The Gates Dynasty?
On the other side of the lab from Li’s demo, a sea of rsums threatens to swallow up the desk of Hongjiang Zhang. Indeed, 10,000 of them have arrived in six months, he says, in application for staff openings in the new Advanced Technology Center he has been tapped to run. To help screen the onslaught of applicants, Zhang’s team has resorted to administering written exams in 11 cities around China. “The biggest challenge is people,” says Zhang. “We have to get the right blend of partnership, comradeship, and leadership.”
The Advanced Technology Center-marked by a sign in bold letters-is expanding rapidly, with a staff that grew from 20 this winter to 70 by springtime. It represents the next step for the lab, one in which Beijing’s research results will be more directly transferred to products. The goal: to speed up the process of feeding new technologies back to the mother ship.
The center is Zhang’s baby. As a researcher, Zhang created software that looked at pictures and could identify which were visually interesting and which were not-useful for automatic video editing. Now, leaving research behind, he is looking at the bigger picture of the lab and trying to identify those technologies that are most promising for Microsoft’s product groups. “What is the return from investing heavily in long-term research?” he asks. “The mission of the center is to answer that question.”
Zhang reveals a hint of nostalgia as he discusses the center, which was launched in November 2003 at the five-year anniversary of Microsoft Research Asia’s opening. At the ceremony, he says, the company’s research head, Rick Rashid, recounted the lab’s accomplishments and gave his heartfelt congratulations to its leaders in front of Microsoft’s higher-ups. “Looking around the room, we had tears in our eyes,” says Zhang. “We thought, This is a dream come true. We made history.’”
But now, Zhang says, it’s time to start making the company’s future, by developing new products that will be used by a wider swath of society. Instead of sending research managers across the Pacific to meet with product people-a process that Zhang says “will not scale up”-the Advanced Technology Center’s staff will do initial product development in Beijing. Their proximity to the research teams will make it easier to determine which technologies are ready for products. At the same time, they will visit Redmond regularly, staying close enough to product teams that they can advise researchers about real-world issues. That’s a way for “research to create value for the company,” says Henry Chesbrough, an expert on technology strategy and management at the University of California, Berkeley.
The question for Microsoft is whether the Beijing lab can keep its close-knit researchers focused on long-term issues, while at the same time accelerating near-term product development plans. Nobody thinks this balancing act will be easy. “Part of the price you pay is, people begin to ask you for low-hanging fruit,” says MIT’s Zue. “Your success can easily turn into a curse if everybody’s asking you for something they need six months from now.”
If this were the United States, that might be the most daunting challenge the lab faced. But this is China. To remain productive, Microsoft Research Asia will also need to nurture its relationship with government officials and academics, so that it benefits not only Microsoft but also its host country. Therein lies a source of tension. Local graduate students say it is their dream to work for Microsoft. But go higher up the ranks of Chinese academia, and there is talk of a dark side. “It’s a shame the government and university authorities allow such a waste of talent,” says Hongfei Wang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Chemistry. “These poor graduate students actually don’t have better choices. But by doing work on company projects, their opportunity for intellectual growth is greatly diminished.”
Indeed, Microsoft’s legacy in China may ultimately depend on whether the company Bill built is able to augment opportunities for Chinese citizens in general. Strengthening the educational system, providing technical training for young people, fostering local software companies, and promoting economic growth are a good start-and smart business-for what might one day be called the Gates dynasty.
At the end of another long workday, Harry Shum gets into a company car that will take him home to a subdivision on the outskirts of Beijing. The lab’s managing director checks his e-mail on a wireless handheld and then uses it to call home. He’s meeting his family for dinner; this will be the first night in a month that he hasn’t worked late. Beijing is peaceful at night, quiet. But things are changing fast. “This highway wasn’t even here five years ago,” Shum says. As he looks down this new road, he is already thinking about tomorrow, fighting the traffic in his mind, figuring out how to take his lab to the next level.