainstorming with some of the finest people in the world. What is clear from talking to Ma is that Microsoft Research Asia provides an environment of total freedom based on a bottom-up philosophy that enables researchers to freely choose the direction of their research with no interference from supervisors or peers. "Microsoft Research Asia is an investment of Microsoft for the future," said Ma.

The mandate at Microsoft Research Asia is the same as that of the larger company: to respect, protect, and nurture clever minds—in other words, to cherish talent.

Making Money for the Day After Tomorrow

There is a saying within Microsoft: The sales division makes money for today, the product division makes money for tomorrow, but the research division makes money for the day after tomorrow.

Strategic vision that has an eye on the future beyond tomorrow has much to do with the enduring prosperity of multinationals such as Microsoft. Microsoft Research Asia, in a way, serves as Microsoft’s reserve – the talent accumulated here will lead to wealth down the road.

In an effort to “stock” its reserves, Microsoft Research Asia each year sends representatives to all leading colleges and universities that provide degrees in computer science. It has launched joint labs in 10 universities across greater China and even has its experts deliver university lectures as part of Microsoft’s effort to discover and foster talent. Microsoft Research Asia differentiates itself from other institutes of its kind through what some might consider an unusual pursuit and protection of capable people. The hope is to make Microsoft Research Asia into a type of personalized “DreamWorks”—transforming, as both Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have said, the dreams of researchers into the future of Microsoft.

Ma firmly believes that “Cloud + Client” computing will further enable the Internet to serve as a seamless computing platform, which, through data centers, software as a service, and intelligent computing, will drive the development of every aspect of human activity—be it economy, education, or health care—at the speed of light. Armed with Internet search technologies, Ma and his team are assembling the digital-economy engine that will power such speed.

“Create the future” has been a vision—or an obligation, one might say—of Microsoft as a world-class enterprise. It’s a motto imprinted on the mind of every researcher at Microsoft.

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