By Janie Chang
September 26, 2011 6:30 PM PT
From a single lab established 20 years ago in Redmond, Wash., Microsoft Research has expanded to 12 facilities in nine locations around the world, encompassing 850 researchers. In preparation for the organization’s 20th anniversary, several individuals offered to share their perspectives on what it’s like to work at Microsoft Research.
Dongmei Zhang, senior researcher, Microsoft Research Asia
In the research area of software analytics, where we take a data-driven approach to improving the quality of software and services, as well as the productivity of software development, I can hardly think of any labs other than Microsoft Research that empower researchers so much—not only with access to the wealth of data from various software products, but also with opportunities to engage deeply with product teams in conducting research to overcome real-world challenges.
Microsoft Research also provides great support when it comes to technology transfer. Our group collaborates closely with multiple research and product teams in Microsoft, and we have researched, developed, and deployed software-analytics tools with high business impact that have been transferred successfully to product teams. It is so satisfying when we see our research results generating a huge impact on Microsoft products that become integral to our society at large.
I love the research environment at Microsoft Research Asia, which was once named the “hottest computer lab” by Technology Review. Microsoft Research is the “hottest” lab because of the passion, vibrancy, and energy of the staff and management. But I also think it is the “coolest” lab, because of its incomparable achievements in research and technology innovation. It is a privilege for me to work for Microsoft Research!
I joined Microsoft Research in 2009, but my association with it started as a graduate student. With so many prominent researchers in my field working at Microsoft Research, the gravity of their work was already pulling me there. I interned twice at different Microsoft Research labs: Redmond and India. Each experience helped me grow tremendously as a researcher and also helped define my thesis topic. No wonder, then, that I was not just excited but thrilled to take up my first job at Microsoft Research India. The journey that followed has not disappointed.
I am part of a strong programming-languages group called Rigorous Software Engineering, started and now managed by Sriram Rajamani. I have freedom to pick my own direction, to define my own agenda, and to build a team for pushing the state-of-the-art technology. The lab environment is very friendly and supportive, but, at the same time, provides critical feedback on our work to help us improve continuously. We are challenged, as well as encouraged, to publish in top conferences and journals and to have an impact on the research community at large.
I've collaborated with some great people across multiple labs. My main project, Poirot, is in close collaboration with Shaz Qadeer at the Redmond lab. Some days, I have meetings in the early morning or late night (or both). At Microsoft Research, fun, excitement, and research goes on around the clock!
I consider myself a serial entrepreneur. Over the past 20 years, I founded four startups with two successful exits, held executive positions, consulted, and invested in tens of startups. Then I got an offer to join Microsoft as a director of the Innovation Labs in Israel. It took me less than 24 hours to make up my mind. People who knew me were amazed that a non-corporate guy would cross the border and join Microsoft!
My role at Innovation Labs gives me an environment where I can make an impact, focus on creation, and maybe even change the world. For the first time, I can manage and direct a group of startups the way I have always dreamed of doing. I work with the most brilliant minds in the industry, I have unlimited access to the most up-to-date research, source code, markets and customers, and work in the greatest environment.
In my eyes, innovation is an inseparable part of research, and Microsoft Research is a unique mixture of ideas, people, and platforms that combine to create a greenhouse where we can develop ideas and make concepts come true. I have an amazing team, and there is so much to do, so much to learn, and so much to explore, but I know that when we succeed in delivering an innovative concept, tens of millions of users will use it. It is a glorious feeling.
Ahmed Tolba, principal group manager, Cairo Microsoft Innovation Center
Why do I work at Microsoft Research? This is a seemingly innocent question whose multifaceted answer is so big I hardly know where to begin. I will start with Egypt, where the Cairo Microsoft Innovation Center (CMIC) is truly one of the best places to work. It’s a place where I can continue to work for Microsoft, as I have for 12 years, and live in a country I adore. This has been especially true after the Egyptian revolution. I believe I have a lot to offer in transferring the culture of openness and innovation that one lived by in Redmond. This is my way of helping both Egypt and Microsoft.
Next is the dynamic, fast-paced mode at CMIC, where you get to work like a startup but with the resources of a big company. It’s even better when you started part of the lab, and being one of the first two employees in the development arm of CMIC, I can safely claim so! There is nothing more exciting than serving on the leadership board of an entity such as CMIC.
Last, but not least, I will mention something I believe is an attribute of Microsoft Research culture in general—we have the freedom to think drastically and think differently, as well as the ability to explore beyond the bounds of the conventional.
