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Why I Work for Microsoft Research
By Rob Knies
September 26, 2006 12:01 AM PT

There are numerous reasons for why people choose where they prefer to work. Geography, family, career choice, career stage, recreation—all are legitimate justification for the professional decisions an individual might choose to make. As Microsoft Research celebrates its 15th anniversary, a few of its employees from its labs worldwide took a few moments to explain why they have chosen to work where they do.

Curtis Wong, principal researcher, Redmond

Curtis WongI’ve worked for a number of cutting-edge technology companies over the past 20 years, and the last two companies I worked for were featured in an article called Fortune Magazine Visits 25 Cool Companies. Why did I leave one of the coolest companies to come to Microsoft Research?

The obvious reason is that Microsoft Research is even cooler than where I was before! I was attracted to Microsoft Research because there were so many brilliant, accomplished people who were tackling the really hard problems in their fields to make a difference for Microsoft.

I think what keeps me here is the creative freedom to explore topics that I think are interesting and will be important to Microsoft down the road. I've been at Microsoft Research eight years, and I've always had the freedom to pursue projects I was passionate about, and that was long before Google promoted its "0 percent time."

Dan Ling [Microsoft Research corporate vice president] has always been incredibly supportive of my spare-time projects, which range from exploratory research with Jim Gray on SkyServer to serving on the boards of the Seattle Art Museum, the Rhode Island School of Design, and PBS in Washington, D.C.

It’s really satisfying to be supported doing cutting-edge research, as well as helping the larger community of nonprofit organizations to make a difference.

Jonathan Donner, researcher, India

Jonathan DonnerI traveled 8,300 miles to Bangalore to join Microsoft Research India. Every mile was worth it. I was a post-doc at Columbia, researching how people in the developing world use technology, particularly mobile phones, to start and grow small businesses. The topic fascinated me, but the commute was terrible! It’s tough to keep tabs on a rapidly changing subject from far away. I had resolved to get “into the field,” as the social scientists say.

So I was thrilled to learn about the 2005 launch of Microsoft Research India, which opened with Technology for Emerging Markets as a core research area. When P. Anandan [managing director of the lab] happened to visit New York, I got to make my pitch. I’m now happily ensconced at the lab and still studying small businesses. But today, the data is right outside my front door, amid the exciting jumble that is Bangalore.

The lab culture is great. It’s a fun, interdisciplinary group, drawing on a rare mix of institutional wisdom and startup energy. I also enjoy working as part of the broader Microsoft organization. It’s nice to know that my research can have an impact, because my colleagues actually create the information and communication technologies that help people change the world.

Tom Healy, lead program manager, Redmond

Tom HealyIt enters my thoughts, sometimes at odd moments, how I’m very grateful and privileged to work in Microsoft Research. It is an amazingly vibrant organization. Technology innovation can, and does, make a positive difference in the lives of people all over the world. It feels good to be a part of that.

Working in External Research & Programs provides a twofold advantage. I work with universities that are pursuing cutting-edge research. The university faculty and students are enthusiastic and creative. It’s infectious. I also have the benefit of engaging with the world-class researchers in Microsoft Research, incredibly talented people who are leaders of their respective fields. Academia and Microsoft Research are both envisioning the future of computing. That point of intersection is fascinating.

I’ve been in Microsoft Research Redmond for seven years. Before that, I lived all my life on the East Coast, working in somewhat stuffy technology companies. My wife and I moved 3,000 miles, leaving our family and friends and not knowing a soul in Seattle. But we knew it was absolutely the right thing to do. The opportunity to work at Microsoft Research was unique. There have been no regrets—other than the Seattle rainy season. But, then again, you don’t have to shovel rain.

Frank Seide, researcher/project leader, Asia

Frank SeideIt’s simple. Microsoft Research gives me an opportunity to pursue my research interests for practically any relevant topic and a chance to see the fruit of my work in actual products.

Rick Rashid [Microsoft Research senior vice president] described his approach: Hire the best talent in areas we care about, let them do what they are good at, stand back, and be amazed by what they come up with. This is, indeed, the culture I found at Microsoft Research.

Bill Gates’ vision of computers being able to see, listen, speak, and learn is reflected throughout the organization. Microsoft is committed to my area, speech recognition, and has provided me with all resources necessary. I could not imagine working for a lab with publication restrictions.

While I feel that scientific impact and product impact are equally appreciated, Microsoft Research has unique mechanisms to make technology transfer as easy as possible. First, the organization created a dedicated team of “matchmakers” to connect us with product people. Research and tech transfer are as much social events as they are about technology, and within Microsoft, product people love to talk to Research and often generate new research ideas. There’s lots of startup mentality and technology enthusiasm here.

Second, to free researchers from having to write product code or polish demos, the Beijing lab created a dedicated development team for building prototypes and technology transfer.

As a consequence, the results of years of my research are going into several products and promise to have a positive impact on the lives of millions. This is, for me, the most rewarding aspect of working for Microsoft Research.

