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Thomas Kohnstammwritten by
Thomas Kohnstamm
All hail the Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence

When I asked him to interview for this story, James suggested that I accompany him instead “on a one-man Special Forces mission to rescue some rare Bengali pandas from a Renton-based Hezbollah cell.” He then proceeded to grill me about my food allergies because, he deadpanned, “Many of my ninja throwing stars are made of compostable peanut resin.”

We never did rescue those poor pandas, but Mickens had already accomplished his mission: to disarm me as a potential adversary and initiate a sense of camaraderie. More importantly, I found that he considers this ability to connect with people – more so than even raw intelligence – to be the key to his success as a researcher.

While much of his wit is calculated, it’s no simple occupational tactic. It’s a social survival mechanism that he discovered as an alienated middle school student and developed to an extreme… one that he now uses to flourish.

Mickens grew up in Atlanta and attended public elementary school through the 5th grade. “By that point, I was just devastating school reading competitions,” he laughs. “I could see that the relevant take-home points from the 80-page books we had to read on, say, how oil was created could actually fit on a note card. I’d rip through the rest of the book in approximately 16.7 seconds and was essentially beating up on the other kids in the contest, even though I was still a child myself.”

Humor is good for finding connections with people.

When Mickens’ folks decided that their young prodigy needed more of an academic challenge, he transferred to an elite private school from 6th grade onward. “It was a huge cultural shift,” Mickens explains. “My elementary school was very diverse socio-economically and racially and then I went to private school. It was rich white kids… and me.”

While he wasn’t outright bullied, he says, “There was no way for me to recede into the background. I was a skinny guy and, at first, the only black guy in my class. I had to engage with people whether I liked it or not. But I was on the outside and didn’t know where or how to start to access the culture.”

One summer vacation, he dedicated his days to watching Seinfeld. “Actually, I studied Seinfeld,” he laughs again. “I would pick apart the timing, mechanics, and why certain things were funny. When I came back after that summer, the first week of school I just tore those boys apart using language.”

He elaborates, “Humor is good for finding connections with people who are neutral to positive on you, but those who are actively antagonistic toward you must be engaged with a sort of linguistic jiu jitsu.” After mastering this form, Mickens realized that it was possible to establish connections with almost anyone, so long as you worked to figure out their access points.

Years later as a Computer Science Ph.D student at University of Michigan, he expanded this outlook by starting to travel the world. To this day, he prefers to travel alone because it gives you more opportunities to learn about yourself and to stumble into the unknown. He says, “What I’m most interested in is finding things that are unexpected. Even the most ‘boring’ person or person least like you has something interesting to say; you just need to meet them on their terms and ask the right questions.”

“That’s also why I’m a researcher,” he says, picking up the pace of his words. “You have a problem that seems insurmountable and then you think what is the question or what is the approach that will make this possible? The best researchers are smart but they’re not necessarily Einstein-level smart. They’re able to determine the right path in order to get to a conclusion.”

“Research isn’t just quantitative,” he continues. “It’s social and communicative and if you don’t have the right narrative, nobody’s going to care about the rest of your work.”

His quest for the unknown led Mickens to Microsoft Research right out of his Ph.D program. He planned on being a professor but was concerned that he’d spend much of his career searching for grant money and wouldn’t get to do a lot of hands-on creation. He explains, “What makes Microsoft Research so attractive is that I get to build stuff, I get to code, but it’s still very much a research-focused academic-type place. We still write papers and we are still active in the academic community as you would be if you were a professor.”

“I wanted to be looking five to 15 years into the future instead of one to three. Here you’re encouraged to work with product groups but you are still encouraged to publish and be visible in the community.”

  • “The Opposite”

    In this episode, George, who is a perennial loser, becomes successful by doing the opposite of what his instincts tell him to do. I love this episode because it encourages empiricism and common sense---if your current approach is not leading to success, then it probably makes sense to act differently. Sometimes a person will ask me for advice, e.g., “Why can’t I keep a job?”, and I’ll say something like, “Maybe you don’t have a good job because you constantly show up late and you never take a shower and your emails have child-like grammar and rampant misspellings,” and the other person will scrunch up his face and say, “Yeah, maybe, I don’t know,” and I’ll say, “Well, your life knows, and it’s telling you to use a spell-checker and not look homeless.”

