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!!!!!