A.J. Brush, researcher, Redmond

A.J. Brush
A.J. Brush

Working at Microsoft Research is my dream job. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s true. As a researcher at Microsoft Research, I have the freedom to do cutting-edge research on how technology can help solve everyday problems that I find personally compelling—for example, helping people cope with too much e-mail or more easily manage their work and family calendars.

I also have the privilege of working with amazing colleagues, who are generous with their time and expertise. I have found that if I want to talk with an expert in another research area, he or she typically sits down the hall and is more than willing to chat.

Finally, perhaps my favorite aspect of my job is that, by being at Microsoft Research, I get to interact with the amazing people who build Microsoft products. I enjoy drawing inspiration from the problems they face and sharing my research findings with them. Through these partnerships, my research has the potential to impact millions of people—what could be more exciting than that?

Michael Schroeder, assistant managing director, Silicon Valley

Michael Schroeder

I’d been interested in working for Microsoft for some while. When, in the summer of 2001, Rick Rashid asked Roy Levin and me to start a new lab for him in Silicon Valley, it didn’t take long to say an enthusiastic “yes!”

I flew down to the Bay Area on a Wednesday morning from Ashland, Ore., where my family was attending the Shakespeare festival, had a short interview with Rick, and flew back in time for the evening play, having accepted the job in principle.

The five years since then have been everything they promised to be. One doesn’t get the opportunity to build a new computer-research lab very often, and to do it in such an environment as Microsoft Research, that is so supportive of research and researchers, is a real treat.

Why do I like working here? It’s because Rick and the senior management of the company really believe in research and the value it brings to Microsoft. And they understand how to run a world-class computer-research establishment effectively. The combination of financial and moral support, freedom of action, openness to the outside professional community, access to the product groups, and opportunity for impact is unmatched.

The researchers here are the best in the world and are working enthusiastically and productively. It is my privilege to help tend one of the gardens where their innovations are grown.

Hugues Hoppe, principal researcher, Redmond

Hugues HoppeI joined Microsoft Research in 1994, having just finished a dissertation on surface modeling in computer graphics. At that time, 3D graphics were only practical on expensive graphics workstations. It was very forward-looking of Microsoft to allow me to use such non-PC, non-Windows® systems.

Now, a decade later, high-end graphics are affordable to virtually everyone and are even integrated into the Windows Vista™ shell. The transformation in graphics performance has been tremendous and exciting.

As researchers, we have had to completely rethink our basic algorithms to work efficiently on highly parallel processors. And this revolution towards parallelism is likely only beginning.

I really enjoy participating in the academic community, publishing research papers at the vibrant SIGGRAPH conference and collaborating with professors and students.

At the same time, it has been very satisfying to contribute technologies to Microsoft product groups such as DirectX® and Xbox®.

Our annual TechFest event lets us calibrate “lofty” research ideas with “real world” practicalities and establish contacts throughout the company.

My favorite activity is to brainstorm with colleagues on new research directions. And, what makes graphics research particularly satisfying is the end result: a visual demo that makes people ask, “How did you do that?”

Baskaran Sankaran, assistant researcher, India

Baskaran Sankaran

Microsoft Research gives me unlimited opportunities to explore the unexplored, where my research work has the potential to significantly impact the way people work and communicate today. I get chance to listen, interact, discuss, and understand the work of researchers, which undoubtedly helps me to gain invaluable and deep knowledge in my area of interest. The exposure I get here by working with researchers helps me sharpen my ideas, analysis, and research skills, while their unlimited passion for discovering new things by continuous experimentation motivates me to go deeper and beyond defined limits.

At the same time, being part of such a large and diverse research organization lets me learn something about newer areas from researchers both inside and outside of Microsoft Research. Think of the joy of a language-technology researcher who learns a thing or two about bizarre topics such as social networking or software security or “acoustic communication in crickets” or sensor networks.

To me, this is the most exciting, challenging, and defining period in my career.

Jin Li, senior researcher, Redmond

Jin LiAt the time I joined Microsoft Research, I looked at other prominent research labs, such as IBM and HP, and faculty opportunities at top-tier universities, but Microsoft Research looked like the best of the bunch. And I do not regret my decision after all these years.

One of the unique combinations you get at Microsoft Research is the freedom of research and the resource support. You get to work on anything that interests you, at a pace you set yourself. You can choose to collaborate with various internal and external groups. You can attend conferences, teach a short course or tutorial, or lead interns. You can do all these without the tedious burden of writing grant proposals. If management feels that the resource you asked for is important for your project, you will get it, be it for traveling, students/development support, or equipment. The resource support you get from Microsoft Research is superb.

Working in Microsoft Research also gives you the satisfaction that your work, once incorporated, will always have a huge impact, given the large installed basis of various Microsoft products. We also get fantastic support from both the Microsoft product groups that we work with and the program-management and research software-engineering team within Microsoft Research during the process of tech transfer. We are not alone in implementing complex features ourselves.

