Letter re closing of Microsoft Research Silicon Valley

The following letter has just been sent to the leadership of Microsoft Research.  Others who wish to express support for the sentiments expressed in the letter may do so by commenting on this blog post.


October 14, 2014

Harry Shum, Executive Vice President, Technology and Research
Peter Lee, Corporate Vice President, Head of Microsoft Research
Jeannette Wing, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Research
Microsoft Corporation

Dear Harry, Peter, and Jeannette:

By now, you are no doubt aware of the research community’s shock and disappointment at the sudden and harsh way in which the members of the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley lab were dismissed a few weeks ago.  We are writing to share our perspective on the negative impacts of the shutdown and to open a dialogue about the ways in which Microsoft can try to restore the environment that enabled MSR to produce such great research in the past, benefiting both the company and the world.

While layoffs are always unpleasant, the impact of this one has been exacerbated by the fact that many researchers at the Silicon Valley lab worked on long-term, fundamental research of the kind that can be done at very few places outside of academia.  As you know, the academic calendar is such that many of these researchers, including very junior ones who recently completed their PhDs, could be jobless for nearly an entire year. We feel that there should have been a better way to close down this lab, one that would have allowed them to have continuous employment until academic jobs are available again in September 2015. Given that this lab was continuing to produce exceptional — indeed revolutionary — research, we fail to understand why closing it had to be done so suddenly.

Over the past two decades, MSR, and indeed all of Microsoft, earned an excellent reputation in academia as an organization that not only valued basic research but also supported the career development of the many researchers that worked in or visited the labs.  That reputation has been significantly damaged, threatening Microsoft’s ability to recruit and retain world-class researchers.  As faculty members, we can no longer recommend it as highly to our students as a place to start their careers.  In the long term, this move seems likely to adversely affect Microsoft Research (and the positive contributions it makes to Microsoft as a whole) in more ways than any benefit it may have had.

Nevertheless, we believe that Microsoft can reduce the damage that has been caused by the shutdown of the Silicon Valley lab.  We understand that Microsoft is considering ways to help care for the researchers who were dismissed, such as defraying the additional costs of the academic organizations who are trying to provide these researchers with temporary homes. This would be an excellent, and highly appreciated, first step.  Looking forward, we hope that you will open a discussion with us and the community about Microsoft’s vision for industrial research (which has become less clear after the closing of what appeared to be an extremely valuable and successful lab) and concrete commitments MSR can make regarding the career development of its remaining and future researchers.  Steps like these are essential to rebuilding the relationship between Microsoft and the academic community, along with all the mutual benefits that it brings.

Sincerely,

Rajeev Alur, University of Pennsylvania
Paul Beame, University of Washington
Avrim Blum, Carnegie Mellon University
Moses Charikar, Princeton University
Petros Drineas, Rochester Polytechnic Institute
Jeff Erickson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Joan Feigenbaum, Yale University
Lance Fortnow, Georgia Institute of Technology
Piotr Indyk, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
David Johnson, Columbia University
Sampath Kannan, University of Pennsylvania
Phokion Kolaitis, University of California, Santa Cruz
Vipin Kumar, University of Minnesota
Richard Lipton, Georgia Institute of Technology
Silvio Micali, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Ramamohan Paturi, University of California, San Diego
Dana Randall, Georgia Institute of Technology
Jennifer Rexford, Princeton University
Tim Roughgarden, Stanford University
Holly Rushmeier, Yale University
David Shmoys, Cornell University
Robert Sloan, University of Illinois at Chicago
Diane Souvaine, Tufts University
William Steiger, Rutgers University
Eva Tardos, Cornell University
Luca Trevisan, University of California, Berkeley
Salil Vadhan, Harvard University
Avi Wigderson, Institute for Advanced Study

The drafting of this letter was led by the ACM SIGACT Committee for the Advancement of Theoretical Computer Science, but the letter is signed by a number of people outside that committee and indeed even outside the SIGACT community.  The chair of the committee, Salil Vadhan (salil@seas.harvard.edu), is the contact person for responses to the letter.

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Comments

  1. I don’t know the ins & outs of course. But this did give the impression of a mighty creature being controlled by a brain the size of a pea. O Microsoftosaurus, you’re not heading for extinction are you? Then why give that impression?

