My first encounter with Dongmei Zhang was at a women’s talk hosted by Microsoft. Five female Microsoft employees, including the presenter, lined up on the stage, all shining and glittering. Zhang, from Microsoft Research Asia, was as talkative as the other four. When she spoke, she spoke quickly, and when she wasn’t speaking, her smiling face would tilt slightly to the side, causing one to wonder what she was thinking.
Zhang’s career path has been colorful. She flew to Pittsburgh from Beijing for higher education, found a position at an entrepreneurial company in Atlanta, moved to the Microsoft head office in Redmond, and returned to Beijing, where she is with Microsoft Research Asia. "I was very lucky to be able to come back to Beijing, because of all the opportunities Microsoft Research Asia has given me,” a confident, calm Zhang told me. “It would be extremely regrettable if I had missed this opportunity to develop here.”
To anyone who knows her well, Zhang is more of an athlete than a researcher. A sports fan since primary school, Zhang is recognized for her powerful will to excel, which has no doubt been cultivated through the competition and determination that comes from years of physical training. “Sports are a pursuit of perfection in essence,” Zhang says, with a steely look that reflects her commitment to excellence and her passion for work and life. “It pushes people to their extremes.”
Unlike her peers, Zhang, who was raised in a family of aviation engineers, had early contact with computer language. Because of the potential she demonstrated, Zhang enrolled in a BASIC language class, offered by the Civil Aviation Bureau. where her parents worked, during the summer vacation of her second year of high school. This was long before home PCs took off in China, so Zhang learned to program on elementary products such as the PC1500. “I fell in love with it at first touch,” she recalled. Once Zhang felt what it was like to write computer programs, she decided to pursue that “feeling” for the rest of her life.
Zhang still vividly recalls that first summer class. She had the highest score of her class on the final exam — the one and only full mark — but was still summoned to the teacher’s office, where she was told, “You did the last question right, but the format was still not perfect.” From that point, Zhang became stricter with herself, exerting every ounce of effort to get the best results. The drive for perfection in Zhang the sportswoman found its way into Zhang the thinker.
Without the slightest hesitation, Zhang chose the Department of Computer Sciences of Tsinghua University shortly before taking the college entrance exam and went on to pursue higher education at the School of Computer Sciences of Carnegie Mellon University. With a doctoral degree in hand, Zhang, thirstier than ever for challenges and breakthroughs, secured a position in the product-development department of Alventive, an entrepreneurial company based in Atlanta. By that time, her husband, Qinghui Zhou, was already a software engineer at the head office of Microsoft in Redmond.
Wanting to be with her husband, Zhang chose to join him in Redmond 18 months later. Her rich experience and impressive track record in project management quickly helped her land a job at Microsoft. When Zhang arrived at Microsoft's Digital Media Division in 2001, the PhotoStory project was about to take off—the challenge of a quick-changing research field awaited her.
Zhang and her companions did not let Bill Gates down. They not only miraculously completed the video engine and codes for the user interface on time, but they also added a few minor features in the stabilization phase. Upon the final release of Photo Story, their research results turned out to be major features. Zhang obtained a deeper insight into the importance of teamwork from the experience. “The power of a person working alone is too limited in today’s world,” she said, at a pace so fast that I almost couldn’t keep up.
Just as Zhang had found her place within her new job, her husband transferred to the Microsoft Advanced Technology Center in Beijing. This presented a dilemma for Zhang: remain in Redmond with her flourishing career, or follow her husband to Beijing? Both sides were tempting: She could reach her potential as a professional or as a caring wife and obedient daughter. Microsoft Research Asia, in the end, gave her the chance to do both.
“In Microsoft's corporate culture, I see opportunities in addition to diversity, openness, and inclusion,” Zhang said. “I'm still very grateful that Harry Shum, who was the managing director of Microsoft Research Asia at the time, allowed me to make a trip to Beijing to better understand Microsoft Research Asia, promising me that he’d find a suitable place for me here.”
Today, Zhang is the research manager of the Software Analytics Group at Microsoft Research Asia, responsible for East Asian language recognition and math-equation recognition. The Handwritten Math Equation Recognizer was released in the Education Pack for Windows XP Tablet PC Edition in 2005. Zhang’s team was behind the Tablet PC equation-display technology, demonstrated before President Hu Jintao during his visit to Microsoft’s head office.
In addition to her ensuring a smooth research process, Zhang, as the team leader, has managed to protect her group members from unnecessary interference in their work. “We should have the courage to say ‘no’ to technical requirements from the product division,” said Zhang, “as we need to shoulder the responsibility for our partners, as well as for our research within a product cycle.” Working with a young team, Zhang puts top priority on capacity building for the team as a whole. “You get more and better results only if you are able to catalyze the creativity of each member,” she explained.
Zhang is happy with the freedom that she and her group enjoy at Microsoft Research Asia, which allows seamless cooperation with researchers from other groups. Some day in the near future, when one clicks on a news item online, the window will be split into four sections, with a map of the world in one corner, and text, photos, and video in the other corners, enabling the user to understand the news from a global perspective. The linear mode of mass-media communication will be replaced by a multidimensional way of presenting the news. This is one of the many innovations that Zhang demonstrated at Microsoft Research Asia that focus on user interfaces, human-computer Interaction, data intelligence, and tools aimed at making breakthroughs in information visualization.
The user interface will be Microsoft's first punch in its battle with Google in the search market. While it is true that Microsoft's search tools still cannot bring texts, pictures, and videos to a single page, Zhang and many of her colleagues at Microsoft Research Asia have brought Microsoft one step closer to its dream of diversified search.
“If there is anything that can be called an accomplishment, the credit definitely goes to the entire team instead of me.” Zhang said, tenderness replacing her steely gaze. “I feel very happy and lucky to have the chance to do my favorite things for a living — and to be able to do them at their very best."