Thursday, September 18, 2014

On Academia vs. Industry.... MSR SVC Closing

I'm one of those professor types that ends up defending the joys of life as an academic versus a career in industry -- some of you who read this blog have probably seen me comment at Matt Welsh's blog or Daniel Lemire's blog/Google+ chain.  And to be clear I'm not anti-industry, I just want to make sure there's a fair discussion.

In that vein, I'm sad to hear that Microsoft Research Silicon Valley will be closing, as described in this article.  I know many people at MSRSV, and have visited there often.  It's a loss to the community to have it close.  I have sympathy for those who work there -- this must be stressful -- but this sympathy is happily diminished because I know the people there are so talented, they will quickly move on to other employment.  (When Digital Systems Research Center closed long ago, a number of the people I worked with in the lab just moved on to some small company that seemed to be just starting to really get going, called Google.  I wonder how it worked out for them.) 

After a moment of silence for the lab, I do feel it necessary to point out that this is one of the "issues" in the academia vs industry life choice.  The life cycle for companies moves rapidly.  That's not a bad thing, but it's a thing.  Disruptions like this are a non-trivial risk in industry, much less so in academia.  (Just look at the history of research labs.)  Again, I'm sure it will work out for the people at MSRSV, but any life shift like this -- even if it ends positively -- is stressful.  Without wanting to overstate the consequences, it's worth pointing out.


Anonymous said...

This is a huge tragedy everyone involved and a enormous loss for the whole community. It strikes me as tasteless to use this event to drive home some minor point.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #1:

I agree this is bad for the people who work there, although as I said they are so talented that if they choose to leave Microsoft I am hopeful/sure they will find new employment quickly.

I agree that its a loss for the community.

I disagree that it's "tasteless" to suggest this is relevant the ongoing debate, to which I referred, regarding some of the issues between industry and academia. Indeed, isn't your reaction demonstrative that this is not a "minor point" at all -- it's at best a very unpleasant disruption of life for many of our colleagues?

CHETAN T said...

I agree that this is a loss for the community.
I also feel this "disruption" is necessary part of innovation for the company. Although, it is sad that research always get the first hit when this happens.

David Andersen said...

I'm with MM on this one, @Anon1. This is the second or third time this has happened to this specific group -- I was a naive intern at SRC when Compaq was doing its best to make an amazingly talented group of researchers abjectly miserable. We've seen Intel close several of its labs. Microsoft now has closed MSR-SV. Many awesome current machine learning and theory faculty were refugees from Bell Labs and/or AT&T research back around 2004.

This kind of change is not unexpected for corporate research labs. It's not an indictment of the model in any sense -- MSR-SV had a great run and did great work. It's just one of the things to consider in the mental spreadsheet when trying to figure out what to do with your life (at any age). Academia isn't all roses and unicorns either. There are advantages and disadvantages, and it behooves us to be honest about them on both sides of the fence.

Paul Beame said...

There is something different in this case. Those previous closures were at companies where the handwriting was on the wall for some time, not companies that just spent $2.5 billion of a big wad of cash reserves on a computer game. That's the most shocking part of it.

Brian Borchers said...

When an industrial research lab like this one shuts down, there must be many ongoing projects that are disrupted. It's possible that the former employees will continue this research after moving on to another employer (although they won't be allowed to take any codee with them, the ideas will certainly still be in their heads), but I find it hard to believe that any of these projects will be taken up in an effective way by researchers working at other Microsoft labs. I also wonder about papers that had been submitted or were being revised by these researchers. That wasted effort is one of the saddest aspects of this situation in my opinion.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Paul --

Thank you for highlighting this excellent point; I wish I had myself. This aspect (that Microsoft isn't hurting -- for example it's stock is up about 40% on the year!) makes this closure very surprising.

Relating it to my "tasteless" issue, this is part of the "risk" of working in industry. It's not just the risk that the company runs into financial trouble (although that seems to be the most common issue for research divisions). Sometimes there are layoffs, moving headquarters/cities, changes in company direction, or other significant events that are outside one's control but can have an outsized affect on one's career and life plans.

Anonymous said...

Extrapolating: when Microsoft management says "We remain committed to basic research" and "We need to undergo a cultural shift", the latter is probably going to eat the former for breakfast.