Ivo Santos, software-design engineer, European Microsoft Innovation Center
Working at Microsoft was a dream I’ve had since my school days. I remember a teacher, intrigued by my passion for computers and technology, telling my parents that one day I would work for Bill Gates. Well, I’m very glad she was right!
I did two exciting internships at the Microsoft Research Database Group in Redmond. In the first, I worked on a mapping-compilation technology in the context of the ADO.NET Entity Framework, and in the second, I contributed to a project that eventually became Microsoft StreamInsight. The brilliant people I worked with inspired me to pursue full-time employment at Microsoft. I found myself energized by the depth and the breadth of the researchers’ work. It’s rare to find research institutions with such deep intellectual thinking and rich diversity of research interests.
I have been at the European Microsoft Innovation Center (EMIC) for three years. People sometimes ask: Why did you abandon warm and sunny Brazil for the rainy grey skies of Germany? The answer is simple: EMIC provides opportunities to investigate important topics in data analytics in a way that places an emphasis on delivering “real world” value. At EMIC, we maintain strong connections with Microsoft product groups, as well as Microsoft researchers, relationships that offer intriguing intellectual and business challenges. And we do occasionally have some nice, sunny days in Aachen.
Joining Microsoft Research was the best career choice I could ever have made. It is an honor, and I look forward to being part of the next 20 years of innovation and impact!
I joined Microsoft Research in 2006 after 10 years of working on the product-development side of the company. I’m an interaction designer, and I’d found myself constantly drawn toward the conceptual side of the process, of thinking broadly about the future, so a move to the world of research seemed natural.
Microsoft Research has given me a nice amount of freedom to pursue directions in interface design that are fascinating, fulfilling, and unexpected. A lot of industrial research facilities precisely mirror their company’s business divisions. This constrains them to reinforce what that company does and doesn’t challenge employees to think about new domains and opportunities. Microsoft Research, by contrast, does true fundamental research, providing a complement to what the rest of the company does while also pushing it to think about spaces it might not have considered otherwise.
My own team, for example, provides new insights and inspiration for products that handle digital photos and file management or deal with sharing and storage, while at the same time challenging the company to think more broadly about issues of digital ownership and the sentimental nature of objects of legacy—which can be at odds with the sometimes harsh experiences of technology. This is the contrasting nature of Microsoft Research that I love. It is both a supporter and disrupter.
Richard Banks’ bookThe future of looking back, about issues of legacy, memory, and our digital world, is available from Microsoft Press.
As I was finishing my graduate work at Berkeley, I couldn't imagine that Microsoft Research would be interested in social science research like mine, but through some miracle, they were. I jumped at the opportunity to come to the New England lab and help build a community of social science scholars focused on social media issues.
Every day, I'm thankful for being here because of the amazing community, research support, and intellectual freedom available. I collaborate with scholars from varied disciplines and have the most amazing boss: Jennifer Chayes. I work on complex social science puzzles that span diverse methodological and theoretical traditions. I've been able to look at how technology complicates privacy, human trafficking, and teen dramas; I've been able to analyze the methodological issues associated with ”big data” and interrogate assumptions in U.S. policies, such as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Most importantly, my efforts to inform the public, challenge assumptions in technology development, and shape public policy with research are supported and encouraged. I get to be both a scholar and a public intellectual.
Once, I joked with Rick Rashid that, in hiring me, he was diluting his computer-science department with fuzzy social scientists. He looked at me with all sincerity and said, “No, you're the future of computer science.” I fell in love with Microsoft Research all over again.
As a researcher, I love to create, learn, and innovate. Since joining Microsoft Research in early 2006, I have been able to do just that in a variety of projects that range from automated diagnosis in the context of very large distributed systems to code-cloning detection and security. These collaborations have expanded my horizons and enabled me to deepen my knowledge and innovate in own my area of expertise, namely, probabilistic reasoning and statistical machine learning.
Over the past five years, I have grown as a scientist and as a researcher and become more ambitious with the scope of my research. I am constantly excited by the knowledge that the results of these projects have the possibility of touching and benefiting millions of people around the world through Microsoft products.
I feel very fortunate that I am able to mingle with top-notch scientists in computer science and engineering—and we are talking Turing Award winners, National Academy of Sciences members, and National Academy of Engineering members—on a regular basis and to learn from them in a collegial environment where collaboration is encouraged and rewarded. I come to work every morning feeling like a curious kid in an enormous playground, where new toys are waiting to be discovered, created, and engineered.
I chose to join Microsoft Research to work with Susan Dumais and Eric Horvitz. I had interned with them previously, and was impressed by their intelligence, passion, and insight. More generally, I came because I was really excited by the breadth and depth of knowledge of the 850 world-class researchers in the lab. I love that it is always easy for me to identify potential collaborators, regardless of topic. Plus, with all the interns and visiting researchers that come through the lab, I pretty much get to collaborate with the entire field!