Plus, Seattle is a great city in which to live.

Daniel Robbins, user-interface designer, Redmond

When I came to Microsoft Research 10 years ago, it was to combine my pragmatic product-group experience with my academic roots. At Microsoft Research, I potentially could have an impact on the world at large.

Ten years ago, we were pondering what the “killer” 3D application might be. Now, I find myself using my background in sculpture and industrial design to bring rich interactive experiences to a broad ecosystem of devices—from wall-sized displays to cell phones.

I work with the brightest people, the nicest people, and the people with the broadest array of interests.

I stay here because I am always finding new projects to involve myself in, whether it be novel uses for an industrial laser-cutter, zoomable interfaces on a Smartphone, or high-level interface discussions with new product groups.

My collaborations range from my hallway to buildings across campus to conferences around the world. My work and the people I work with garner great respect, and we have helped create some of the seminal work in our field of human-computer interaction.

Natasa Milic-Frayling, senior researcher, Cambridge

Natasa Milic-FraylingI started working for Microsoft Research about eight years ago by joining the lab in Cambridge, which was in its nascent days at the time. One could not know then how this Microsoft lab, the first of its kind outside the States, would shape up. It was curiosity and enthrallment with the new beginning that prompted my decision to apply and join.

I continue to work here because the same sense of dynamic and creative energy persists. The portfolio of my research projects grows with inspiration and enthusiasm—mine and my colleagues’. Both the freedom to choose research topics and the ownership I can assume to deliver on my commitments are great motivators for me. Over the years, I’ve seen this very mechanism transform people into leaders and make them reach for new challenges.

It is also inspiring that Microsoft Research raises no walls to confine us. I connect with a wider academic and professional community, and that openness gives my work a higher cause. I often imagine us researchers on a vessel moving steadily forward, looking ahead and continuously re-examining the course we are taking. While we head toward the future as an unreachable horizon, we are shaping that future along the way.

David Lomet, principal researcher, Redmond

David LometAccepting Microsoft Research’s job offer 11 years ago was both painful and easy. The pain: leaving a great Digital job,but they were exiting the database business. I could have worked at Oracle, but they had no research.

By good fortune, Microsoft became interested in databases concurrently with Digital’s exit. With people I knew already at Microsoft (actively recruiting me), and the opportunity to start a database research group, Microsoft Research was an exciting opportunity and an easy choice.

Anotherhuge plus wasthe entrepreneurial organization Rick Rashid had built at Microsoft Research: researchers choose the project and figure out how to succeed, measured by publication and product impact.

How has itworked out? After a lonely, yearlong effort,my initial hiring has led to a world-class database group in Redmond—and new colleagues and friends. My research now impacts millions of SQL Server™ users. Helping Bill Gates prepare his 1998 SIGMOD keynote was an unforgettable experience. Working down the hall from a billionaire, Charles Simonyi, was eerie. The Microsoft Research intern program makes summershumwithactivity and fun.

What next? Research remains exciting, tech transfer is still a challenging and glorious opportunity, and working with colleagues and interns is great. How lucky I’ve been!

Soumyajit Deb, assistant researcher, India

Soumyajit DebWorking at Microsoft Research India for the past year has been an amazing experience for me. Since my graduate-school days, I have been thoroughly impressed by the steady flow of extremely high quality work out of Microsoft Research. Now, after spending a year at Microsoft Research India, I can wholeheartedly say that it is easily the best place to be for me.

The complete freedom of thought that Microsoft Research grants everyone in choosing their research direction is probably the single most valuable thing to me. This, backed by a stimulating work environment where one gets to meet a motley of the very best people from diverse backgrounds, helps foster creative thought. Getting to meet and collaborate with some of the best researchers from around the world also helps broaden my horizons.

I also like the fact that Microsoft Research actively encourages everyone to publish in the best journals and conferences the world over. This, coupled with all the available resources in the world at our disposal, excellent benefits and perks, appreciation for good work, having the fortune of the brightest interns working with us, and the fantastic parties J easily makes Microsoft Research the best place for a researcher.

Behrooz Chitsaz, director of IP Strategy, Redmond

Behrooz ChitsazI joined Microsoft in October 1991—as it happens, just one month after Microsoft Research was launched. I spent 11 years working on products such as Microsoft Exchange and the Windows Active Directory®. It is very satisfying to know that the components I worked on continue to be used by millions of people around the world every day.

During my years in the product groups, I had numerous interactions with Microsoft Research and all the exciting work it was doing in a broad range of areas of computing, such as graphics, natural-language understanding, security, and new types of devices.

In my current position, I was able to initiate a new program within Microsoft Research whereby we can bring our innovations to market by partnering with other companies.

If I had to sum up why I enjoy working at Microsoft Research, it would be the freedom to innovate and the freedom to bring that innovation to masses of people all over the world. The process of executing on innovation can be challenging, but Microsoft Research, as an organization, has the passion and tenacity to make that happen. I am thrilled to be a part of this organization.