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Out the Window

November 24, 2014

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).

What?

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.

Academia’s Reaction

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.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. kamouna permalink
    November 24, 2014 4:15 pm

    Did any one read:”Barbarians Led by Bill Gates”? This title answers all questions you addressed.

    Rafee Kamouna

    • November 24, 2014 5:36 pm

      I’d be happy to keep the discussion about issues rather than individuals. But since Gate’s name was mentioned I would say that (from what I have heard) he deserves a lot of credit for MSR as it was (in contrast to where it is headed).

  2. November 24, 2014 4:46 pm

    Could it be as simple as having to cut 5% from MSR and they chose to focus on one lab as opposed to 5% in every lab?

    • November 24, 2014 5:33 pm

      One may doubt the wisdom of removing a well-functioning organ instead of trimming a bit of fat. I know it makes the life of the lawyers easier, but I doubt that management would take this step if they appreciated what they had.

  3. November 24, 2014 6:44 pm

    I guess MSR New England is the closest lab to SVC in terms of style. Do you think the researchers there should be worried?

    • November 24, 2014 8:31 pm

      I have no tools to predict but I wish everyone in MSR all the best. In particular good luck to my dear friends in MSR-NE.

  4. November 24, 2014 9:49 pm

    “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.”

    Are there really any industrial labs now who do academic style research? As a CS theory Ph.D. student do we have any industrial lab academic style research options left?

    • November 25, 2014 4:31 am

      I wish I had a good answer. There is a range of industrial research organizations with different characters. I will be happy to give my best advice directly if you contact me by email.

  5. kuhlmann permalink
    November 24, 2014 10:16 pm

    What was the saving grace of “the few” who were not laid off? The Turing award?

  6. November 24, 2014 10:29 pm

    Reblogged this on Kenkyuu and commented:
    A thoughtful piece on industrial labs and research styles. My favorite bit is the part about “empowering researchers”. All the managers dealing with researchers should read the paper of Roy Levin [http://msrsvc.org/roylevin/osrresearchmgmt.pdf].

  7. November 25, 2014 1:56 am

    this is great in its conclusive summarizing and plaintive openness and inside view near-verging on “airing dirty laundry” which blogging as a medium can sometimes be quite adept and colorful at. however, some presumptuousness seems to be seen here, but hedging that also, it is also quite widespread in reaction in the blogosphere to this striking event (eg scott aaronson etc).

    how do you imagine that you can measure the “impact” of ms svc and even assert that it is substantial? even the CEOs of tech companies, hiring committees, and chairmen of departments cannot precisely measure impact of research (ie both inside & outside academia). its inexact and to pretend otherwise is a bit naive. despite significant new advances such as citation analysis theory/ practice it will forever be subject to controversy. (just look at the recent commotion that brewed over a ranking of CS departments).

    unfortunately many in academia & outside have that same misconception. (one has to look at psychology of human judgement/ decisionmaking to better understand this phenomenon.) you say MS made the decision based on “perception and not reality”. you assert MS SVC research saved the company big piles of money. these are questions that even highly expert administrators in corporations armed with massive data and spreadsheets cannot definitively measure or quantify.

    lets face it, there is an elite class of administrators inside corporations, hidden from view, that make massive decisions that impact peoples lives, and despite quite a bit of writing on the subject already all over the blogosphere & some in the media, its a black box which we will possibly not ever be able to peer into. some of those decisions are not made based on anything quantitative but in terms of just what might be called “elite hunches” aka SWAGs. it would be nice to add some transparency to this, but thats a fact of the nature of 21st century corporations that there might be some small advances (such as blog writing) but overall its quite a quixotic, losing battle. aka “boiling the ocean”…. heres hoping more becomes known about why MS SVC really got the short straw, but right now after a few months, those that really know arent telling. so… any enterprising investigative reporters out there? theres a real story here to tell, but so far no takers (and it may be an impossible assignment anyway).

    my own attempt to collect lots of online angles is here

  8. Anonymous permalink
    November 25, 2014 3:52 am

    Two points 1. A sense of being jilted comes through in the post – “cardboard boxes were waiting for the prompt packing of personal items ” However, the relationship in both directions is at will. MSR-SVC Silicon Valley researchers would promptly depart for the next Google or Facebook given the right remuneration so why be so aghast. Also getting from a Thu to “the end of that weekend” to pack belongings is quite generous, in most companies employees are not allowed back in and their belonging are placed outside for pick up.
    2. Theory researcher seem to have an inflated sense of self. Claims that they added billions of dollars in value to their employer are self-aggrandizing and false. If indeed their efforts amounted to such large amounts they should consider this lay-off a godsend and utilize the opportunity by doing their own start-up and extracting this value for their personal gain. For the most part theoreticians keep inventing new problems and “solving” them which is little more than the framing of a contrived problem around a variant on a known technique. They are the undeserving (and ungrateful) beneficiaries of an IT bubble.

