The Power Inside
As head of Microsoft Research, Rick Rashid leads a team that remains largely anonymous, but whose work finds its way into nearly every product Redmond ships.
If you get less spam than you used to, Joshua Goodman is probably a big reason why. If Bill Gates' prediction that spam will soon be a thing of the past comes true, Goodman will have had a large role in that, too.
Goodman is a Microsoft Researcher, one of about 700 worldwide, and his work in the area of e-mail and spam has been part of the effort that became Sender ID, Microsoft's flagship anti-spam technology.
Of course, you've probably never heard of Joshua Goodman or any other Microsoft researcher. But if you use Microsoft Word, Outlook, Windows Media Player or SQL Server, you're using technology from Microsoft Research (MSR).
Goodman works at the Redmond research lab, one of Microsoft's six research centers worldwide. He's been with MSR for about seven years, and his current research interests are in e-mail and spam. "The goal," he says, "is to learn what good e-mail looks like and what spam looks like." Much of his work is involved in developing algorithms to spot the "Amazing New Diet Pill!!!" ads, and to try to keep up with the endless variations spammers use to elude the spam filters he and others write.
Goodman is an MSR old-timer. When he graduated with a Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard, he was working on speech recognition, and had offers from two other labs. "They were great places, but the environment at MSR looked like it was going to be the best. There was much more opportunity here to have an impact."
|Nebojsa Jojic has been with Microsoft Research for five years, and works in the Redmond lab.
That's an attitude that separates MSR from much of the academic research community.
"The reason they [researchers] come here
is that they want to see their stuff in shipping products," says Kevin Schofield, general manager of strategy and communications for MSR, who handles the technology transfer process. "My job is to help them do that. I don't have to go around convincing them to get their stuff in shipping products."
That's certainly true of Goodman. "Our spam filter is used by [more than] 100 million people. It's fantastic to have that kind of impact."
Impact is much further down the road for other projects. Nebojsa Jojic, of the Redmond lab, has been with MSR five years. He researches machine learning, where he's developing algorithms for "data analysis of any type of data—audio signals, text or anything," he says. He worked on data analysis of graphic images for some time, and now he's working on biological data, including genetic sequencing. While he says some of his work has made it into applications, most of his current efforts won't be in a shrink-wrapped box for some time.
| Fast Facts About Microsoft Research
Employees: Approximately 700
Research Centers: Six. The main (and largest) lab, employing about 350 researchers, is in Redmond. The others, and their main areas of research:
Areas of research: MSR is currently working in about 55 different areas, a number that increases regularly.
- Microsoft Bay Area Research Center (BARC). Established in 1995, San-Francisco-based BARC comprises approximately six researchers working primarily on issues that involve scalable servers and the future of virtual communication, such as telepresence.
- Microsoft Research Cambridge (England). Research at the facility in Cambridge encompasses programming languages, security, information retrieval, operating
systems and networking. Established in July 1997, the lab has more than 75 researchers.
- Microsoft Research Asia. The lab, located in Beijing, China, was founded in 1998. Currently, more than 150 researchers are developing next-generation multimedia applications and Asia-specific computing technologies such as adapted user interfaces and language-conversion systems.
- Microsoft Research Silicon Valley. Established in August 2001 on the Microsoft campus in Mountain View, Calif., the lab now employs 25 researchers who focus on distributed computing, including privacy, security, resource location, protocols, the Internet
as a platform, reliability, availability, scalability,
management and related theory.
- Microsoft Research, India. Bangalore, India. The lab
currently has about two dozen scientists, interns and
support staff. It specializes in long-term basic and applied research, mostly in four areas—multilingual systems, technologies for emerging markets, geographical
information systems and sensor networks.
Annual budget: The total budget for Microsoft Research and Development is $6 billion to $7 billion for 2005-2006, although the lion’s share goes to development operations.
Where's the Beef?
Jojic's experience illustrates the quandry in which MSR sometimes finds itself. On the one hand, good research takes years of painstaking effort; but when there aren't a lot of obvious end results, Microsoft gets blasted for not coming out with lots of hot, industry-changing products. Some of the groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting products like the iPod and iTunes, and Google's search capabilities, were produced by much smaller companies, and Microsoft is scrambling to catch up. Think about it: When was the last time you saw an upcoming Microsoft product and said "Wicked cool!"?
