Magazine: Labz Microsoft research
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At 9:00 a.m., the Microsoft shuttle bus pulls up to an inconspicuous office building in a leafy suburb of Seattle. Known as building 99, this structure provides the homebase for Microsoft Research. Inside, under the glass roofed atrium, groups of researchers are hard at work discussing their projects over coffee, available free from Starbucks machines on every floor.
The atrium serves as a hub for collaboration and discussion, with residents gathering throughout the day to meet and socialize. The 300 people at Microsoft Research are a mix of permanent researchers, visiting collaborators, and interns. Although interns are only there for three months at a time, they get all the same privileges, and many of the same responsibilities, as regular employees.
Internships are one of the best ways to get a foot in the door with mainstream industry research. Internships give students a taste of the research community in a specific field, but also let them start networking with experienced and likeminded people.
In the social computing lab on the ground floor, it's hard not to get drawn into discussions on the benefits of Twitter with interns who are working on ways to visualize and analyze social networking data. In June 2009, when Michael Jackson died, news of his death hit Twitter and caused fascinating social grouping patterns, which the Microsoft Research interns visualized in new ways using tools they had developed. Projects such as Bing Collaborative Search, Kodu, and Microsoft Portrait all have roots in this group.
The Windows Mobile building next door provides a huge selection of fresh food cooked on demand. During lunch, it's easy to get wrapped up chatting about projects, but it also often motivates lucrative collaboration between colleagues, which is encouraged by the company. Researchers typically spend half a work day per week on something aside from their primary projects.
All interns are assigned a mentor in a field related to their project to guide them and act as their first point of contact. Additionally, Microsoft Research hosts weekly talks from other Microsoft divisions about current projects, general topics, or even to get feedback on released products, opening up even more venues for networking and learning.
If prototypes need to be constructed, the fully equipped on-site hardware lab, kitted out with a laser cutter, a CNC milling machine, an optics bench, and more, is a perfect place to test out ideas in practice. It's common to find groups huddling over half-built prototypes late at night, frantically preparing for demos the next day.
Amazingly, many of the cool demos seen at events like TechFest are actually built by a couple of dedicated guys in building 99 using everyday materials. Although these projects rarely become full products, some dosuch as Surface, Project Natal (for Xbox 360), and Azure. Many projects contribute toward future releases in core technologies, such as .NET and Windows, as well as collaborations with other institutions.
Walking around building 99, it's apparent that people enjoy working here, and not just for the free coffee. Research is driven by the need to contribute to the scientific community, by both improving existing ideas and systems, and introducing new ones.
If interns have any energy left after a full day in the lab, they can join some of the local trips that Microsoft organizes to see the sights of Seattle and Washington state. Some excursions have included the nearby Olympic Mountains, downtown Seattle, the Boeing factory, and local arts festivals.
Microsoft Research accepts applications for interns on a rolling basis via an online submission form (http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/jobs/intern/apply.aspx), though it is restricted to masters-level and PhD students only. Internships, which are paid, usually last 12 weeks and are offered at any of Microsoft's eight labs worldwide, though the majority are in Redmond.
The review process can take up to three months. Selected candidates are then invited to interview. If accepted, the company provides some support in finding accommodation, making travel arrangements, and securing visas.
Intel Labs has three labs in three locations: Berkeley, California; Seattle, Washington; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. www.intel-research.net
IBM Research has eight labs spread all over the world, offering numerous opportunities for students outside North America. www.research.ibm.com
INRIA is a French national research institution, focused on three areas: computer science, control theory, and applied mathematics.www.inria.fr
PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center is business-focused and to some extent client-driven. www.parc.com
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