CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – July 15, 2010 – Before joining Microsoft in 1997, Jennifer Chayes taught mathematics at UCLA. She was researching “obscure-sounding” topics at the time, heady stuff such as phase transitions (think water freezing or ice melting) and intractable problems in computer science (problems that cannot be solved efficiently).
Jennifer Chayes is a distinguished scientist at Microsoft Research and the managing director of MSR New England.
Then Nathan Myhrvold, an old friend who had founded Microsoft Research (MSR), convinced her to come to Microsoft. Shortly after joining MSR, Chayes gave Bill Gates a lecture on her research. She told him it wouldn’t pay off for the company for a century.
A year ago she wrote Gates and admitted she was off by a factor of 10.
That same research now forms the basis of optimization algorithms that are helping scientists understand gene regulatory networks, an important step in the fight against cancer, Chayes says. MSR’s algorithms will be used by scientists to try and develop drug targets and therapies for cancer patients.
“That’s a lot of what basic research is all about,” says Chayes, a distinguished scientist at MSR and the managing director of MSR New England, located at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development Center (NERD). “You don’t know when or how something will pay off, but you trust that if we bring in really smart people who want to look at hard problems and collaborate, then Microsoft will find a way to benefit.”
Chayes says that’s why she gives researchers total freedom at MSR New England, Microsoft Research’s sole center on the East Coast. And while some research projects may take a century to bear fruit, the 10 R&D teams at NERD are making contributions today to major Microsoft products such as Bing and Office 2010.
The innovation coming out of NERD could accelerate as the company expands the facility’s footprint. In May Microsoft announced that it was leasing more than 100,000 square feet of office space in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The expansion enables Microsoft to create a campus-like work atmosphere that brings together the bulk of the company’s research and development teams in the state.
The move reflects the greater Boston area’s value as a high-tech talent center and the company’s commitment to growing its presence and investment in the Northeast, says Sara Spalding, site director of NERD.
“The biggest market for engineering talent is not in India or China, but on the East Coast of the United States,” Spalding says. “It makes a ton of sense for Microsoft to have a presence here so we can take advantage of that talent.”
Chayes agrees. New disciplines are forming at the intersection of computer science and the social and biological sciences, she says, and the Cambridge area is at the center. The wealth of startups and brainpower – MIT is a stone’s throw away, and Harvard is two subway stops – made the area a logical choice for Microsoft.
Sara Spalding, site director of Microsoft’s New England Research and Development Center.
From the start, NERD researchers and developers have been collaborating with that local talent and getting new technologies into existing Microsoft products. The first team that arrived at the Cambridge site when it opened in 2007 was the Application Virtualization team. Their work is a key component of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack, and some of their latest work made its way into Office 2010.
Also at NERD is a team from the Future Social Experiences (FUSE) Labs, working to design, develop and release applications and services that merge social computing and software. They’ve worked with the Bing team to integrate geo location data from Twitter into search results and also worked to get Office documents on Facebook.
Both Chayes and Spalding note that collaboration is a key theme at NERD. That could result from the fact that the leadership of the 400-person campus has a high number of women, which they call a happy coincidence. “Some of our most colorful characters happen to be women,” Chayes says. “It just happened. At a certain point, the presence of strong women makes it very much OK for other strong women to be around.”
Angie Anderson, product unit manager of the Application Virtualization team, says the smaller campus of NERD helps fosters collaboration through its sense of community. “There’s a sense of ‘we’re in this together,’ so we like to help each other,” she says. “I think women in general have skill sets that are more collaborative, and that allows us to work closer together.”
Associate General Counsel Annmarie Levins, lead legal counsel for Microsoft’s North American subsidiaries, is also based at NERD. She believes being at facility enriches her opportunities to collaborate with the policy and academic communities in the greater Boston area. “Being here has allowed me to make connections between Microsoft, some of our key researchers, and important organizations like the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, the New England Council and the Berkman Center at Harvard University,” Levins says. “Through these connections, we’re bringing an industry point of view to tech policy.”
Chayes hopes the women of NERD could inspire other young women to pursue careers in computing. “Really my biggest concern is that young women see paths for themselves,” she says. “I think it’s important they see that they can be successful, and that they see science and technology as creative and collaborative endeavors.”
The spirit of collaboration at NERD will likely impact the rest of the company, she adds. “As we move into the social sciences, I think we’re going to engage with rest of Microsoft at a much earlier stage in product.”
Collaboration lies at the heart of Microsoft’s work merging social networking and computing, says Lili Cheng, general manager of FUSE. “Sharing is just a fundamental part of how we interact online. We’re looking at how social weaves into all aspects of your life. Microsoft has a great opportunity because it has products that span all those aspects of your life, and I think that’s a great opportunity for us to push social to the next level.”
The teams at NERD place a high priority on being an active part of the Northeast’s high-tech community. The center has hosted more than 350 community events and 27,000 people in the last 18 months, and Microsoft has become an intrinsic part of the local tech ecosystem, actively demonstrating the company’s commitment to the region, Spalding says.
“Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” she says. “Being here, we have an opportunity to interact and collaborate with all sorts of influentials in the tech community. Kendall Square has the deepest concentration of venture capital funding in the country, even more than Silicon Valley. We really believe that by being part of tech ecosystem here, we develop a deeper understanding of our audience and build better projects.”