That's not a fair comparison, argues Senior Vice President Rick Rashid, who oversees the research division. "Our job is to produce fundamental technologies. Pretty much any product Microsoft produces will have technology that comes from Microsoft Research."
|Roy Levin heads up the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley lab.
Rashid gives some examples. "The development of Windows Media Audio; we have better quality than MP3 at half the [file size]; high-definition video technology came out of Microsoft Research. These aren't the products. We do fundamental things, things that move the state of the art forward."
That's a phrase you hear a lot coming out of MSR: "Advancing the state of the art." It's become MSR's motto. But advancing it how? For example, Rashid points to an area he's particularly excited about, something he calls "social computing." "We're looking at all sorts of different aspects of how computers can be used to manage social groups. Something almost like a super-blogging tool that covers the space between e-mail, IM [instant messaging], blogging, sharing photos, all in one interface. It automatically builds a social network; it looks at who you've interacted with and builds a network out of that."
It Just Works Better
Roy Levin, director of MSR's Silicon Valley lab, says "there can be a huge amount of quite significant innovation going to various places in that product line that are not immediately visible at the end as individual things; it's just that it works better."
He cites the example of the Help system in Microsoft Office. "In roughly 1995, you had keyword-based lookup. Pretty straightforward technology. The natural language processing group in MSR [the oldest research group] contributed technology that did semantic analysis on the queries that were then put in the Help system. So the interface looked identical, but the pages you got back were better, because they weren't restricted to things where you had keyword matching. That's a pretty substantial change, going from string matching to semantic analysis, yet the innovation is almost transparent."
| Microsoft Research Contributions to Products
A small sampling of MSR contributions to a number of popular products.
- ClearType display technology that allows a crisper, higher-resolution display of text on ordinary LCD screens.
- MSR implemented full IPv6 functionality in the shipping version of the operating system.
- Performance optimization tool advancements optimize the load time, memory requirements and overall performance of the operating system.
- Junk-mail filter. Researchers in the Machine Learning and Applied Statistics Group first deployed this filter in MSN 8.
- Cryptography and anti-piracy improvements. Technologies from the Cryptography and Anti-Piracy Group were used to create security enhancements and provide increased protection against software piracy.
Microsoft SQL Server
- Smart tags technology automatically recognizes “factoids,” specific data such as dates, company names and locations, and enables rapid access to information from the Web, Office or third-party
applications via automatically generated links.
- Test tools generate random and complex SQL Server queries, which can more fully test and exercise the Microsoft SQL Server engine.
- Key range locking allows more users to access the database simultaneously.
- Multilevel recovery allows the system to bring itself back to a stable state even when very complex operations were only partially completed at the time of the failure.
- Concepts and team leads behind the Tablet PC originated in Microsoft Research and became a product team once it became clear that the Tablet PC was a project worth advancing.
- Digital Ink technology enables users to write directly on the Tablet screen to control their PC and to input information as handwriting or drawing.
- Several algorithms that enable handwriting and sketch recognition technology allow users to manipulate
- An advanced spam filter designed by Microsoft Research is patented technology based on a machine-learning approach, in which examples of e-mail that would be considered spam are submitted by e-mail users themselves and used to train the filter to know what to look for.
- Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) is a special project incubated within Microsoft Research focused on making everyday devices (e.g., wristwatches) better at what they do, and enabling them to provide timely, personalized information in a convenient, “glanceable” format.
- IP network probing. Xbox Live provides online gaming and uses Microsoft Research technology to help ensure that gamers get the best online experience. This technology measures the connection quality between gamers players, pairing them with others who have similar connection speeds, which ensures a more equal gaming experience.
- Technologies that build probabilistic models can be used to predict and anticipate users’ behavior, preferences and needs, allowing software to automatically customize itself to a particular user.
Outside the Pressure-Cooker
Although MSR has contributed a lot of the plumbing to products, Levin is quick to point out that the product teams don't pressure MSR to develop products to get to market. "We certainly consult when they have a problem we can help solve. We do a lot of that. And we develop new things on spec, with the expectation that they'll be attractive to the business units. But there are no year-by-year metrics that say ‘you have to transfer this amount of stuff.'"
