I will be joining Microsoft Research in January

Guess who has a post-dissertation job? [Yes, that implies I’m actually going to finish this *#$@! dissertation.] ::bounce:: In January, I will be joining the newly minted Microsoft Research New England in Boston, MA. w00000t!!!!! I couldn’t be more ecstatic.

For those who don’t know Microsoft Research (MSR), it’s a pure research lab. What this means is that researchers are hired to advance the state of knowledge in their respective areas of research. MSR is a different structure than Microsoft proper and researchers are expected to publish in peer-reviewed journals and they are evaluated on the contributions they make to the field. Researchers are welcome to collaborate with whoever they please, engage with students at local institutions, and co-teach classes if that’ll help them fulfill their research agendas. Researchers are welcome to pursue the research topics that they find to be interesting and important. In essence, being a MSR researcher is quite similar to being a faculty at a research institution. To the shock of most folk, MSR is not about directly contributing to the bottom line of Microsoft, but about advancing knowledge that will benefit the future of computing.

As many of you know, I’ve been quite cagey about the possibility of the future for quite some time. I’ve been frustrated with academic restrictions and fearful that academia wouldn’t let me do the kind of research that I wanted to do. I’ve been equally scared of industrial research because I’ve watched too much research get trapped down behind closed corporate walls. I’ve always been in awe of MSR because of its openness but I wasn’t really jumping to move to Redmond. I had been pretty set that I was going to go independent and pay the bills through freelancing. Then, a funny combination of events happened.

It all began with Dopplr. Linda Stone noticed that I was swinging through Seattle and she called me up and told me that I had to do dinner with her. Linda’s plots are always tremendous so of course I said yes. When I arrived, she introduced me to Jennifer Chayes and Christian Borgs, the physicists who were starting the new MSR lab. Jennifer immediately began interrogating me about my research and about social science more broadly. To say Jennifer & I clicked is a bit of an understatement. Like me, Jennifer is loud, crazy, and intense. We got along like peas in a pod and spent the night chattering away. When she told me that I should come work for her, I laughed it off and didn’t think much about it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Jennifer and Christian’s vision for the lab aligned with my view of research. They believe in interdisciplinary work, believe in the ways that new ideas can come from unexpected collaborations. While I know a lot of social scientists who curl their nose at the idea of a lab full of physicists, mathematicians, and economists, I find that quite appealing. I love the idea of such a diverse group thinking about how the world works from different angles. Plus, meeting the folks at the new lab – Henry Cohn, Yael Kalai, Adam Kalai, and Butler Lampson – only made me more intrigued by it. Everyone was so ridiculously nice and even though we didn’t work on the same problems we found funny intersections.

The more that I talked with folks at MSR, the more I fell in love with the possibility of going there. And then I started meeting with execs and realized that what MSR researchers were telling me fit with broader strategy. I met with Rick Rashid, the head of MSR, who explained why he started MSR and how he saw it fit into the company. I met with Ray Ozzie (who I’ve known and adored for quite some time) and he confirmed the importance of research for the future of Microsoft. Both of them made me feel fully confident that my approach to research would not only be tolerated but welcomed. Plus, there’s a broad desire to understand the intersections between computing and all things social which is straight up my alley.

As the pieces came together, I realized that it just made complete sense. Going to MSR will allow me to continue the research I do and it will give me a productive, collaborative, interdisciplinary environment in which to do it. There’s amazing work at MSR concerning social media and even those at MSR-NE who are not working on social media are more than open to the topics engendered by it and more than ecstatic to engage with me. Being in a room full of scientists might not seem like the most obvious fit, but really, you have to meet them to understand how invigorating an environment it is.

Personally, going to MSR will mean a continuation of the good things that I do and a reduction of the things that exhaust me. I will continue to publish, go to conferences, and blog. I will keep my Berkman Center fellowship. I will continue public speaking, political interventions, and sitting on advisory boards. I will get involved in the intellectual communities in Cambridge and collaborate with scholars. I will escape dissertation hell (w00t!). I will escape IRB bureaucracy and have a much more sane ethics review process. I will stop consulting and doing private corporate talks. I will get to lower travel to a sane level. All of this will be possible because I will get paid to do the research that I want to do.

