James Mickens AKA The Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence


‘Softie in question: James Mickens

Job title: Researcher, Microsoft Research (MSR), also known by the self-proclaimed (but much-deserved) title of Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence

James, can you tell me a little bit about where you’re from and how you arrived at MSR?

I grew up in Atlanta, went to undergrad at Georgia Tech and then went to University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for my Masters and Doctorate. I finished up in September of 2008 and came out to MSR.

Just that easy? Straight from school to MSR?

Well, prior to that, I did have two internships at Microsoft: 2006 at Microsoft Cambridge and ‘07 here in Redmond. I interned for the same person who is now my manager.

Did you consider working for other companies?

Not really. Google and IBM have research groups, but here we have the unique advantage of being able to work in the industry but remain visible in the academic community. Rather than tying research to a specific product like other industrial research, MSR is run more like a university lab.

What’s MSR’s advantage then over university labs?

Things here run smoothly. People help each other out rather than getting bogged down in competitive friction for grants etc. We also have excellent administrative support – which means that you can focus on research and not have to deal with additional paper work, even for little things like a trip to a conference.

So, you’re saying that it’s like an extremely well-funded university lab then?

(laughs)  Yeah, maybe. But there are even more advantages than that. Here, we can take the long view but also get lots of contact with the product groups. So, you are grounded in reality, but still have the opportunity to explore and are not penned in by a product cycle. Overall, I think that it’s hipper than a university and actually more laid back.

“Laid back” and “hip” are not always used to describe Microsoft. Why do you think that the external perception conflicts with your personal experience?

I don’t think that it’s conservative at all here at Microsoft. We are a victim of our own success. And some of our business considerations make it seem not as creative. People need to think about how much work goes into things like creating backwards compatibility to support old Windows systems around the world – legacy systems, and things like that.

Here at MSR, we pretty much have the freedom to do whatever we want. Tech transfer of our research is obviously of value, but we also recognize and reward people who do important basic research, i.e., research which advances the state of the art but doesn’t have an immediate business application. If you want to work on a new idea, you just have to convince others that it’s cool and that’s that.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been looking at project called Mugshot that records user activities on webpages and can then be used by developers to learn how to improve the site functionality. Sites and apps are becoming as standard as desktop apps, but they don’t have the same reliability or support – yet. We’re looking to make sites as robust as desktop apps in the future.

How does one get their foot in the door at MSR?

Interning at two MSR labs helped, but being an intern is neither necessary nor sufficient to getting a job.

Perhaps the most important thing is to have visibility in the CS academic community. Get published. Be visible at conferences. The CS academic community is actually rather small and papers get noticed.

Work at Microsoft!

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