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Beast from the East

Harry Shum is hungry. His entire lab is hungry. Over a catered lunch of noodles and fish in his Beijing office, Shum explains what drives his staff. “We started from nothing. The whole lab grew from this room. So I don’t rearrange anything,” he jokes, as if feng shui would matter to the world’s largest software company. But just ten years ago, the area around the lab was farmland. Today, Microsoft Research Asia occupies one and a half large floors in a six-story office building with a futuristic glass-front lobby. The lab has come to symbolize a city in the midst of a high-tech revolution.

Shum himself is a vibrant mix of East and West. His English is accented but very clear. Born and raised near Shanghai, he did his graduate work at Carnegie Mellon University (he says he’s “still a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan”) and joined Microsoft Research in Redmond in 1996. There, he became one of the company’s rising stars, creating realistic 3-D graphics and virtual environments using principles borrowed from computer vision.

Two years later came the opportunity: Microsoft was starting a lab in China. The goal was to tap into the country’s immense talent pool of students and scientists, including many who had emigrated to other countries but could be enticed back to their native land. And being in position to explore a marketplace of a billion people in a rapidly industrializing economy couldn’t hurt, either. To lead the charge, Microsoft brought in Kai-Fu Lee, a well-known speech and multimedia expert from Apple Computer and Silicon Graphics. Shum remembers the day well. “Kai-Fu came into my office and said, I’m moving to Beijing, and I’m not leaving without you,’” he says.

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