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Interview with Rick Rashid, Senior Vice President, Microsoft Research

Rick Rashid, Senior Vice President at Microsoft and head of Microsoft Research, recently celebrated his twentieth anniversary at Microsoft this year. Rick was in Pittsburgh this past weekend (May 14, 2011) to deliver the commencement speech for Carnegie Mellon’s School of Science and doctoral hooding ceremonies, as well as to receive an honorary Doctor of Science & Technology degree. While here, Rick took some time to sit down with at Microsoft’s Pittsburgh offices to discuss some of his endeavors and initiatives, in addition to some of the exciting projects at Microsoft Research. (Bob Stein): Some people may be confused about Microsoft Research. What is it that your group does?

Rick Rashid: Well, Microsoft Research is really the basic research part of Microsoft, so what we do is long term basic research. Think of it like what you are doing in a computer science department in a university type of environment. Now we’re doing the context of the company Microsoft where we can work directly with product group technology a lot faster. (Bob Stein): 2011 is your twentieth anniversary at Microsoft Research, what do you feel is your biggest accomplishment?

Rick Rashid: That’s a pretty long list of accomplishments. I think if you look at the technical side of things. We’ve made enormous strides in areas that are directly related in the creation of software. So if you look at the work we’ve done with program analysis, program proof technology, etc. - we’ve really gotten to a point now where we can prove significant properties of programs of hundreds of thousands of lines of code. Its changing the way people think of about software and the way they think of managing and creating software - not only inside Microsoft, but outside of Microsoft as well.

Just today, I got the news that Microsoft Research has won a significant award from the PLDI conference, now it goes back more than 10 years. It’s a tremendous amount of research value. I think more broadly there are so many parts of Microsoft, there are so many products that have depended on the work that has come out of Microsoft Research.  Obviously the most recent example is Kinect - it’s the fastest selling consumer electronics product in history. It was a huge effort by Microsoft Research teams working with the Xbox team, that really made that happen. (Bob Stein): Was there an "aha" moment when you realized the potential that you had with Kinect?

Rick Rashid: For me, the “aha” moment was when I saw my two youngest children, 10 & 12, (my family was on the beta) they used it for the first time and what was interesting they weren’t just having fun playing the game and winning. They were having fun celebrating. They were jumping up and down and their character on the screen was doing exactly what they were doing.  It was that realization, it was the thing that was driving the experience for them that they were physically in the game, they were able to project themselves in a very real way, and to make a connection that people have never made with computers before.  And seeing that, and seeing the faces of these kids and that joy that I brought them. I thought “ok, I think we are really going to win with this.” (Bob Stein): How do you think the upcoming release of the SDK will drive this further?

Rick Rashid: What I’m hoping is, the SDK that we are releasing, in just a bit now is really intended for research and for experimentation.  It is not a product SDK, it’s a research SDK.  My hope is what it will do is get people to really leverage work and technology with capabilities that we have in Kinect and to do more interesting projects and experiments. People have been really excited about Kinect because it’s It really shows that computers can do something, that people didn’t think computers could do before.  Researchers and people that who like experimenting with computers have been jumping on that, and saying here’s a very inexpensive piece of technology I can do experimentation on. What SDK will do is open up a significant set of new capabilities to those people who have not had access to before, in order to be able to try and do new things. (Bob Stein): So as you said Microsoft Research is the “little r” in Microsoft’s huge R&D total budget, as the total budget is nearly 10 billion dollars. Still being the “little r” what value do you think Microsoft has received after their continued ongoing investment in research?

