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Watch Seventy-Two Changes at Microsoft
By Jia Wu, China Internet Weekly
May 5, 2009 1:00 PM PT

"At Microsoft, change is the only thing that doesn’t change." These words spoken by Bill Gates used to be offered as evidence that Microsoft was a company without culture. Jonathan Tien, Director of Innovation Engineering at Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA), begs to disagree. "Microsoft is not a company with no culture,” he says. “Its culture evolves as the company shifts its strategic focus." Tien, whose full-time job is to deal with Microsoft technologies and products, is in a position to speak authoritatively about the changes within the software giant.

Tien is no ordinary Joe. When he was young, he followed his parents to the countryside for “physical labor practice,” participated in the college entrance exam in 1977, received overseas education to "catch up," had a high-spirited time at an entrepreneurial company and eventually joined Microsoft Research Asia. "I feel connected to Microsoft by fate, and this job always gets me excited," he says, placing his hands on the table with his palms facing up – a gesture representing the contentment he feels with his current office.

Tien likes to talk and is willing to share his story and experience with others. In a sense, he’s a perfect window through which one can see and understand the non-stop changes in Microsoft technologies.

A Copper Pea on the Run

Being born to intellectual parents, with a grandfather working in the U.S. -- a family environment that people today would envy – was a source of hardship for Tien during his childhood in the 1960s. Unlike other children of his age who were still spoiled by their parents, Tien followed his parents to the countryside for “physical labor practice.” The bitterness of these early years turned Tien into a “copper pea,” noted for his tough personality, pressing aspiration to triumph and uncompromising desire for success.

University represented a world of freedom for Tien; the first sight of shelves packed with books at the school library gave him a thirst for knowledge that would last many years. "In my first few months on campus, I only wished that I could study 25 hours a day,” he remembers, “as the opportunity was too precious to be wasted." The first stretch of his time abroad was all about catching up to his classmates – trying to close the knowledge and performance gap as quickly as possible.

After he obtained his doctorate, Tien easily secured a job at Bell Labs, but, as is the case at most large companies, Tien found it extremely difficult for an individual to utilize every ounce of his or her capability. He even had a hard time recognizing his own value. He tried a number of other jobs before arriving at bSQUARE.

One of the advantages of working for small companies is that every employee enjoys a large sense of their personal impact within his or her internal environment. Faced with a flood of knowledge and technologies, one must be able to quickly apply new technology to products, or to put a solution into practice. "Every effort paid off," recalls Tien, "The job gave me a strong sense of achievement or a feeling of my own importance." When Tien first got on board, bSQUARE was just a startup of no more than a dozen employees, “but later on, it went public at Nasdaq, and we made it,” Tien says.

God loves to play tricks on people, it seems, and more often than not puts a cliff behind a peak, where a single step may cost the climber his life. The bursting of the Internet bubble led bSQUARE to bankruptcy, and Tien was also carried by the downward current back to the starting line. He had once considered entrepreneurship amid the economic downturn – at least he might have a chance to replicate the company he worked for -- but obtaining capital seemed to be impossible. Tien then thought of Microsoft.

To Tien, and many job seekers at the time, no other company in Seattle was as powerful as Microsoft was: it was impeccable both technologically and financially. "But I still had concerns,” Tien says, “as I could not help feeling miserable at the thought that I was not going to perform as influentially as before in such a large company.”

“I’m already here,” Tien told himself. “I should take this chance to look around to get a better understanding of its internal structure.” He interviewed for positions in three departments, including Microsoft Research (MSR) where he was expected to whip out new products based on findings at Microsoft Research Asia. In other words, making technology practically useful to people. "I realized that the job at Microsoft Research was roughly the same as what I did during graduate school," smiles Tien, "Looking at so many new technologies, I felt like my life was being rebooted."

Microsoft in a New Light

Armed with many results from basic research, Microsoft is no longer the company you once thought it was. The Windows of today includes an increasing number of novel gadgets, as Microsoft Research gradually goes beyond the “specifics” of computing devices to serve the user in many different ways. "Microsoft Research is a very special division in that it has influence on all other departments at Microsoft," explains Tien. The technology transfer process, for its part, serves as an adhesive to bind the latest technologies from Microsoft Research with product departments.

It takes delicate balancing skills to build ties between technology and development. Tien's team needs to recommend the best technology from Microsoft Research to the development departments at the right time, thus facilitating the transfer of technologies into marketable products. As a Research Project Manager at Microsoft Research, Tien spent half of his working hours coordinating the transfer of technologies from China to Microsoft products, and he is therefore ideally positioned to understand the significance of Microsoft Research Asia for Microsoft. Two years later, Tien was part of another transfer – not of technology but of himself – by officially moving to Microsoft Research Asia as Director of Innovation Engineering.

Nobody can discount the value of Microsoft to the world, but few seem to be able to understand the company's unique culture. "Corporate culture, in the end, changes with the ways that a company’s employees think." Microsoft has a 90,000-strong global workforce in offices relatively independent of each other, thus cultivating diversified “versions” of Microsoft culture.

"No one can predict the future,” Tien says, “so the culture at Microsoft Research Asia is to unleash the maximum potential of each researcher so as to create the future."

"Windows Movie Maker" was one major factor in moving Microsoft Research Asia to center stage. Automated Video Clipping and Matching (Auto Movie) even became highlights in Microsoft's advertising campaign for Windows XP. The key message was that Windows XP has a built-in Auto Movie feature capable of automatically selecting important and representative sections from the original video recording, and compiling them into smooth footage with content and rhythms matching user-specified music accompaniment. "You only need to let the computer know what you want," Tien explains. Through technology transfer, more and more "genius" ideas from Microsoft Research Asia have become integral parts of the lives of ordinary people.

MSN Live Camera now enables computer-generated decorations to follow your actions in a 2.5-D manner (within 45 degrees), while most other cameras are capable of 2D images only. Thanks to Tien’s team, technologies from Microsoft Research Asia such as face locating for video and video field tracking have been transferred to the MSN Special Camera. "We realized that a technology from Microsoft Research Asia happened to fit well into a project at Microsoft Hardware,” Tien says, “so we introduced and redefined this technology, and finally created a brand new application."

With such brisk development in technology, the product cycle seems too long and too slow to Tien as he searches for all viable means to deploy new technologies as quickly as possible. The official website of Microsoft Research Asia has become a sort of testing place for new technologies. "Items such as Microsoft Couplets System and Engkoo were made available to users instead of waiting to go through the product cycle.” Tien says. “Instant feedback from users, in turn, inspires more brilliant ideas from researchers. This type of “Deployment-Driven-Research” model of research has opened more channels for technology transfer."

At a certain phase of development, an enterprise-backed research institute naturally turns its eyes to the quality instead of the quantity of technologies it transfers to products. At Microsoft Research Asia, technologies are being developed and applied in diversified ways to change peoples’ lives – like what a magician is able to do with his hat.

What's next? Tien can’t help thinking about the future, but technologies are changing all the time, and no one is able to have the final say. The future is full of fantasy, but through technology transfer at Microsoft Research Asia, chances are that the fantasies of today will become the lives we live tomorrow.