  2. IT corps sometimes face harsh economic realities. alas even universities are increasingly being run like corps also as noted by others. a dialog could be helpful but universities & academic labs are different beasts at heart & one cannot expect similar outcomes/ situations… more links/ analysis at silicon valley TCS research lab shuts down

  3. Shay Kutten says:

    I can’t say I understand the business point here. Consider a bright young computer scientist looking for a job in the foreseeable future. They will probably consider MS low on their list, following such a treatment. They will be afraid this will happen to them. The result may be that only people who cannot get a job elsewhere would go to MS. Indeed, MS is not growing much these days, so it may not need that many new employee. Still, employees do leave from time to time, and MS will need new people. With time, it will deteriorate as a result.

  4. I fully agree with this letter.
    David Eppstein, University of California, Irvine

  5. Adam Smith says:

    I fully agree with this letter.
    Adam Smith, Pennsylvania Stat University.

  6. I full agree with this letter.
    Atri Rudra, University at Buffalo, SUNY.

  7. “this did give the impression of a mighty creature being controlled by a brain the size of a pea”

    I fully agree with this statement by the first commenter.

  8. The letter presents some clear feedback to MSFT. This was a small Lab full of highly respected and productive researchers. MSFT gained little and lost much through its handling of the situation. The company would be well advised to take some steps to reiterate their support of research. While the company may not grow much in the future it needs the best innovators and creative talent to want to join the company.

  9. I also support this letter.
    Ron Rivest
    Vannevar Bush Professor, EECS, MIT

  10. Just a few months ago I was saying that MSR is one of the very few (only?) heirs to the Xerox Parc and Bell Labs blue sky research in computing. Alas, no more. I fully agree with this letter.

    Tanya Berger-Wolf
    University of Illinois at Chicago

  11. I support this letter. Even if closing the lab was a necessary business decision, the execution was unnecessarily harsh. I expected more from Microsoft.

    Daniel Wichs (Northeastern University)

  12. Danny dolev says:

    I admired the research team at MSR. They assembled an admirable blend of talent. The stunning move by Microsoft was shocking and I hope it will not have ripple effect at the rest of the research community.

    I am sure that many leading researchers in other places in Microsoft will ask themselves whether it is still the right place for them.

    The CS research community lost one of its strongest team, though the researchers will undoubtly find first line places to continue working at

    Danny Dolev

  13. I endorse this letter.

  14. Tal Malkin says:

    I support and agree with this letter.
    Tal Malkin, Columbia University

  15. Well, at least they haven’t fired 3 Turing award winners working at the lab (yet).

  16. I support this letter.

    Aravind Srinivasan
    Professor of Computer Science
    University of Maryland, College Park

  17. I support this letter.
    Michael Fischer, Yale University

  18. Giovanni Di Crescenzo says:

    Was there a similar dismissal at AT&T sometime in the last year? If yes, and if it wasn’t too long ago, perhaps a similar letter should also be sent to AT&T executives?

    Giovanni Di Crescenzo
    Applied Communication Sciences

  19. I am surprised and intrigued that Microsoft could not handle the lab
    closing more elegantly. Why the suddenness?

    Jayadev Misra
    Professor and Schlumberger Centennial Chair
    The University of Texas at Austin

  20. Ravi Prakash says:

    I support this letter.

    Ravi Prakash
    Professor of Computer Science
    University of Texas at Dallas

  21. Neeraj Mittal says:

    I fully support this letter.

    Neeraj Mittal
    Associate Professor of Computer Science
    The University of Texas at Dallas

  22. Erez Petrank says:

    I support this letter.

    Prof. Erez Petrank, Technion

  23. Antonio Fernandez says:

    I strongly support this letter.

    Antonio Fernandez Anta
    IMDEA Networks Institute
    Madrid, Spain

  24. I endorse this letter. Jared Saia, Professor of Computer Science, University of New Mexico.

  25. I support this letter.

    Gopal Pandurangan
    University of Houston

  26. Bernard Chazelle says:

    I support this letter. A sad day for TCS.

    So let’s see, Microsoft has enough money to buy a video game for $2.5 billion but feels the need to fire some of the world’s smartest researchers. Maybe it’s business savvy of the highest caliber. Or maybe it’s the drinking water in the executive suite that needs checking…

    Bernard Chazelle

  27. I believe that while MSR Research does innovation, MS doesn’t do much. If MS cannot use that research, it is their fault and not MSR’s. I support this letter.
    Vinayak Naik, IIIT-Delhi

  28. I had the privilege of being a postdoc at the MSR SV lab some years ago and I definitely fully support this letter.

    Fabian Kuhn, U. of Freiburg

  29. I endorse this letter. Hope to hear back from Microsoft.

    Manoj Prabhakaran
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

  30. Santonu Sarkar says:

    I fully agree with this letter
    Santonu Sarkar
    BITS Pilani, India

  31. Support, UCSB grad

  32. Moammad T. Hajiaghayi says:

    I fully support this letter as well.
    Mohammad T. Hajiaghayi
    U. of Maryland, College Park

  33. I, too, endorse this letter. Many Dartmouth alumni, both undergraduate and graduate, have worked at Microsoft. I would like to continue to feel good about Microsoft as a potential employer when I talk with our current students about jobs, but right now it’s going to be pretty tough.

