Former professors take key jobs at Microsoft Research

Carnegie Mellon faculty members continue to succeed when they leave academia. Recently, three former computer science professors — Rick Rashid, Peter Lee, and Jeannette Wing — benefited from the revamping of Microsoft Research.

Lee is the head of Microsoft Research after previously leading Microsoft’s U.S. research operations; he took over for Rashid, who is now a member of Microsoft’s Operation Systems group.

Randal E. Bryant, dean of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, described Microsoft Research: “Microsoft has a separate research laboratory.... It’s one of the largest corporate research laboratories in the world, and they have branches that span literally across the whole world.” Bryant estimated that MSR has about 800 people working for it. Branch locatons include Redmond, Wash.; Mountain View, Calif.; Cambridge, Mass.; Cambridge, England; and Beijing, China.

Wing noted the similarities between Microsoft Research and the world of academia. “Companies usually have research labs, but Microsoft Research is a little different from any other company because it really supports basic research, much like the kind of research that is done at academia. We’re very open about what it is we do — we publish openly,” she said.

“The difference of course between Microsoft Research and an industrial research lab and an academic institution is that we are funded by the company, Microsoft — we’re actually a very small part of that company,” Wing said. “But it also enables researchers at Microsoft Research access to have an impact on the company, impact on the product and services that Microsoft produces.”

Still, researchers have academia-like freedom to choose the problems they work on, Wing said.

Bryant discussed the former professors’ departures from Carnegie Mellon. “First to leave was Peter Lee, and he got lured away, and then Jeannette got lured away last January. Both of them had been heads of the computer science [department]. Both of them were really great, both in their research and their teaching, and Microsoft was eager to have them. And recently — about a month ago — it was announced that the former head of Microsoft

Research, Rick Rashid, was stepping aside, and Peter Lee was going to take over his position. And then Jeannette is sort of his deputy.”

Rachid was a senior faculty member who left the university around 1992, Bryant said. “At the time Microsoft didn’t really have a research organization, and Bill Gates decided they really needed one and he chose Rick Rashid and recruited him ... and he’s been doing great with it.”

Wing was a longtime Carnegie Mellon faculty member. “I started at Carnegie Mellon in 1985, as an assistant professor ... and during that time, I’ve been department head twice, spent a couple sabbaticals away from Carnegie Mellon, and I also served at the National Science Foundation for a few years,” she said.

Wing, who left the university in January, takes over as corporate vice president of Microsoft Research.
On the dynamic between herself and Lee, she said, “We are like partners. We run all of Microsoft Research together. For the most part, he and I are running Microsoft Research jointly. We make joint decisions about budget and hiring and policies and so on.”

The concept of becoming a leader at Microsoft Research did not seem impossible to Wing. About her transition from faculty member, Wing said, “I think it was really natural. In academia, a professor is required to write proposals for funding research for himself or herself or for his or her students, and always coming up with new ideas: looking ahead, looking to the future … and first and foremost, advancing the students’ art. I think it’s natural for a faculty member to move into a research management position where you’re doing overseeing in an organization that itself is doing that.”

Wing’s experience in guiding the computer science department also helped with the transition. “For me, I also think it’s natural because as department head, I’m representing all areas of the wing, not just my own research,” she said. “In my position at Microsoft Research, I am representing all areas of computing and beyond. So there are other science and engineering areas that I represent, and it’s all about pushing the state of the art, much like in academia.”

For Bryant, the recent news is bittersweet. “We’re sorry to see them go. It means we’ve lost some very great faculty members, but we have a new head, Frank Pfenning. He’s doing an excellent job, so we’re pretty confident that we’ll be able to continue on.”