Changing of the Guard: A Conversation with Dan Ling and Rico Malvar
By Rob Knies
March 5, 2007 6:00 AM PT

Dan Ling, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, recently announced his impending retirement. Ling, who has been with the organization almost since its inception 15 years ago, has been responsible for overseeing Microsoft Research Redmond since 1995. In announcing Ling’s departure, Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research, also introduced Henrique (Rico) Malvar, Microsoft distinguished engineer and Microsoft Research general manager, as the lab’s new managing director. Malvar has an extensive history of accomplishments within Microsoft Research, both technical and managerial, which have led him to his new position. As Microsoft Research continues to celebrate its 15th anniversary with its seventh annual TechFest, the company’s annual showcase of research projects, on March 7-8, Ling and Malvar found time beforehand for a chat about the transition.

Q: Rico, what were your initial thoughts upon hearing about Dan’s retirement?

Malvar: The first thought in my mind was: Who wants to see Dan go? Nobody wanted that. The second one, of course, was that I was happy that Dan has helped me and encouraged me to ramp up to this new role. I look forward to that.

Q: Dan, take a minute to reflect briefly on the highlights of your Microsoft Research career. Is there a particular moment that is most memorable for you?

Ling: The past 15 years seem to have passed by in a flash. When I look back, I’m really very proud to see what we’ve been able to accomplish, creating a research lab of international reputation and, arguably, one of the best computer-science organizations in the world. That’s a very exciting thing.

Rick Rashid, Bill Gates, and Dan Ling
Dan Ling (right), corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, meets with Rick Rashid (left), senior vice president of Microsoft Research, and Bill Gates in late February 2007.

There are a lot of highlights that come to mind. One is seeing the impact of researchers’ work on quite a number of Microsoft® products—from the very early days, when we were able to help with Windows 95® and Office 95®, to work that Rico did on compression techniques that are widely used within Microsoft today, to different kinds of programming tools that are used throughout the company as an integral part of our development processes. It’s very gratifying to see that Research work has made it into the hands of our customers and helped make our customers’ lives better.

As Research has progressed, one of things that I’ve become really very excited about is to see the development of a generation of researchers who joined fairly early on who have spent their entire research career at Microsoft Research and are now being widely recognized for their research contributions. For example, Harry Shum, who’s now the director of our research lab in China, came to us shortly after graduate school and now is widely recognized for his work in computer vision and for his work in leading the Microsoft Research Asia lab to quite incredible heights. To see somebody like that grow his entire professional career within Microsoft Research has been another very satisfying thing.

The last thing I’ll mention is my involvement in helping both Microsoft Research Asia and Microsoft Research India get started. I had a relatively small role in both of those cases, but at least being part of those organizations at the very beginning, helping them get started, and then seeing their success today has been a very exciting thing for me.

Q: Where within Microsoft Research do you think you have been able to make the greatest impact?

Ling: With any organization, the most important resource is its people. My impact has been very indirect in many ways, but helping to recruit and hire and retain outstanding people in the lab … I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do in that case, because they’re the reason why the lab is what it is. That’s where a lot of my attention has gone and where I think I’ve been able to contribute something.

Q: What do you think you’ll miss the most?

Ling: The same thing: the people and the exciting conversations I’ve enjoyed with all of them—technical conversations, brainstorming, thinking about new ideas, looking at solving difficult technical problems, thinking about what Research should do next. Those are the kinds of things that have been really, really exciting.

One thing I do every year is group reviews, where I review the projects of every single research group at the lab. Those are always some of the highlights of the year, because I get to see all this really exciting work going on and all the progress that’s been made in the past 12 months and see new projects and see the new results. It’s always a wonderful experience.

Q: Rico, describe your feelings as you transition into your new role.

Malvar: First of all, I was very happy when I was entrusted to take on this new role. Of course, I underestimated how difficult it would be: It’s really a big task. Dan has been incredibly influential in defining a very broad range of research directions for the lab and at bringing in excellent people to drive those. In the past few years, as a part of management, I have been able to help with that process.