  34. Apparently MS is a bad employer for researchers..

  35. I fully agree. Disappointing.

    Amir Herzberg, Bar-Ilan University

  36. I fully agree with this letter.
    Bernhard Haeupler, CMU

  37. I support this letter.
    Idit Keidar, Technion

  38. I endorse this letter.

    Katrina Ligett
    Caltech

  39. I support this letter.

    -Muthu
    (University of Rochester)

  40. Resnet Lee says:

    This letter seems to be receiving strong support from academia. Could readers from non-academia (and non-MS) share their opinions too?

  41. I fully support this letter.

    – Philipp

  42. I fully support this letter.

    Wolf Bein, Professor of Computer Science, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

  43. Brutal Honest says:

    Just to clarify a few things. I am a softie.

    MSR is not closing down. There is a good set of research going on in Redmond. Only MSR Silicon Valley wing was closed down.

    The reason: They were not producing anything that was tangible and practical. Where as MSR in Redmond was producing things which of research by nature, but had applicability to real things Microsoft is doing/wants to do. MSR Silicon valley was all theory and producing only research papers. Let universities do that.

  44. Christian Cachin says:

    I share the views and concerns expressed in this letter. The culture of industrial research in CS affects people in industry and in academia alike, as industrial research provides a bridge between the two.

    Christian Cachin
    (I work at IBM Research but this is my personal opinion.)

  45. I fully agree with the letter.

    Xin Liu, University of California, Davis

  46. Boaz Barak, if this is not the forum to discuss the cause behind Microsoft’s actions then what is the forum where outsiders could discuss the actions of a public corporation? This is not only the best forum but actually the only forum where we can discuss how theoretical researchers could contribute to a company’s success. This is also in the interest of other theoretical researchers in Microsoft. If our universities see that Microsoft does not value your research then we may raise a possibility of hiring you in our internal discussions.

    • The commenter I replied to identified him/herself as a Microsoft employee. I meant that this isn’t the forum for two MS employees to debate on the contributions of MSR SV to the company (now edited my original post to reflect that). I think it’s absolutely fine for outsiders to do so, keeping in mind that not all the contributions of a research lab to the company are made public.

  47. I fully support this letter.
    Henning Ulfarsson, Reykjavik University

  48. Microsoftie says:

    Disclosure: I work for MSR and I am deeply troubled by the closing of MSR SVC.

    After this, let me say that I find the condescending tone of this letter rather trite: for example, “we hope that you will open a discussion with us”? and if not? you’ll not accept the freebies from MSR?

    I would like to note that all 3 leaders of MSR are accomplished academians. They surely knew what closing SVC would entail. Perhaps they had no other recourse?

    Moreover, the people at SVC were fired in the same manner (if not better) than the other 17,950 people from Microsoft who were fired over the past 6 months. This letter assumes they deserve better. I’m not sure why this assumption is true.

    This letter could and should have been better phrased. In the way that it is currently written, it will surely be laughed at by the people to whom it was addressed.

    • I am not sure if you have a PhD and are an “accomplished academian [sic]” yourself, but in my opinion, there is nothing wrong with the tone of the original letter, it may even be too polite and positive. Your tone however is insulting. When you say “and if not? you’ll not accept the freebies from MSR?” are you implying that the only role of MSR in academia is providing “freebies”!!? Did you even read the original letter and all the following comments? In particular, I can’t agree more with the third comment above, noting that Microsoft will lose a lot of top talent in the long run if they don’t act fast to reduce the damage as this letter states.

      The fact that MSR is led by “accomplished academicians” doesn’t mean that they won’t make a mistake. Academicians may make mistakes just like any human being. In fact, that’s how things work in academia. Academicians examine the work of each other, and point out mistakes and offer solutions. That’s what this letter does. Of course, as other comments have pointed out, MSR is only partially led by academicians – decision makers don’t seem to have an understanding of science and academia. The decision is clearly made by those who look at a balance sheet in which Research (R&D) is a cost, and cutting it is what makes them happy. As the first comment above says:
      “this did give the impression of a mighty creature being controlled by a brain the size of a pea”!

