“An Incredible Intellectual Environment”—Research VP Rick Rashid on Microsoft’s New Cambridge Lab

Microsoft announced yesterday that by July Cambridge, MA, will be home to the fifth R&D outpost outside the company’s Redmond, WA, headquarters, joining existing Microsoft Research facilities in Silicon Valley, Beijing, China, Cambridge, England, and Bangalore, India. The new lab, to be located at One Memorial Drive adjacent to the MIT campus and led by mathematical physicist and 10-year Microsoft veteran Jennifer Chayes, will focus in part on blending computational and social-sciences approaches to understanding the needs and behaviors of people within online social networks.

Late yesterday I reached Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s senior vice president of research and the man who has been overseeing the growth of Microsoft Research worldwide since 1994, to ask about how the company decided to place a lab in Cambridge and what value he hopes it can create for the software giant.

Xconomy: Why put a research lab in Cambridge now, as opposed to, say, five years ago?

Rick Rashid: For us, what makes this a good time is simply that Microsoft as a company has been growing its presence in the Boston area. Before, if you’d tried to put a research lab there, there would have been wonderful universities to talk to, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been anchored in other parts of the company. Now with the really substantial, growing presence the company has there, it really makes sense. And we’ve been getting an incredibly enthusiastic response from within Microsoft—from people in the Boston area. Now that Microsoft Research is going to have a lab there, it gives them access to more really smart people and really great ideas. I think everybody is excited about what that could produce.

X: Why here? What makes Cambridge an attractive place for Microsoft to have a research center?

RR: One of the key things is that obviously, there is this incredible intellectual environment in the Boston-Cambridge area, and really in the Northeast in general. When we site our labs you have to think about, what are the opportunities to recruit and bring great people into the lab, and what are the opportunities to collaborate and work together with others? Being right next to MIT, near Harvard, not that far from Brown, not that far from New York, that will open up a lot of new collaboration opportunities and access to faculty and students. And clearly we will be able to hire some great people there. The way I think about research labs, first and foremost research programs are about people—the quality of the people you’re getting. It’s not like a product group. You are not hiring them to do something specific. What you’re doing is hiring for opportunities, hiring for the future. The people you bring in are really the critical resource that makes it go, or not.

X: The vision that Jennifer Chayes and her husband and deputy managing director, Christian Borgs, have outlined, of a lab where theoretical math will overlap with sociology and psychology and economics, would make it pretty unique among the system of Microsoft Research labs, wouldn’t it?

RR: The personality of each of our locations is really determined by its people. Jennifer and Christian, they have a vision, and there are things they’ll be doing, and that’s certainly going to have an impact.

But also, over time, we’ll have opportunities to hire great people who may be in very different areas. If they find some incredible person that that may be somewhat off the direction they may have been thinking about, I would still encourage them to hire that person, because that’s the way you win. You draft for the quality of the player, not for the position, or because you have some great plan for the team.

That said, having a lab in Boston will bring us access to some incredible people in a number of the areas that Jennifer is talking about.

X: What makes Chayes the kind of person you’d want to appoint to start a Microsoft Research outpost?

RR: Have you met Jennifer, face to face? If you had, you probably wouldn’t ask that question. She’s brilliant, first off. That’s a critical criterion. But also, she’s one of these people that has … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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