Beyond Microsoft Research, there are also opportunities to work with people across the entire company. Through the product groups, I get access to amazing ideas, problems, and data, and the opportunity to help shape the lives of millions of people with my research.
I also came to Microsoft Research because of its freedom and flexibility. We are encouraged to explore and take risks; several times, what I thought was a tangent became a primary research thrust. I like that there are many different roles I can assume over the course of my career, focusing for significant periods of time on anything from academic research to product transfer to teaching and community leadership.
Flexibility also means I never have to choose between my children and my career. It is easy for me to adjust my schedule as needed, working from home, for example, or bringing my children with me to conferences.
I moved to Microsoft Research Redmond after 10 years at the University of Texas. Many colleagues asked about the move, since my core area is more peripheral to Microsoft's main software businesses than many of its other research areas. But Microsoft Research offers unparalleled opportunity at this particular moment in our field. We sit at a convergence of powerful trends: the shift to natural user interfaces, the move to mobility, the rise of big data, changes in the hardware ecosystem, the emergence of cloud computing, personalized digital services, and new device form factors. More than any other, Microsoft is the company that spans the areas needed to weave these trends into an exciting, integrated new future of computing.
Many of the clichés about Microsoft Research—being packed with amazing people, providing the freedom to take big risks, being one of history's great industrial research labs—are (thankfully) all true. Working in Microsoft Research allows researchers to partner with Microsoft's amazing product divisions to shape what comes next. The company with the most assets needed to define this future of computing just happens to have a powerful research division. I cannot imagine a more exciting time to be a researcher in computing science and a better perch from which to maximize the impact of our research.
Juliana Salles, senior research program manager,Microsoft Research Connections
I totally enjoy working at Microsoft Research. I feel privileged to work with people whom I respect and admire. It is exciting to interact with people from several geographies and backgrounds, with such a wide range of expertise and who are so willing to collaborate and engage on new opportunities. I love technology and how it impacts people’s lives, and at Microsoft Research, we are always thinking about technology in new, unanticipated ways.
I have the opportunity to collaborate with scientists from other fields at top universities on problems that I find relevant and compelling. I am constantly learning about new areas and exploring how technology can help solve problems in areas such as bioenergy, climate change, and global warming. Not only do I learn about these problems, I also manage to provide input (believe it or not!) and study how technology can help us better understand the issues. Each day brings a new intellectual challenge, and I enjoy the opportunity to push my own limits.
Through Microsoft Research, I connect with interesting people, I’m exposed to new ways of using and thinking about technology, and I face new and interesting problems. It is a lot of fun!
Tom Laird-McConnell, principal software-development engineer, Future Social Experiences (FUSE) Labs
I have been at Microsoft since 1989 and have had the opportunity to work in wide-ranging product areas such as systems networking, audio and photo applications, children’s software, Windows Search, mobile computing, and cloud computing. The common thread in all of those diverse experiences is the love of exploring new technologies and building “version one” projects.
FUSE Labs is the best possible place in the world for someone like me. It provides the intellectual freedom to explore new ideas, coupled with a day-to-day building of real shipping code unconstrained by a single product or divisional focus. One of the projects I’m most proud of is Desktop Search, a five-person project that we released to over a million people in about six months and which has been integrated into the Windows operating system, Outlook, and other personal data stores. My work in Desktop Search showed me how it’s possible to take ideas, leverage the power of Microsoft, and then continue to expand and innovate.
Our team takes an iterative approach to projects. We believe the biggest insights happen during the messy process of trying to build a real solution to a problem. This is a very startup approach, and it is this culture inside Microsoft, coupled with Microsoft Research’s world-class expertise, that provides exactly what I am looking for: intellectual challenge and the opportunity to change the world.
Natalya Butterworth, marketing and communications coordinator, Microsoft Research Cambridge
It’s a Celebration
20 years of new ideas,
Of future gazing,
Of wow, it’s amazing what you can do,
With an algorithm or two.
20 years of alpha testing,
Beta launching, never resting,
In the quest for innovation.
It’s a celebration.
20 years of compiling, of conquering the beguiling,
Of developing, programming, mapping,
Of “I want to do that” and making it happen.
Patents and copyrights,
Late nights, de-bugging,
Mining or coding while coffee mug hugging.
Making a difference.
Researchers, scientists, devs, engineers,
Collaboration with peers.
Of minds and machines,
Making a reality of dreams.