Expansion of Microsoft Research—Analysis and Download of 1997 Plan

7/17/14Follow @bbuderi

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three,” he wrote. “I do not want to choose. I do not want to prioritize one over another. I believe that if we take the right approach they do not trade off against one another, but rather are reinforcing.”

As Myhrvold points out in the memo, these three goals are related but not necessarily dependent on each other. I would argue that MSR has done a great job with goals 1 and 3. (Yes, I know many outside “critics” have slammed the lab on the third point, saying MSR has not contributed its fair share to Microsoft businesses, but the cases of research benefitting Microsoft are legion and well documented, in products from Office to Bing to Xbox and Kinect and in areas such as speech, cloud, mobile, and more.)

However, I do feel it has come up short on goal 2. At least, I can’t name a truly major breakthrough or invention out of MSR—and while the lab lists many awards and influential papers on its website, I could not find any mention of anything seminal. That might be okay, though. As Myhrvold wrote in 1997, “You could create a great institution even if you don’t invent some of the most critical technologies. It is quite possible to putter along with our researchers earning back their salaries with benefit to the company, yet never having the big breakthrough.”

Chris Hoover/ Modernist Cuisine LLC

Nathan Myhrvold–Photo by Chris Hoover/ Modernist Cuisine LLC

How to Add Headcount (pp. 2-3)

Myhrvold laid out a plan for massive expansion, but he was extremely wary about adding headcount to existing groups. For one thing, he worried that more personnel would tilt their focus toward moving things to product groups too early in their development—what he called “Newtonization,” after Apple’s Newton handwriting system, which proved a major failure when rushed into product. (The iPhone would have a much different result, of course. And given Nadella’s e-mail, I can’t help but wonder if today’s Microsoft might also feel differently.)

“Put bluntly, I want to be very parsimonious with headcount to existing groups. Projects that really need more resources should get them, but only if we have a strong sense that we get more benefit from increasing our bet there versus making some new bet,” Myhrvold wrote.

This was a key move—and very much follows the expansion of other great labs before it, including IBM Research and Bell Labs. For MSR to truly be world class, it had to expand into completely new areas. There is a lot more of Myhrvold’s reasoning in the memo. But the key for me is that he was saying expansion into tangential areas could be left to product groups or not done at all in most cases. Microsoft Research had to blaze some new trails.

Plan Bs (pp. 4-5)

Myhrvold devoted a section to what he called “Plan B Approaches,” namely the idea that research groups tackling critical problems such as speech recognition or natural language understanding should have a backup plan (see p. 4). In most MSR groups, he noted, one key path or class of methods had been chosen—and the organization probably needed to hedge some of those bets.

“There is no precise way to do this…However, we certainly can identify areas where the research field has N well established approaches and we are pursuing a smaller number. We need to own up to this challenge and decide what areas deserve a ‘plan B’ approach. It seems very unlikely that looking across all of research, we are lucky enough to have optimal choice in every area. Even if we are that lucky, we should be willing to buy some insurance. Ideally, we can do this by incorporating senior expertise within our existing groups, so that we get the best of both worlds. However, in cases where this is impractical we may need to set up parallel efforts pursuing different approaches.”

Myhrvold recognized the dangers of creating internal “cutthroat competition,” which could poison relations between groups. “On the other hand,” he wrote, “we can’t let the threat of this stop us from pursuing legitimate alternative research avenues.”

New Groups & Projects (pp. 5-11)

Most of the rest of the memo is devoted to Myhrvold’s strategy for expanding into new avenues of research. Below is a list of areas—the parens are mine—he singled out for investigation, while stressing … 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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