Rico Malvar
Rico Malvar

We really have an incredible team here. I feel like somebody named me coach for the best possible football team you could dream of. It may be tough, but on the other hand, it is the best team, right? So it can’t be that difficult. And, of course, it brings a ton of excitement to me. That’s the main feeling, that it’s a difficult job, but, boy, what a team we have.

That’s really what excites me: the opportunity to work with those folks and to try my best to provide good leadership and maintain their motivation.

Q: Dan, how would you characterize Rico’s contributions to Microsoft Research and his new role within the organization?

Ling: Rico has been an incredible contributor since he joined Microsoft Research 10 years ago, first, as a technical contributor in his work, and then leading a group and demonstrating his managerial skills and leadership, and then the last three years as part of the Office of Directors. He has provided leadership to the lab as a whole, being a technical leader, a people leader, recruiting new people, motivating people. He has all the skills necessary to be an incredibly successful lab director.

Q: Rico, are you planning any changes?

Malvar: No. Since the inception of Microsoft Research, Rick and Dan have developed a culture that is incredibly successful. We give our researchers a ton of freedom to define their projects. And when we’re hiring, we also keep an eye on what motivates the researchers.

Our community of researchers and engineers is really excited about our two main goals: pushing the state of the art, making sure that we’re pushing the frontiers of what can be done in computer science and related areas, and, at the same time, not missing opportunities to see those great ideas become really influential in people’s lives. Our recruits see the opportunity: “If I join Microsoft and I have this great idea, suddenly 500 million people will be using my great idea.” We achieve that through our contribution to our products.

We continually revisit areas in which we should invest more, areas in which we need to try a little harder to hire. That’s a very dynamic process, because things are changing all the time. The company changes, the products change, our organization changes. Research directions do change: We try something, it fails. We fail all the time, because we need to—it’s research. Then we try something else.

What will change is the portfolio of projects that we will be doing. We still have many groups in many different areas, with the group managers having a lot of flexibility in defining what their groups should be doing. But in the way we operate, no, there will be no changes.

Q: When you look at the new set of tasks and responsibilities that you’ll be inheriting, what are your immediate goals? What are the first things you’ll be focusing on?

Malvar: The main thing is to make sure that folks understand that the process is the same, that we will continue to define our research priorities in terms of where we collectively think there could be a major impact. That’s not my decision to make. We don’t really use a top-down process; we use collective thinking driven by our researchers and our group and area managers.

I’ll give you one example: Mobile phones are being used more and more not just as communication tools, but as information-management tools and, in many cases, as information-producing tools. They’ve gone from something on which you can just talk to something on which you can gather information in many different ways, not just by dialing 411. That opens tremendous opportunities as a new platform for us. We constantly have to evaluate what kinds of technologies we need to put together, what kinds of new scenarios in which we see people being more effective if we provide them all these tools via cellphone.

There are many others. As we move more into services, with Live.com and other, similar initiatives, there are many more opportunities—for software services, Web services, business-to-business services.

Then there is the evolution of computers themselves. Now, we see computers having two processors, or a chip that has two processors inside, a chip that has four. Who knows where that’s going to stop? How can software be even more effective so that people can have even more functionality in their hands as they buy these more powerful processors?

Q: Dan, what will you be expecting to see from Microsoft Research in the future?

Ling: I will continue to expect that Microsoft Research will be one of the premier research organizations in the world, that it will continue to do outstanding technical work and push the state of the art forward. And I certainly expect that the organization will continue to work very closely with the Microsoft product groups and get a lot of those exciting new technologies into the hands of millions of customers.

I think another hallmark of the lab has been its involvement with academic and other research institutions around the world, and I expect that will continue, as well.

Q: Rico, from your vantage point, what’s the future of Microsoft Research look like?

Malvar: My expectations match what Dan just said. We do have a few more challenges, though. Microsoft just shipped two major products, Windows Vista™ and Office 2007. That opens to the company an opportunity to revisit, to reassess opportunities and priorities, and we are going to be part of that process. We’re working a bit harder than usual to help figure out what’s next for Office, what’s next for Windows, what’s next for software services. We’re excited about those challenges, because we see them as opportunities.