I have no doubt that this move prompts concerned questions from those who know me as well as those who don’t, so let me take a moment to pre-emptively respond to criticisms that I’ve already heard…

  • But you hated Boston… It’s true that Boston and I weren’t the closest of friends. We’ve called a truce and we’re going to see what happens. One thing is for certain: I can’t wait to get back to some very dear friends (although I will miss my west-coast pals). And I *cannot* wait to get back to my favorite gym in the whole wide word: Healthworks. Mmmm… oh goddess do I love that woman-friendly place. I’m even kinda excited by the idea of turtlenecks. I think I look HOTT in turtlenecks.
  • But you’re a Mac fiend… In every company I’ve ever worked for, I’ve always used products produced by competitors. I think that companies who expect employees to buy into their product line hook, line, and sinker are cults. Much can be learned by understanding why people know about your product and prefer a different one. There are plenty of Microsoft products that I use and adore, but I ain’t giving up my beloved Xanadu. And, surprisingly, Microsoft respects this and is willing to let me continue to work on a Mac.
  • But industry research is selling out! When research is useful, people use it. It doesn’t matter if you’re in industry or academia – if you publish for others to read, you’re a fool if you don’t think it’ll get used. MSR is giving me the opportunity to direct my research agenda and produce scholarship for the public good. They will inevitably use what I produce, but they would’ve anyhow. In any other configuration, I would have (and have) consulted for private companies to make ends meet. There is no doubt that I will effectively consult for Microsoft but my research, like always, will be for the public good. I will continue to publish and I will probably publish more since I won’t be writing grant applications or consulting.
  • But job security!?!? I find it odd that academics always point to job security as the reason to stay in academia because I am watching too many of my favorite elder scholars struggle desperately to get research grants to keep their labs going. How is grant-driven academia that forces you to give up research to go out begging for grants considered job security? And besides, I’m happy to keep producing quality work steadily over time rather than racing the hamster wheel for 7 years. At least at MSR, I don’t have to wait to get tenure to be rebellious.
  • But Microsoft is the devil incarnate! Years ago, I crafted a post comparing search companies to evil nation states of the 20th century. I think that my metaphors still hold and I’ve already worked for (and survived) Japan and the States. There is plenty about Microsoft’s history that I have problems with. There are even issues today that I disagree with. But I’ve never been a part of a company (or a nation-state) that I fully agreed with. Even though I dream of going to Canada, I plan to stick it out here and push to make change. Likewise, even inside Microsoft, when I disagree, I will say so. I don’t think that Microsoft is the devil, but I think that they’ve done some really stupid things and are actually working hard to right some of their past wrongs. I commend them for this. And hopefully I can do some good by being there. When I told Bill Buxton that I intended to address this issue here, he offered another perspective: “there’s no merit to being an angel in heaven.” I like that. That’s a good one.

I have every expectation that folks out there will not understand my reasoning and will think poorly of me for choosing to go to MSR, but I’m utterly ecstatic. My interactions with folks at MSR have been non-stop fantabulous. It’s an intellectually stimulating environment where I will have the resources and space to do my research and the encouragement to pursue a social media agenda. And frankly, I can’t wait. I can’t wait to be a part of an invigorating research environment. I can’t wait to think about the intersections of science and social science. I can’t wait to begin a new project and publish, publish, publish. I’m a bit wary about the snow, but we’ll work on that one. At the end of the day, I couldn’t be more pleased. w00000t!!!!!

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78 thoughts on “I will be joining Microsoft Research in January

  1. Noah Carter

    Well okay, as long as you PROMISE “to continue to publish, go to conferences, and blog.” 😉

    But seriously, they are extremely luck to have you. As a former MSFT employee, (tho not MSR), I can tell you it’s an amazing place to work.


  2. Katharine Bostick

    Welcome! It’s great to have someone with your talent and expertise onboard!

    I am with Microsoft in Asia Pacific and we are working together to build global networks to ensure the internet is safer and more secure. I have not met you yet so I am looking forward to meeting you and learning from you. I will also be looking for opportunities to share your expertise with our networks around the globe.

    I just happen to read your message on the Berkman Center website and I am glad I was your message. You will definitely add perspectives that will contribute significantly to strategies and solutions with greater impact. Take care and congrats.

  3. LivePaola

    Congratulations danah! It sounds wonderful. Yes, you will be criticized. But as long as your gut tells you you’re doing the right thing, you will do great.