  9. November 25, 2014 4:27 am

    I would like to remind the readers that the standard of discussion on this blog is that comments need to be respectful (even if in complete disagreement with the post) and to the point (in particular, it is not much to expect that commentators read the post before reacting). So far I approved all comments but I will stop doing so if random rants start drowning the more serious discussion. As mentioned in the “About” page, stricter norms will be applied to anonymous commentators.

  10. November 25, 2014 11:58 pm

    Can you please add specifics about the “dollar impact” of the theoretical research at MSR-SV? I have heard lots of vague rumors about this, but I think a concrete example (or two!) would interest many of us.

    • November 26, 2014 12:22 am

      Note that I did not say anything in the post about theoretical work, and indeed this was not a theory lab and had a range of research from the very applied to the very theoretical. Measuring impact in dollars is not always easy, but one clear example is the work of Parikshit Gopalan and Sergey Yekhanin and others which revolutionized the way cloud storage is done. In particular, this helped Azure reduce the redundancy in cloud storage while guaranteeing reliability. You can see the public side of this work in Parikshit’s page. Here the dollar value is much easier to compute – compare the operational costs under both methods. I am not at liberty to mention sums, but they are huge. Another example for impact is a group of first-rate theoreticians that developed the most remarkable maps technology (and they developed it all the way to product level). There are many more examples (certainly when one takes into account the entire lab rather than only the theoreticians). Another dollar measure of the strength of the group is the dollar increase in the salaries of MSR-SV alumni now that the rest of industry is competing for their services.

      • November 26, 2014 1:28 am

        I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of this, but according to the home page of Cheng Huang ( http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/chengh/ , a collaborator on the project of Parikshit and Sergey), the project Omer mentioned yielded “100s of millions of dollars” to Microsoft.

        This is of course only one project among many in the lab, and while it is a great one (not just in monetary but also in scientific impact as well), there were many other ones great ones arising from this lab. In particular the notion of “differential privacy” has had (and will undoubtedly have more) tremendous impact across several fields and areas of practice. We should remember that even in industry, as witnessed by many decades of labs following the “Taylor model”, one should not focus only on the dollar impact of research.

      • abc def permalink
        November 26, 2014 3:54 am

        “Another dollar measure of the strength of the group is the dollar increase in the salaries of MSR-SV alumni now that the rest of industry is competing for their services.”

        This would indeed be a good measure, but alas there is almost zero chance of this being publicly known.

      • November 26, 2014 4:32 am

        This was not meant as a practical suggestion, just a reflection of my observation.

  11. MSR employee permalink
    November 26, 2014 2:01 pm

    I have a predicament as a current MSR employee in another lab. I love your post and agree that the leadership made a profoundly poor decision in closing SVC. Furthermore, I sense a general feeling that the “right thing” to do is to leave MSR. Would leaving MSR be a statement of solidarity with friends at SVC, and would staying passively imply agreeing with the decision to close SVC? Or is it the other way around: is leaving now putting myself in competition with friends from SVC who may be looking for jobs? I don’t think the answer is a clear-cut one, but I’d love to hear thoughts.

    • November 26, 2014 3:05 pm

      Thank you! Solidarity is a beautiful and powerful sentiment that I wish would take a larger role in our modern societies. But this is not the place to exercise it!! I beg of you to think only of yourself and your loved ones when making a decision either way. I didn’t hear any of my SVC colleagues expressing any other expectation (except perhaps with respect to the leaders of MSR, which I do not necessarily share). I think current employees of MSR deserve the same empathy we got (it reminds me of the frog in boiling water story). In fact, I wish MSR can stay a great research organization. In my opinion, it will require the leadership (in the entire chain of command) to commit to a clear and detailed vision for where MSR is going, and to give employees enough time to adjust or find other employment. It will simply require leadership that as of yet seems to be missing in action.

      • MSR employee permalink
        December 1, 2014 5:47 am

        Thanks, Omer (…confirming my impression that you’re the nicest guy in the world)

      • December 1, 2014 7:46 pm

        just a second … updating my cv … 😉

  12. Anonymous permalink
    December 3, 2014 9:56 am

    Great post. Time to change name of the blog?

    • December 3, 2014 11:11 pm

      Thanks! We thought of changing the name, but I think we like “Windows on Theory” (independent of the wordplay).

  13. Eric permalink
    April 8, 2015 11:30 pm

    Well said.

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