Out the Window
The closing of MSR-SV two months ago raised a fair bit of discussion, and I would like to contribute some of my own thoughts. Since the topic of industrial research is important, I would like the opportunity to counter some misconceptions that have spread. I would also like to share my advice with anyone that (like me) is considering an industrial research position (and anyone that already has one).
On Thursday 09/18/2014, an urgent meeting was announced for all but a few in MSR-SV. The short meeting marked the immediate closing of the lab. By the time the participants came back to their usual building, cardboard boxes were waiting for the prompt packing of personal items (to be evacuated by the end of that weekend). This harsh style of layoffs was one major cause for shock and it indeed seemed unprecedented for research labs of this sort. But I find the following much more dramatic: Microsoft, like many other big companies, frequently evaluates its employees. A group of researchers that were immensely valuable according to Microsoft’s own metric just a couple of months before were thrown out to the hands of Microsoft’s competitors that were more than happy to oblige. Similarly, previously valued research projects were carelessly lost (quite possibly to be picked up by others). Excellence as defined by Microsoft did not protect you, impact did not protect you (among the positions eliminated were researchers that saved Microsoft ridiculously large sums of money, enough to pay for the entire lab for many years). Since Microsoft is publicly claiming “business as usual” (which should mean that the evaluation metric didn’t change), and since Microsoft was performing a relatively moderate force reduction (of roughly 5% of its non-Nokia workforce), I still find it all very hard to understand.
Why MSR-SV and Why not?
It is my opinion that no substantial explanation for the closing was given by Microsoft’s representatives to the general public and (as far as I have been told) to current Microsoft employees. In the absence of reliable official explanation, rumors and speculations flourished. What should be made absolutely clear is that MSR-SV was not closed for lack of impact. The lab had huge impact in all dimensions including impact measured in dollars.
It is true that some cannot understand how the academic-style model of MSR-SV could be beneficial for a company. But it seems amateurish to base business decisions on perception rather than reality. Indeed, previous management of MSR and Microsoft resisted pressures from outside of Microsoft to change MSR. The current management seems to be changing course.
This is indeed my own speculation – MSR is changing its nature and therefore chose to close the lab that embodied in the purest form what MSR is moving away from, sending a strong internal and external signal. I don’t know that this is the case, but any other explanation I heard characterizes parts of the management of MSR and Microsoft as either incompetent or malicious. There is every reason to believe that these are all bright individuals, and that the decision was carefully weighed (taking into account all the obvious internal and external consequences). I only wish they would own up to it.
Don’t Call it the “MSR Model “
There was a lot of discussion about the MSR model vs. the model of other industrial research labs. This is somewhat misguided: MSR is very large and hosts a lot of models. This is absolutely fine – a company like Microsoft has the need for all sorts of research, and different talents need different outlets. But this also means that the claim that “nothing really happened, we still have about 1000 PhDs” is not the whole truth. There is no other MSR-SV in MSR. There are of course other parts of MSR that share the MSR-SV philosophy, but they are now more isolated than before.
Empower Researchers and Engineers Alike
I encourage you to read Roy Levin’s paper on academic-style industrial labs. This is a time-tested formula which Roy, with his unique skills and vision and his partnership with Mike Schroeder, managed to perfect over the years . Microsoft’s action takes nothing off Roy’s success. See Roy’s addendum below giving due credit to Bob Taylor.
If I want to summarize the approach, I would do it in two words: empower researchers. Empower them to follow their curiosity and to think long term. Empower them to collaborate freely. Empower them to stay an active part of the scientific community. When brilliant researchers with a desire to impact have such freedom to innovate, then great things happen (as proven by MSR-SV).
On the other hand, to be fair, other companies seem to be much better than Microsoft in empowering engineers to innovate and explore. This is wonderful and I admire these companies for it. In fact, the impediment for even more impact by MSR-SV was not the lack of incentive for researchers to contribute (we were highly motivated), but rather the incentive structure of some of the product groups we interacted with in which innovation was not always sufficiently rewarded.
The Cycle of Industry Labs.
Different companies need different things out of their research organizations (and some are successful without any research organization to speak of). I have no shred of criticism of other models, as long as companies are honest about them when recruiting employees.
I would still argue that the success of MSR-SV is evidence that “Roy’s model” is extremely powerful. This model facilitated impact that would have been impossible in other models.
Some companies cannot afford such long term investment but other companies cannot afford not making such an investment. Indeed, in many of the companies I talked with there is a growing understanding of the need for more curiosity-driven long-term research.
I am reminded that when AT&T Research (of which I was a part) suffered brutal layoffs, people mourned the end of “academic-style research” in industry. This didn’t happen then and it will not happen now, simply since the need for this style of research exists.
Job Security is the Security to Find a New Job
Given the above, it should be clear that being applied or even having an impact does not guarantee job security in industry. I saw it in the collapse of AT&T research many years ago. People that did wonderful applied work were the first to go (once corporate decided to change its business model). Predicting the future in industry is impossible, and there are many examples. I do not trust the prophecies of experts (they are mainly correct in retrospect). I also think that industry employees should avoid the danger of trusting the internal PR. Even when the “internal stories” are the result of good intentions (rather than cynical manipulation), they do not hold water when the time comes. If I blame myself for anything, it is only for taking some of the MSR management statements at face value.
So what should industry employees do? First, decide if you can live with uncertainty. Then, make sure that your current job serves your next job search (whether in industry or academia). Don’t trust management to take care of you, nor should you wait for Karma to kick in. This in particular means that not every industry job serves every career path and that one should be vigilant in preserving external visibility – whether it is via publishing, open source, or just contribution to projects that are understood externally.
Finally one point about the open letter to Microsoft from a group of outstanding academics. This letter was not about the group of alumni MSR-SV employees. It is true that individuals whose career path is inconsistent with other industry jobs were put in a difficult position. But we will all land on our feet eventually, and we have no justification to indulge in self-pity. The letter was about the unwritten contract between academia and MSR which have arguably been broken. It was about understanding in which direction MSR is going, and accordingly what the new form of collaboration possible between academia and MSR can be. It was an attempt to start a discussion and it is a shame it was not answered more seriously.
Addendum by Roy Levin:
I want to add a small but important clarification to Omer’s post. The research environment of MSR Silicon Valley, which Mike Schroeder and I had the privilege of founding and managing, was inspired by Bob Taylor, for whom both of us worked at Xerox PARC and DEC SRC. The paper I wrote about research management, which Omer cited, describes how we applied Taylor’s deep understanding of research management in MSR Silicon Valley. (Indeed, my paper is chiefly an elaboration of a short paper Taylor co-authored in 2004.) Thus, MSR Silicon Valley was founded on proven models for corporate research, and they were not dramatically different from the broader MSR model that had been in place since Rick Rashid started MSR in 1991. Mike and I refined and reinterpreted what we had learned from Bob Taylor in previous labs (which Omer generously calls “perfecting” the model). Bob was the master, and we were his disciples.