The Future of Microsoft Research: One on One With New Boss Peter Lee

11/14/13Follow @bbuderi

How do you help invigorate the Microsoft machine? Well, for Peter Lee, the answer lies in the frontiers of computer science. Lee is the new managing director of Microsoft Research, the company’s global research arm. His job is to help his parent company, not always quick on the uptake with emerging technology, understand the latest advances in computer science and better integrate them into both new and existing products—in other words, to put some fresh life in Microsoft’s innovation step.

Microsoft itself represents a bit of a conundrum. In July, CEO Steve Ballmer engineered a dramatic reorganization that included shedding the long-standing business division structure (Xbox, Windows, etc.) for one based on function (Engineering, Advanced Strategy and Research, Finance, etc.). The move was designed to help Microsoft transition away from its traditional pillar of desktop computing and innovate faster in the new world of tablets, mobile phones, cloud computing, storage, and more (what Microsoft calls its devices and services strategy).

A big problem for Microsoft is that it has rarely seemed to lead in emerging arenas, and then when it finally catches on to the new thing, it fails to capture the public with its own products and services—be it a tablet, a phone, or a search engine. And yet, and yet… last month the company surprised analysts with much better-than-expected first quarter results. So it must be doing something right in its transition—just not the something that brands it as an innovation leader.

That, in a big sense, is where Microsoft Research and Peter Lee figure in. Like its parent, MSR is not without its doubters. With seven main research labs and six satellite arms that employ some 1,100 scientists and engineers, it has long been hailed as a haven for computer science research. But it has been taken to task by many over the years for allegedly not producing much for Microsoft’s bottom line.

Peter Lee, the new managing director of Microsoft Research

Peter Lee, the new managing director of Microsoft Research

Lee stands firmly behind MSR’s contributions: like other Microsoft leaders, including Ballmer and Bill Gates, he asserts that the organization has contributed to virtually every product and service Microsoft has—and I know from repeated visits over the years, as well as this document that led to the founding of MSR, this has clearly been a focus from day one. At the same time, it is clear Lee feels he has to make the connections to the business side stronger and perhaps more visible.

The former head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon, and also a former office director for DARPA, Lee came to Microsoft Research in mid-2010 to run its flagship lab in Redmond, WA. He took the reins of MSR this past July, when his predecessor Rick Rashid moved to a new role as part of the reorganization. Rashid had been at the helm of Microsoft Research ever since its 1991 founding. So Lee’s challenge is to at once preserve a culture of leading-edge research and stability provided by a visionary leader, while increasing ties to the business and the payoff for Microsoft itself. It is a tall order.

I spoke with Lee on the phone in September and then sat down with him for an hour when he was in Cambridge, MA, last month for the fifth anniversary of Microsoft’s New England research lab.

We covered a lot of ground, and I won’t try to capture everything. But below are some core issues, ideas, and comments—ranging from the pithy to the profound—that stood out for me. I think they are important to understanding MSR’s evolving role within Microsoft—as well as its future direction in terms of where computer science is headed and, more broadly, what that could mean for consumers. So read on for more about MSR’s enhanced focus on helping the company, a new openness from the labs in terms of sharing its work, and Lee’s thoughts on emerging fields like deep neural nets, telepresence, and more.

Of Microsoft Research and Artwork (The Big Picture, so to speak)

People don’t generally appreciate that MSR is only about 1 percent of Microsoft’s overall budget, Lee says. That’s “roughly on par with the cost of the art work and the lawn upkeep of the world organization,” he says. “MSR is an incredible bargain.”

The Challenge: Change Is in the Air

“First and foremost, the thing that I find remarkable about MSR is that it’s a place more than any other place that I know about, including universities, that really believes in research—really believes that if you bring enough really smart people, get them fully resourced, and then just stay the heck out of the way, then great things will happen,” Lee says. “That kind of fundamental belief in that concept is just so strong and pervasive here that it is really remarkable.”

”Having said that, there are lots and lots of changes in the air,” he says. Some are internal, given the company’s reorganization. Others are … Next Page »

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • ja

    This guys will fail.