Rick Rashid: Well our research is used every product we own, and look how Microsoft has just been, look  back at the last 10 years, enormously dynamic in terms of growing its businesses. We’ve gone from 2001 with 25 billion in revenue, now we are at 68 billion. That’s incredible growth over a relatively small time.  And I’ve always been drive by the technology and the kind of research that has helped us build and make popular things like Xbox.  Xbox Live has the capabilities - that no one else still has to be able to do the things like Xbox Live does. Look at the technology that we have put into SharePoint and has driven that product  (a multibillion dollar product), you look at the technology that has gone into Windows and Office and the things that has allowed them to do what they are able to do and allows us to build them more reliably and more consistently over time. A lot of our technology has gone into to helping the company do its job better, as well as help the company make the products better.  So there has been a huge amount of value, take things like Bing, because we have Microsoft Research, when Microsoft as a company decided to compete with Google in that way in order get the competitive edge in that market very quickly, more quickly than our competitor really expected us to. As we introduced Bing as a product and a vehicle its really allowed us to differentiate and to give us value that again, Google doesn’t have. There is a steady market acceptance of Bing. I think again that’s a testament to the fact we have the world’s best information retrieval group that we can put on problems like that. (Bob Stein): I’m glad you brought up Google, Steve Jobs has said “our friends up north - all they are doing is copying Google & Apple.“ What would you say to that?

Rick Rashid: Well I think if you actually look at the business we are in and the things we can do, really there is no evidence of that.  If you look we’ve gone back to fifteen years ago and Microsoft has very small presence in the enterprise space. And today people look at Microsoft with look of hate, that we are a large enterprise company. Well its only been because we have been able to build so many businesses in that space. Over the last 10 years we have created over 8 new billion dollar businesses.  That’s a lot of innovation that’s a lot of change over a relativity small period of time.  If you look at Kinect for example of something when it was in the consumer stage, that came out of nowhere I think for everybody. This is significant example of real time computer vision applied in a significant, in this case consumer setting. And again, no one had any notion you could do it. One of the things that is great about Kinect is it was so surprising.  People stood in front of it – played with it – and suddenly realized computers could do something previously not thought possible.

What is interesting about Kinect, again, it is not just a great product in its own sense; it is literally opened up a whole new area thinking about what computers can do. It has excited the research world, the business community. Everyone is thinking, if computers can see, and react in real time to the actions of the user – what does that allow us to do now? People have talked about natural user interfaces for some time – this is probably the first palpable step towards a really natural interface where the computer can track you and understand what you are doing in an environment. (Bob Stein): Being the lead of over 850 researchers across six worldwide labs – what is your typical day like? What is the best part of your job?

Rick Rashid: The absolute best part of my job is spending time with the researchers that I have. There are so many cool ideas in technology that we are working on. The way I manage my researchers – is I try to hire the best possible people and I give them a great environment to work in. We don’t tell anyone what to do, we do not have any mechanisms for controlling or pushing people in one direction or another. We are relying on the fact that we hired the best possible people and that they are going to find the right areas to work on. They just surprise me. I can remember the time I had a lunch with one of my researchers a number of years ago and he said “oh by the way, we have been working with a cancer center on an AIDS vaccine” I was like “OK - that seems a little far afield for us”, then he started to explaining that one technology we created for Spam detection that was being used in Exchange and Outlook is equally applicable for this space. He was basically saying – here is this virus that is constantly changing and attacking you, right – how do I recognize the similarities between the things that are attacking and the things that are normal. Which is exactly what a Spam problem is….at that point it began to make a lot of sense and I could see the relationship. I still couldn’t see how that would this would impact Microsoft businesses. But, as time goes on, as things usually happens; now Microsoft has a healthcare group. And they are very much using these kinds of technologies as part of their business intelligence part of healthcare solutions. (Bob Stein): How has Microsoft Research contributed to the development of Microsoft’s cash cows – Windows and Office? How did you save Windows/Office in 1995 during the transition between 16-bit and 32-bit software? Who told you the changes would be “over my dead body”?

Rick Rashid: Well, we had this issue as we were moving from 16 to 32-bit that the 32-bit code pretty much is twice the size as 16-bit. Normally, there would have been a nice memory price curve headed downward. In fact, memory prices kind of spiked right before 1995. So, as a company we were put in a situation where we had to try to sell Windows 95 and Office 95 products into business PCs that only have either 4 or 8 MB of memory, and that hadn’t changed much from the days of Windows 3.1 or Windows 3.11. That was a big problem for us. Luckily, going back to 1992 we had developed the technology that basically optimized the working size of 32-bit programs and effectively got that factor of 2 back. That was critical in being able to release those products. (Bob Stein): Did you know you were going to need that?