That's another way of saying that there's a different mindset at MSR. "We're very disconnected from sales. Customers are interested in today's products; researchers are interested in ‘three-years-in-the-future' products," Levin says.
That doesn't mean the researchers are coasting along, playing Doom on their high-speed work connections. The hours for a researcher are long. Jojic estimates that he puts in 50 to 60 hours in an average week.
He describes his typical routine: "I spend a lot of time
with products and in front of the computer, adjusting algorithms. I also spend a good amount of time writing papers and traveling, working with interns, coding, answering e-mail, reviewing papers for conferences and journals."
Despite the long hours he and his colleagues put
in, there isn't a lot of turnover. "You sometimes get
overworked, but the core work is really fun," he says, "So most people just work until they get too tired, [then take a break and] get back to the trenches. We're not waiting for 5 o'clock so we can get home. I haven't met anybody in MSR that's just burned out. They might switch focus, but nobody really gets burned out."
| Research: A Primary Focus for Gates
Bill Gates always seemed to love technology first and running a business second, so it should be no surprise that he keeps a close eye on Microsoft Research (MSR). After all, it was Gates who made the expensive decision to launch MSR.
The person in charge of MSR, Senior Vice President Rick Rashid, interacts frequently with Gates. “I see Bill a lot, because I sit in on all the product reviews he does. I sit next to him several times a week for many hours. He keeps pretty good tabs on what the research group is doing.”
But that doesn’t mean Gates is calling all the shots at MSR. “Bill does not do that,” says Roy Levin, head of the Silicon Valley MSR lab. But he is around more often these days. “Bill spends more time with research than he used to. We meet with him about four times a year to present selected projects that have gotten interesting, intriguing results that are not yet ready for commercialization but are intriguing.”
The meetings, Levin says, are “Mostly an education, exposing Bill to what’s going on. He loves to think of ways to apply that research in ways the researchers may not have thought of.”
Kevin Schofield, general manager of strategy and communications for MSR, says Gates “gives us a lot of feedback on what he thinks is interesting. He’s always been very interested and involved in research.”
Gates will also seek out the researchers themselves from time to time for input. Researcher Joshua Goodman, who works on minimizing spam, says “On one hand, I’m pretty far from Bill Gates, but I’ve actually had a surprising number of chances to interact with him. We have what are called ‘BillG Reviews,’ and I’ve gone to four or five of those. Once he also sent me an e-mail asking what we should be doing about spam in general.”
MSR has had an even more personal impact on Gates, as Rashid revealed an anecdote relating to the U.S. Deptartment of Justice’s anti-trust trial. According to Rashid, Gates was depressed about how the case was going. “At the worst point of the anti-trust trial, Gates sent me an e-mail that said how much he appreciated the opportunity to work with the research team and interact with them, because it’s one of the things that gave him hope for the future. All these new things [research was working on] gave him kind of an uplift.”
Follow the Money
Part of that is due to the fact that unlike most other divisions within Microsoft, MSR doesn't have to make a profit. "Our focus is in creating new technology. It's not really a corporate-focused goal," says Rashid. Explains Schofield: "Rick [Rashid] doesn't run a profit/loss center," he says. The overall R&D budget for the coming year is between $6 billion to $7 billion, but of that R&D, according to Levin, "D gets most of it."
Precise figures were not forthcoming, but Rashid
confirmed Levin's estimate of where the lion's share of money is spent. "The vast majority [of spending] goes to building our products—Windows and Office and Xbox. Basic research is not an incredibly expensive endeavor."
But R&D isn't incredibly cheap, either, given that most of those 700 researchers have Ph.D.s. "We try to make their lives easy so they can concentrate on research," says Scho-field. "The rules are simple: If people ask for resources they need, they get them. If they ask for resources they don't need, they don't get them. We don't ask principal researchers to manage their own budgets; we don't want them focused on budgets. We want them to focus on doing great research."