Anonymous said...

BIg deal. I bet all these guys already have a job at google at twice their MSFT salary

Anonymous said...

You know, we are all little blocks being broken and placed on an infinite board..... no wait !

Beside pointless acquisitions, I could think of some serious fat to cut at MSFT, not a handful of underpaid researchers.

MSFT does not get the knowledge economy.
It is still stuck in a "boxed product" mindset where the publisher is the gatekeeper.

Having an army of 10 thousand monkeys mindlessly writing another useless "product" cheering some stupid marketing bluff is hopeless.

Monopolies are nice, but the targets now are less clearcut, and one has to adapt to this reality of the digital economy.

In that light, having bright motivated folks bridging the skill spectrum is key.
It allows to move and reconfigure faster. It transforms those bright researchers from cost center to a competitive edge.

Same for the languages and tools : MSFT does not in practice know how to use open source, despite all their talk. Another shield for the internal monkeys. Another loss to MSFT.

No amount of leadership or vision can recover from the failing perspective of the boxed product.

Shai Halevi said...

To Jon's original point of academia vs. industry, no doubt that tenure in academia makes a difference.

From my perspective, working in an industry research lab all my career, I'm always aware of the possibility of being forced one day to find another job. For me personally, this means keeping a high enough profile so I would have options if that happens. I don't know if I would have worked as hard if I was a tenured professor, so it is not necessarily a bad thing.

A related point: the institution of tenure as a whole seems at odds with current trends in our society. My (completely unsubstantiated) guess, is that in the coming decades we will see universities backing off of this system. Maybe the very top universities will always keep tenured professors, but perhaps this will become a perk which is awarded only for the select few.

To Paul's excellent point: not only is MSFT not hurting, but also this particular lab was the poster-child of what an industry research lab can be at its best: A small lab that combines revolutionary basic research (e.g. the concept of differential privacy) with making real impact on the corporate bottom line (e.g., Erasure coding in Windows Azure). Closing a lab like this is a striking statement about not believing in technical research. Unfortunately this is not the only example of this attitude in corporate America (though it is certainty the most extreme).

And a final thought, inspired by Omer Reingold's beautiful post, if you had a chance to work in a place like that for five years, wouldn't you take it even knowing the ending?

Shai Halevi said...

Oops, I mean Michael's original point, I just had my wires crossed..

Anonymous said...

I think the question to dig into is why this happened at all and what precipitated such a sudden move. Ascribing it to a short-term dollar driven viewpoint is a common cheap sop: MSFT is not stupid and knows this will definitely impact e.g. their recruitment of tech talent and reputation -- probably way more than the cost savings.

I worked at NEC Research in Princeton the last year it was in operation. I was stunned: after ten years of complete freedom given to researchers, and big pay packages and massive support for hiring PhDs as personal research staff the end result was: you would walk down hallways - especially in the theory group -- that were dark and empty for days on end: people blatantly abusing their freedom. People coming in around noon to establish a presence, then having lunch and going home for the rest of the day. That, more than cost was what caused the lab to be axed. Even star-struck managers from Japan coming by to see the academic stars they had all heard about eventually just could not stomach it any more: again, it was not the expense so much as the sense opportunity was being wasted (I had some insight into the causes as having started a co and left around 6 mo prior to shutdown, I was targeted to acquire some of the "IP" produced).

Contrary to common perception, bottom line is that industry is in some ways too cushy. For all its problems, academics are at least forced via looking for grants, being shown up by younger researchers, and the tenure chase, to show up for work. The fact that AT&T worked out so well in its glory days is in my view NOT due to the freedom enjoyed. Somehow management managed to focus researchers on stretching themselves and working hard DESPITE a loose rein. And also, do not forget a lot of the work was focused on real applications (Penzias found the background radiation not because he was an astronomer but because he was cleaning bid poop out of a horn antenna).

Not sure what the problem was here, but reflexively taking the side of the researchers may be wrong.

FWIW there were some very good people at NEC, but there was even more deadwood. In part a big problem was no one wanted to deal with the slackers aggressively and in the end everything was shut down -- and the problems rippled out to other labs in NJ