Rick Rashid: You could argue the fact or not those researchers thought it would eventually be needed or not. We were working on it because it was an interesting problem to solve.  We tried to get our product groups interested in it -  Dave Cutler  of the Windows NT group said “over my dead body will this be included in our product.” But in reality, it wasn’t unreasonable for him to say that because the reality is whenever you are introducing a new technology into an environment it produces a risk. The question is always is the risk worth it or not? Because of the set of circumstances, which no one had necessarily predicted, the risk is worth it.  Suddenly you are in a situation because of external forces you have to solve the problem, luckily, because you have been in basic research – we had a solution and that gave us the opportunity to solve the problem for the product group at a critical time.

That in general is something you always see of research. That same thing happened with Kinect. You can’t do research based on what a product team needs right now. Because it won’t be done soon enough, it takes too long. You need to have hired great people, build the capacity, created the IP, created the artifacts – solved some of the problems. So when someone comes to you, you can either adapt something you have already done or you can use what you already know to solve this new element of the problem. But now you can do it fast enough so the product teams can actually use it. That’s something people usually forget about it. That’s the reason why you don’t want to direct fundamental basic research – it is solving problems you do not know you have.

This is a philosophical point, but if you go back to the writings of Vannevar Bush, whose writings and efforts in part helped created the National Science Foundation. His arguments for making investments in basic research were like “look, we just went through a war, a lot of the reasons we were able to survive that war were due to technology and bring technology to bear, and investments in previously made research. We don’t know when there will be a new war or famine or disease, we don’t know when that will happen but we want to make sure when the time arises we will have the technology, know-how, and people that can help us survive.

At a company like Microsoft, the same thing applies.  Look at the history of the company’s technology. How much 20 years ago is still here – how much from 20 years ago are still here in a recognizable form? There is so much change, the market is constantly is adjusting to ideas, approaches and market conditions, new technologies. You need to have that upfront set of investments, so when the time comes and you have to change – you have the technology, know-how and people to do it. It has been something at Microsoft that has been a huge advantage to us over the years, it has allowed us to survive situations that were difficult, and allowed us to be involved in new businesses that we could not be in any other way.

We are working with people on Malaria, Hepatitis, Memory Loss, Asthma, and others...You’d be surprised using our research involvement in Computer Science to tackle some of these hard problems in other areas. Increasingly a lot of biology looks like information processing, and people realize genetics has a lot of string/variation processing, so there is an opportunity for us there. And it goes both ways – we have some researchers in our Cambridge, England lab who, for example, have been learning how cells function and adapting to programming languages and how to take our expertise in software and how to program cells, for example to fight cancer, etc. (Bob Stein): You’ve written some 600,000 lines of code during your career.  What is still in use? You've mentioned Allegiance – which we of course covered on our site many years ago.

Rick Rashid: It is still being used – there are a bunch of people on the Internet still using it. At the time, it was one of the best reviewed products Microsoft had put out. The sales were disappointing, I think in part, because it was Microsoft’s first online only product and no one knew how to sell it. It was an experiment for us.

It is fascinating how that particular game came to be, there was a point in time after Windows 95 was released that the guy who ran the DirectX team reported to me. That was due because there was a lot of research involved in it, I was always running research but this was a side job for me. In the 1970s, I created one of the first networked computer games – called Alto Trek. I decided I wanted to learn the DirectX API my team was using, and wanted to experiment with it. So I took that old game and ported it to the DirectX interface. It was fun, but I just ended up with the old game – which was kind of boring. So I decided to make it in color, 3D, etc…more modern looking, but still wasn’t very good because my ability to do artwork is close to zero. Ed Fries, who at the time was running the Games Division, I knew him pretty well – he had seen it. He said it was a interesting idea – so I got this designer that would be great working on it, so the two of us started going at it, and a few years later we shipped the game. The game was a little ahead of its time, maybe. (Bob Stein): Does the Microsoft Research group ever interact with the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional Program?

Rick Rashid: Not formally, but certainly our people are out interacting with community users, doing presentations and events, etc. We also put out a lot of code which a lot of the MVPs test and provide feedback on, which is very helpful. (Bob Stein): Nathan Myhrvold, the man who hired you, went on to write the Modernist Cuisine. Do you see cookbooks in your future? What do you see next for you?

