“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 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.

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

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