“The Best Place in the World” for Interdisciplinary Research: A Talk with Microsoft’s Jennifer Chayes

9/23/08Follow @wroush

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connecting with the people from the disciplines whose phenomena we are trying to describe. We have to understand how people are truly interacting over social networks, what their motivations are, how you put incentives into a system, how you understand the incentives implicit in a system, and the unintended incentives in a system.

It’s already been fantastic. For example, we have an incredible economist visiting us, Susan Athey from Harvard. She is an expert on auctions and she advises governments on large-scale auctions like FCC spectrum auctions, and now she’s getting into the auctions used to sell ads on search engines. She’s working with our data now, and Microsoft is completely open to considering modifications of our own [online ad auction] algorithms based on what she sees.

X: It’s great to see you hiring people like danah boyd, but she’s really an ethnographer and an observer. I’m not sure how easily you can translate her findings about adolescents on MySpace into algorithms that might eventually turn up in products at Microsoft.

JC: I’m not talking about product development. I’m not a ‘let’s see what widget we can build tomorrow’ person. And that’s not the kind of people that Rick hires. If we have a really great idea, we are going to want to see it go into a product. But we are not hiring danah for that. I think that danah is coming here for the same reason I came here—this is a place where she will be able to expand the boundaries of her research. If she were going to an academic department, she would have to do much more mainstream work to make sure she got tenure. And that is not necessarily what is going to lead to the best work. She should be allowed to flow wherever her instincts take her, and she has very unconventional instincts. Microsoft Research is the kind of place where that will thrive.

X: I asked Rick Rashid this question earlier today—in an open-ended environment like the one you’re talking about, with no commitment to finish a product, how do you evaluate the success of your researchers?

JC: The same way I would evaluate the success of a faculty member if I were still in academia—by the impact a person has. Have they advanced the state of the art? Maybe in some cases they have had an impact on a Microsoft product, but that is not the only way to excel here by any means. I would rather my researchers have a tremendous intellectual impact than build a better widget. It would not be constructive to hire researchers to do product development, anyway—we hire amazing product developers to develop products.

We do make sure than when we find something that would improve our products, it gets deployed. That’s what separates us from a Bell Labs or a Xerox PARC. But our value is in the big ideas and the changes in perspective. What drives us is trying to see over the horizon and trying to help create that future, and making sure that Microsoft is part of it.

X: And one level up—how do you measure the success of a Microsoft research outpost, whether it’s in this Cambridge or the other Cambridge, or even Beijing?

JC: We’re looking for impact on the academic community, impact on Microsoft, and collaboration across laboratories. But to demand that on any short time scale is not the right way to do it. It’s not really different from academia—if you ask that a faculty member have impact on a short time scale, you are going to encourage second-rate work. In fact, danah talks in her blog about her decision to come to us, and she poses herself the questions that she thinks people are going to be asking, and she says she’s looking at her colleagues in academia who are jumping through hoops trying to get grants. And if you look at the time scales on which academics have to produce these days, I would say those are more constraining than the time scales on which we have to produce.

There is no question in my mind that when Microsoft looks at this lab 10 years from now, they are going to say, ‘Boy, that was a smart investment.’ But they may not be looking at it that way in two years, and that’s okay. These things have to be judged on very long time scales, because great science is done on long time scales.

X: You must feel lucky to be part of a company where you have the luxury of thinking on those time scales.

JC: I feel very lucky, but quite frankly that’s the only reason I am working for a company. I was a tenured academic, and I get offers from academia all the time—everybody here does. But there is no other company in the world I would consider working for. What I am trying to foster is a new kind of interdisciplinary research, and I feel that Microsoft is the best place in the world to make that happen. If it weren’t, I would leave.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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