Rick Rashid: My joke with Nathan, when I used to report to him, was that he always wanted to go to the gourmet restaurant while I was happy eating at McDonalds. So, I don’t think a cookbook is in my future (laughing), but I do make a good Barbeque. I don’t see us getting into Modernist Cuisine though. (Bob Stein): Discovery News published this week news of Microsoft Research’s development of a human antenna. This story highlights some of the very exciting (and interesting) projects Microsoft Research is developing.  What other exciting projects come to mind?

Rick Rashid: We have experimenting with the whole area of natural user interface.  There are a lot of opportunities to explore how users can interact more naturally with people, how to be able to communicate more. So, there is some of our work of looking at micro-movement of muscles and the electrical signals in your body and use that control interfaces or interact with things of that kind – we can do some mean air guitar that way, referring to one of the demos we have done in the past.

We are at a point of time where people are experimenting with new forms of interaction, and obviously we are doing a lot of the work ourselves. (Bob Stein): In the past 20 years, is there any research that you would have liked to bring to market but for some reason it didn’t come to fruition?

Rick Rashid: The reality is that almost everything gets used somewhere, somehow, some day.  Circumstances often dictate when a particular technology becomes suddenly important.  Take for example, something like real time 3D computer vision. We have been working on that since the 1990s. We certainly tried to get people interested along the way, but then circumstances suddenly come up.  The incredibly talented Xbox product team came to us to tackle this space, then all of the work we did became relevant. They were doing great work, and our people were working extra hard because we had such great partners. It went back and forth, a lot of great opportunity for us.

That is the way a lot of things work. You come up with an idea, time is not right, later on though the idea might have real value. In technology in general, there are many cases where technology ideas are discounted at certain point in time, then a number of years later will suddenly become important. You always have to be thoughtful of fact that just because it was a bad idea once, doesn’t mean it is still a bad idea. Things change.  Underlying technology, circumstances change.

I remember for a long time people said “we’ll just never make these multiprocessors work, always will be a problems, code is an issue, etc.” Circumstances conspired to make it an absolute requirement – not is no longer optional. We build these operating systems, databases, products like Exchange, etc. they have to be multi-threaded, they have to work in these environments. Otherwise, you are dead. Clock speeds have not kept over, but the number of cores have. Parallelism is an absolute requirement now. Suddenly, all of the work from twenty years ago that was sitting on the shelf because clock speeds were going up and everything was great – that’s not happening and more and now all that work is important.

I think it’s a treasure trove of intellectual property, ideas, people, etc. that you build up over time. (Bob Stein): War Chest?

Rick Rashid: Sometimes it is a war chest, sometimes it is your first aid kit. It can be any of those things. Sometimes its your new set of tools to tackle a problem, which is new, and no one worked on it before.

The key thing is being ready. And being receptive to change. Change is the key element in our industry. I look back – you wouldn’t know, my PhD thesis was actually in 3D computer vision . I look back to what we we were doing in the 1970s in that space, and then you look at Kinect. Then I say “we were really dumb”, but maybe we just didn’t have the tools – yea, probably didn’t have the tools.  We weren’t as smart as the people are now. I am impressed with the quality of people graduating out of our schools.  I was talking with some older computer scientists, on the advisory board for the Engineering school at Stanford.  I don’t think we could compete today. We look at how smart these young people are, the knowledge they have, how much they know, it is a very different world today. That’s the future – in the kids. (Bob Stein): Speaking of universities, congratulations on your honorary doctorate degree you received this past weekend at CMU.

Rick Rashid: Thank you. (Bob Stein): How does it feel to be recognized at such an accredited university?

Rick Rashid: For good or bad, I am at the point in my life where I am starting to accumulate a large number of honors.  It may be a little bit of a negative. But I think it is great, I have a strong personal connection with Carnegie Mellon. I was a professor there for twelve years, it was a very formative point in my career. The university, not as an entity, but the people, really gave me a great opportunity to succeed and supported me. It feels great to be honored by this particular university because of that connection.

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