  4. Sharon Greenfield

    Nice danah. MSR is a cool group (*cough* not as cool as PaPR *cough*), but a great place to land. 😉 I look forward to the work you’ll soon be producing in your new home!

  5. tilly

    Bonjour danah et félicitations !
    All I hope sincerely is that you will continue to deliver nice articles on your site, free (open) for publication, distribution, and … translation into French. I can understand that you may use MS professional translation/localization services though, but I will be really glad and honoured to give you more translations into French of your papers. (I am currently working on “Digital handshakes in networked publics”, it should be finished in a week or two).
    A bientôt

  6. Mark Federman

    Congratulations and much success! For the life of me, I can’t understand why people would criticize you for landing yourself in an environment that will enable you to do (a) what you love; (b) what is interesting; and (c) something that contributes to knowledge that benefits the rest of us. Anything less, and you could be accused of selling out. But the way you describe MSR and your enthusiasm for it sounds like they, you, and the rest of the world that cares about what’s happening will all win.

    As they say, when the time is right, the right path opens.

  7. Brian Williams

    Congratulations! MSR sounds like a great fit for you. It would also do well for those concerned about this move to remember that there are other examples of excellence going into industry research. Some brilliant people went into Xerox PARC, and some wonderful stuff came out of it. No doubt MSR is similarly focused on finding the best and brightest in order to provide the alchemical conditions for spectacular innovation. Best wishes on the new job.

  8. DC

    Just don’t get a big head. The MSR people I’ve talked to have been consistently brilliant, amazing researchers, big contributors, and had the biggest egos ever (only noticeable if you’re not cool enough for them, of course). I believe it’s a natural outcome of a very competitive position, so I definitely don’t blame them, but I think it’s unfortunate.

  9. Nancy White

    danah, congrats on the next leap off the cliff of life. Brava. I’m sorry I won’t be at the MSR social media confab up here in Seattle next month (I’ll be across the world) but please, consider a big hug of congratulations delivered.

  10. Laura Porto Stockwell

    Congrats! They are *lucky* to have you! I’ve worked as a consultant with MSFT in the social media space (on Live QnA and Office Live community). There’s lots of great, smart people there. And they could use your help 😉 Feel free to email if you ever want to chat.

  11. Cindy Stanford

    I’m so happy for you, I can’t stop tweeting about it! You’re paving a way for others. It’s a win for you, win for Microsoft, and a win for all the other smart people, knowledgeable about social media, that Microsoft & other forward-thinking companies will hire because of your work. THANKS! and CONGRATS!

  12. Aleta Fullenwider

    Congratulations! Thank you for the explanation of what MSR does and stands for. I applaud your decision to preemptively respond to criticisms. Often it is easier to stand in judgment of a company that work with them to overcome obstacles that will ultimately benefit the human race. It’s that what we’re all working for?

  13. orcmid

    Wow! Jealous that you won’t be based in Redmond, but maybe we’ll be seeing you more often in Puget Sound country as well. I love your excitement about this.

  14. Ariel

    I had a sneaking suspicion when I interviewed Jennifer & Christian for Microspotting a couple months ago that you might be joining them. VERY EXCITING!!!

  15. Chris Tolles


    Congrats on the Trifecta — Yahoo, Google, Microsoft. Glad to see you still happy and interested in the space we all are trying to figure out. Sometime we should chat about what we’re seeing with connecting people up from deepest rural America here at Topix 🙂

    Drop a line whenever you land in the Bay Area…

    Chris Tolles
    CEO, Topix

  16. John

    What Microsoft needs is a herd of good programmers, not yet another egomaniac talking head. They have plenty of good ideas, but always fcuk it up in the execution phase.

    And here’s a quest for you: Either post this comment as my honest opinion about the topic or don’t post it. It’s the first test to see whether M$ has also bought your soul.

  17. Alvin Chin

    Congratulations on the job! You have very thought provoking ideas and research, as I’ve followed and read some of your work. Hope that Microsoft will be able to use your work to drive social networking to the next level and improve their collaborative products.

    Hope to also see you at some of the conferences, as I’ve followed your work, but haven’t met you in person before.

    And about the dissertation, I know what you mean, I’m in the same boat as well. I’ve just started a new research position, but still have the lingering dissertation to finish up which I’m towards the end.

    It’s a good feeling to finish one chapter and start the next.

    Good luck and keep us up to date on your work.

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