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

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incredible energy, incredible drive, and an ability to get other people really excited about things. Those are the people you’re looking for when you think about how do you make of these research labs go.

Starting a research lab is actually a pretty hard thing. You have to attract the right people, but in the early days, there isn’t anybody else—you are really just selling yourself and your enthusiasm. I think you have to have Jennifer’s kind of energy and optimism. I’ve been really lucky that over the years, as we’ve started each of our labs, we’ve been able to get each one of them off on the right foot and really keep them moving with great people. I keep crossing my fingers but it keeps working out.

X: And in Chayes’ case, it sounds like she is bringing a very strong partner and lab co-founder in Christian Borgs.

RR: Yes, I think that’s a great thing, too. If you look at Jennifer’s background and Christian’s, they are the kind of people who take intellectual risks. Some of the things they’ve looked at are ideas that cross disciplines, from discrete mathematics to physical sciences. That’s a risky thing to do, because sometimes people look at you and say “You’re not x, and you’re not y, so you’re not one of us.” But doing this kind of cross disciplinary work with all its synergies is really very important.

X: Yes, speaking of that, Chayes told me earlier today that she wants to make sure that everyone they hire in the new lab has a belief in interdisciplinary research and a respect for people across the hall, even though they may not understand what they do.

RR: That’s something that’s been a hallmark of our organization from its early days. It’s one of the strengths of Microsoft Research that we bring people together from very different backgrounds and have people who, as individuals, have expertise in a number of different areas. You get a lot of interesting innovation that way.

X: It seems like the kind of research that Chayes and Borgs do—for example, bringing network and graph theory to bear on understanding social networks on the Internet, how people interact online, and how to find them the information they want—is going to be increasingly important to Microsoft as a company, especially as more and more of its product offerings are delivered via the Web. Would you agree?

RR: I would step back and put it even a little bit more broadly. We are in a world that has just vast amounts of information that if brought together in the right ways can be incredibly valuable to people. When you think about the opportunities to deliver better health care, to plan an manage our cities and handle our traffic, to deal with our energy problems and environmental issues—so much of this is boiling down to these vast collections of very complex data with complex interactions. And it’s really driving the value of the algorithms used to process and understand that. As a business asset, those algorithms become very important.

The Internet is part of that, but there are many other kinds of networks of data and information that we’re starting to build. And as we try to analyze and process that information, this mathematical work that has historically been very theoretical and abstract can become really valuable.

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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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