  • “The Comeback”

    George is insulted by a co-worker during an office meeting, and doesn’t have a good retort. Hours later, George devises a great comeback, and he orchestrates a series of events that lead to the perfect opportunity to unleash the retort. George says the comeback, and the co-worker immediately responds with an even better zinger. Whereas “The Opposite” teaches us that there is always hope, “The Comeback” teaches us that this isn’t always true, and that some of our dreams may be destined for failure. So, you know, you should either try hard to succeed, or just wallow in your misery. It’s a judgment call.

  • “The Contest”

    One of the greatest episodes! If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that it revolves around a specific act which is never explicitly described, but which is only referenced via oblique allusions and clever innuendoes. The writing in this episode is extremely clever; the episode should be required viewing for politicians, mischievous children, and anyone else who needs to say something without really saying it.

  • “The Marine Biologist”

    Jerry tells Elaine that “Golden Boy,” his favorite t-shirt, is slowly dying due to repeated cycles in the washing machine. Elaine is completely uninterested by this fact, and she continues with her life. The exchange between Jerry and Elaine perfectly represents the clash between the geek world and the non-geek world. One time, at a party, I told this dude that Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin had a guitar with two necks, and the second neck had twelve strings instead of six strings. The dude just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Is that super-interesting or something?” I was about to explain, but I realized that the explanation was self-evident – if I tell you that double-necked guitars exist, and Jimmy Page has one, I have already told you why that is super-interesting – namely, BECAUSE IT’S AMAZING THAT MORTALS CAN OWN A GUITAR WITH TWO NECKS. The guy just shrugged off this amazing fact, and then he started talking about why Limp Bizkit was the greatest band of our generation. At that point, I realized that each of us will forever be alone.

  • “The Bookstore”

    My favorite part of this episode is when George gets into an argument with a woman at a charity organization, and the woman threatens to jump over the counter and “punch him in the brain.” I really like the specificity of the threat. It’s like, I’m not just going to hit you---I’m going to target a specific bodily organ, because taking that organ offline is necessary for me to achieve specific goals in my own life. That’s pretty amazing. Be good at what you do!

I wanted to be looking five to 15 years into the future instead of one to three. Here you’re encouraged to work with product groups but you are still encouraged to publish and be visible in the community.

Although Mickens is known for his vibrant personality, much of his current research focuses on the matter-of-fact goal of improving the quality of Web applications. But it’s the scale and universality of this challenge that makes it so appealing to him. He explains, “If you’re using Word or Photoshop and it flaked out and crashed even half as much as Web pages do, you’d scream ‘this is unacceptable.’ But people expect that websites won’t work well. That needs to change.”

He’s doing other cloud-related research that he can’t yet discuss in detail but says, “Most of my research is based on solving problems that I learn about from personal experience and from talking with everyday people such as the guy who gets stuck next to me on a flight.”

Outside of Microsoft Research, Mickens plays in two heavy metal bands and writes satirical blogs about technology. Music was another avenue he used to create a shared vernacular with the other students at the private school. He studied Metallica, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in much the same way he became a blackbelt in Seinfeld. Mickens was compelled to not only get a guitar and learn to play but to watch interviews with the musicians to learn the stories behind how and why they arranged the songs as they did.

He smiles, “I learned that Led Zeppelin was able to consistently get that great sound because they understood the nuts and bolts of how music works. Anything that seems creative also has a craftsman element that may not be as sexy but is equally as important.”

“Writing is the same way and research is much the same way too,” he says, now rocking forward in his chair as if he were about to leap to his feet. “You must understand how to run experiments to engage and convince others of their validity. Research isn’t just math and coding that arrives in a flash of genius.”

As for his future, The Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence concludes, “I want to influence technology, but I’d really like to influence the culture around research. It’s such a luxury to do what we do, to sit around and think up crazy ideas and to try to solve impossible problems – we need to remember to have fun and appreciate the goofy side of it all too.”

Originally published on 3/24/2014 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft
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