To keep things simple, MSR is organized like an academic computer science department, with a flat structure. Also similar to academia, researchers are given a lot of autonomy, but Microsoft researchers might have it even better. "I have a huge amount of freedom," says Goodman. "It's an interesting thing about MSR vs. academia: [in academia], you typically have grant money you need to apply for and then have somebody approve your time [to meet grant requirements]. Here we have more freedom than we might in an academic institution."
That's by design, says Levin. "We hire researchers for their creativity, and the job of management is to provide an environment where they can exercise that creativity.
Management doesn't say "Gee, I think you should go work on this," because then it would be limited by our ideas, and that's not good."
That management style has led to a work atmosphere that Goodman describes as "laid-back intensity. It's
laid-back in that we can do whatever we want. For a lot of what we're doing we don't have deadlines, but what we do, we do in an intense way."
| Running Out of Researchers
Bill Gates must have said it four times during a recent press conference describing the state of technology research in the United States: "We're keeping smart people out of the country." He was referring to the
H-1B visa program, which limits to 65,000 the number of aliens who can work in the United States. Gates
is concerned because Microsoft relies heavily on
computer scientists from foreign countries, especially in Microsoft Research (MSR).
Gates paints a bleak picture. "At Microsoft, we're having a tougher time hiring. If you look out at the future, that's just going to get tougher. The jobs are there, they're high-paying jobs, but we're just not seeing the pipeline where it needs to be."
The H-1B visa issue is critical because there are fewer U.S. undergraduates going after computer science degrees. That will have a "trickle-up" effect in the years to come, according to Senior Vice President of Research Rick Rashid. "This year, hiring has been spectacular. These are the students that were in school when the boom started. The problem is that you look out in two years, and the number [of computer science Ph.D.s] drops by 30 percent, the year after that maybe 60 percent, and that's when you start panicking. Some of the people we've hired were in school before there were Web browsers. That's a long pipeline. In a few years, we could be in a world of trouble."
Gates concurs. "We're quite concerned that the
United States will lose its relative position in something [research and development] that's very critical to the economy. Our elite position, where we develop the best people in this country and many of the best people from other countries come here, that's certainly eroding."
|General Manager of Strategy and Communications for Microsoft Research Kevin Schofield is concerned about the narrowing pipeline of researchers.
The effect, according to Rashid, is that Microsoft Research has "grown mostly outside of the country. We have about 200 [researchers] in Beijing, about 100 in Cambridge [England], and we started a new research center in Bangalore [India]. Expansion outside of the
United States is necessary to continue growth. We'll do a significant amount
of growth in Redmond," Rashid says, but non-U.S. hiring is still seeing greater increases.
Gates says it's by necessity, though, not choice. "We're going to the top universities, but there just aren't as many graduates with that
specific type of background. We have those open positions, and it creates a dilemma for us in terms of how we get our work done."
What this means for you is that a lucrative, satisfying career in computer research awaits if you
go back to school and get your Ph.D. "We're always looking for new, smart people," says Kevin Schofield, general manager of strategy and communications for MSR. Without new blood coming in, he says, "Two to three to four years from now, we're going to be in
Getting Ideas into Products
There are some deadlines, though, and most have to do with the technology transfer process. Goodman says that "when I work with product groups, I need to do what I promised to do and get them stuff on time."
There is no formalized "technology transfer" process, though. It's mostly about relationships, says Jojic. "In the end, it's about having a relationship with a
product group, and it happens a different way in each instance." There's a lot of give and take, he continues. "The product teams come and give talks to MSR to say what they're doing next. Technology transfer is about working with someone in a product group."
Schofield echoes that sentiment. "People think that technology transfer is a Rube Goldberg contraption. It's about people, relationships, communications and trust."
One way that's facilitated is a yearly Microsoft-only trade show, where groups present their projects. Following this, Rashid says, "The product group takes the research and integrates it, moving forward." Levin says that "Rick Rashid is very well plugged in to what the product groups are doing, but the real choice of what to work on lies in the hands of the researchers."
In the end, that kind of freedom may be the key to happiness as a Microsoft researcher. As Jojic says, "It's hard to imagine I'll do anything else. It is a really good job, a really good thing to do, at Microsoft or anywhere else." Says Goodman: "It's not the easiest or most lucrative way to spend your life, but we love what we do."