  49. Dorothea Wagner says:

    I strongly support this letter.

    Dorothea Wagner
    Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany

  50. alohaethernet says:

    Disagree with the public letter.

    I think most of the academia employed people that have posted on this site either have an idea but do not want to apply it or do not have an idea on the risks-rewards-benefits analysis as applied from a labor economic perspective to MSFT’s recent actions.

    Corporations are groups of people but those people have to be productive in tangible terms for the justification of investment inputs into them. Some calculation of this sort must have shown to MSFT’s management that the value of total output IP produced either tangibly or intangibly is not worth the input costs. The better thing to do is shutdown the enterprise in such a case.

    You can still get employed with big-name corporates and that way includes publishing more applied research than pondering on solved-many-times theoretical problems that have no applications in any industry. When was the last time that the Turing Machine model has changed fundamentally? Probably not.

    Another point to note is the biases that certain geographical academia and communities develop against corporates. Those biases will interfere with the investment inputs and with the IP outputs. There must be a certain way of debiasing such noise so IP paths are clearer.

    My 10 cents worth contribution from a retired employee.

    • I think you got it wrong! The letter doesn’t say that MSFT should not have closed down the lab. It is criticizing the way this happened. To me, this sudden shut-down seems like a pure financial decision to enhance the financial balance sheet for a given quarter – something that helps the company meet short-term goals, but ignores the long-term impact; things like losing great talent even in other locations, and losing the trust of the academic community.

      I haven’t seen people criticising Yahoo! for *almost* shutting down one of the best industrial research labs out there, and I haven’t seen people criticizing a company like Apple for example for not having “Apple Research”! So this is not about the decision of having a research lab or keeping a location open, but the damage this action has caused to a part of this high-impact scientific community.

      • Layoffs come suddenly. MSFT downsized by 18000 employees in one single restructuring. The question is why the 70 or so researchers at MSR SV should be treated differently because of their academic work. I am sure the remaining 17930 former employees were also responsible for a substantial share of the revenue. It is well possible MSFT did not take into account the peculiarities of the Finnish job market when downsizing Nokia.

        The loss of MSR SV is certainly a tragedy, but these requests for preferential treatment do not help improving the image of academia outside academia. It would be nice to extend the discussion to the whole MSFT situation, rather than focusing on MSR SV only.

      • I strongly disagree with this socialistic view that all employees should be treated equally and the bright scientists who lost their jobs in MSR are not any different from thousands of lower-rank employees laid off in MSFT or other companies. If this is your view, then you should start objecting why scientists are typically paid (much) more than the lower-rank software engineers although they may actually write much smaller number of lines of code! If this is your view, then you are right, this is not where you should be writing comments since this letter and all the supporters and even MSR leadership understands and appreciates the value of fundamental research and academic work. After all, this is why MSR and such research labs exist.

  51. Allan Prince says:

    I’m not a researcher. However, when I read about this in the paper it seemed very ill planned. The reason I say that is there was no message from MS about what they intend to replace their research group with.

    Are they no longer doing research? Is this indicative of a sort of “profits are down cut everything” panic reaction? Seems like it.

    I am an Engineering student and I do watch the behavior of companies like MS very carefully. And I will base my future employment decisions on how I perceive that a company treats their employees.

  52. Krishan Kumar Singh says:

    I fully support this letter.

    Krishan Kumar Singh
    -B.I.T, Mesra

  53. …this is a timely response to the way that lab was shut down…hope other companies won’t repeat such an unreasonable act of fossilizing fundamental research…

  54. I support the letter.

  55. Shiva Chaitanya says:

    I fully agree with this letter.
    Shiva Chaitanya, ATG, NetApp.

  56. Vinod Vaikuntanathan says:

    I full agree with this letter.
    Vinod Vaikuntanathan, MIT

Trackbacks

  1. […] 15. Letter re closing of Microsoft Research Silicon Valley / TheoryMatters blog […]

  2. […] how Microsoft handled the layoffs and closing of its Silicon Valley lab. On October 14, they posted an open letter to Microsoft Research managemen[2]t expressing their dismay over the […]

  3. […] led an effort — an effort that ultimately grew beyond the SIGACT community — to send an open letter to Microsoft Executive Vice President for Technology and Research, Harry Shrum and VP…, urging them to open a dialogue with the community about the closing and “reduce the damage […]

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