On October 16th, Rick Rashid, Microsoft Research's first employee and now its Chief Research Officer, engaged in a spirited conversation with NY Times science & technology journalist John Markoff at the Computer History (CHM) museum in Mt View, CA. The discussion was part of the museum’s “Revolutionaries” series, which is not to be confused with the "Revolutions exhibit." The former is a luminary lecture series sponsored by Intel. The latter is the museum's marque exhibit, which cost millions of dollars to develop and several years to put together.
More on Revolutions - pending reader interest- in a forthcoming article (see note below this article).
Mr. Rashid described how he built a research division that now has 1,100 computer scientists, physicists and mathematicians, including 850 Ph.D.s. Microsoft researchers explore basic and applied sciences that will hopefully help the company develop products and services that will make them more competitive.
"When I first got to Microsoft, it was this small company that produced a few products primarily sold to the retail channel in boxes," Rashid said. "Today we're a company of almost 100,000 people with more than $70 billion worth of sales to consumers, businesses, governments. We're really a very different company than we were back then."
Mr. Rashid talked about the innovations that went into the "ahead of its time" Microsoft Tablet PCs which were introduced a decade ago. He said that although the timing wasn’t right for that first tablet, many lessons learned from it are now in the company’s Surface products.
By contrast, Microsoft Kinect, a motion-sensing input device, was a hit from the get-go and continues to grow. “Kinect came out of our computer machine vision work,” he said. “It changed how people could use ‘gesture vision’ to interact with computers.”
Mr. Rashid said that he doesn't try to manage technology or people. He tries to hire the best people and then help them fulfill their visions. He talked about the challenge of finding and retaining top talent, especially women scientists. “Eighteen percent of our researchers are women, which is in line with national levels,” he said. “But our national numbers(for people employed in research) are dropping because we’re doing a poor job in schools and in companies describing what computer science is really like. But computer science is a field where you can help solve real problems.”
"In basic research, many times you don't have a plan on what you are going to accomplish. Without a plan, surprising things can happen," according to Rashid.
He strongly believes that Microsoft Research is an environment where great people can do great things. Rashid claimed Microsoft Research is the world's #1 publisher of basic research results in computing. (I would've thought that honor would go to IBM).
Yet Rashid is optimistic about innovation and the future of computing, based on the people already in the field and the aspirations of young people. Rashid says that today, instead of working on cars or building with erector sets (like this author did growing up), students are experimenting with websites, electronic gadgets, on-line games, and other areas of technology. And that augurs quite well for our technology future.
Note: We expect the video of this conversation to soon be available on the CHM You Tube Video Channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/ComputerHistory
Bio of Rick Rashid (provided by the CHM):
As Chief Research Officer, Richard (Rick) F. Rashid oversees worldwide operations for Microsoft Research, the largest computer science research organization in the world, encompassing more than 850 researchers across eleven global labs. Under Rashid's leadership, Microsoft Research conducts both basic and applied research across disciplines that include algorithms and theory; human-computer interaction; machine learning; multimedia and graphics; search; security; social computing; and systems, architecture, mobility and networking. His team collaborates with the world's foremost researchers in academia, industry and government on initiatives to expand the state of the art across the breadth of computing and to help ensure the future of Microsoft's products.
Before joining Microsoft, Rashid was professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where he directed the design and implementation of several influential network operating systems and published extensively about computer vision, operating systems, network protocols and communications security. During his tenure, Rashid developed the Mach multiprocessor operating system, which has been influential in the design of modern operating systems and remains at the core of several commercial systems.
CHM CEO John Hollar tweeted, "Nathan Myhrvold (Microsoft's former chief of research), pursued Rashid for months to recruit him to join Microsoft from CMU."
Again, please contact this author if you're interested in the inside story of how the Revolutions exhibit made a mid course correction, was funded shortly after the 2008-2009 financial meltdown, and has been such a huge success for the Computer History Museum.