Wednesday, October 15, 2014

You'll be fine in Silicon Valley

Yesterday, a group of well-known professors from a bunch of universities sent an open letter to Microsoft Research's leadership, condemning them for closing the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley lab and leaving the researchers there "jobless". Although I know and respect many of the authors of this letter, I think they get it wrong when it comes to the career opportunities for the Microsoft researchers impacted by the lab's closing, and more broadly for the impact this closing will have on the research community.

The letter's tone is incredibly haughty -- a mixture of "how dare you" and "think of the children!!" What worries me the most is the message the letter seems to be sending to junior researchers who may feel that industry jobs are not a viable career path, because, hey, you might get fired if your lab closes. I think we should correct some of these misconceptions.

(Standard disclaimer: This is my personal blog and the opinions expressed here are mine alone, and most certainly not that of my employer.)

Let's take the letter point by point.

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.
While the news was sudden, I don't have any evidence that it was "harsh". That's how layoffs sometimes work. Yes, it sucks, but don't imply malice where none is intended.

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.
The implication here is that by closing the Silicon Valley lab, Microsoft has damaged "the environment" that enabled them to "produce such great research". Let's see here. By my count, about 75 researchers out of a worldwide organization of "more than 1,000 scientists and engineers" were affected. While this is unfortunate, I don't think it's going to seriously hinder Microsoft's ability to do great work in the future. It's still a great place and I expect it will continue to grow.

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.
The fact that "very few places outside of academia" allow one to do "long-term, fundamental research" should be teaching us something. The authors of this letter seem to believe that doing academic-style research is some kind of special, protected occupation that people with PhDs are entitled to. While there may have been plenty of industry labs doing pure, academic-style research 20 or 30 years ago, the world has changed. What worries me is that professors still cling to an industry research model that has largely been supplanted by other, better models. I think it's time to evolve our thinking about this in the community and start giving appropriate career advice to students so they are prepared for the reality of what's out there, rather than for an outmoded academic ideal.

It is also a common misconception that one cannot do research in a more product-oriented industry setting. For example, Google does a tremendous amount of research, albeit using a fairly different model than places like MSR. The same is true for other large and small companies as well. We may not call all of these places "research labs" and bestow fancy titles on people like "research scientist", but the research is still happening, and having tremendous impact.

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.
This is completely disconnected from reality. First of all, where did anyone get the idea that the only viable job opportunities for the researchers being let go from MSR SV are in academia? From what I can tell, all of these people are being heavily recruited by a number of Bay Area companies. Hell, the MSR SV office is literally off of the same highway exit as the Google headquarters. About the only thing that might change for some of these people is which parking lot they drive to in the morning.

I very seriously doubt that any of these researchers will be "jobless" for any length of time. That's delusional.

Second, as a friend of mine pointed out, it's not as though the "academic calendar" is some kind of law of physics. If universities are serious about recruiting some of these people, I am sure they can find a way to make it happen, even if they have to resort to such lengths as hiring them on short-term contracts as visiting scientists or whatever. The academic calendar is your problem, not Microsoft's.

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. 
It's true that shuttering MSR SV will have some impact on how people view Microsoft Research as a career choice. On the other hand, it's not as though they hired a huge number of people every year -- the total number of jobs impacted is relatively small. In comparison, Google hires multiple MSR SVs worth of people every week, and more PhDs per year than all of MSR employs, worldwide. (For that matter, Microsoft, as a whole, no doubt beats Google's numbers.) It's not like the loss of a small fraction of MSR's total headcount has anything but a minor impact on the overall pipeline for computer scientists.

What's really happening here is a bunch of finger-wagging in an effort to publicly shame Microsoft for what was no doubt a very difficult and complex business decision.

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.
I think Microsoft should appoint a panel of academics to run the company, since clearly they know more about running a business than MSR leadership does.

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.
Of course universities must bear the cost of supporting these poor refugees while they find new jobs! I mean, it's not like the Microsoft stock and severance package will pay the bills for very long until the affected people get jobs at Yahoo or Twitter. Hopefully the universities can pull through with basic rations, perhaps a tattered wool blanket and a cot to sleep on, an office with an aging workstation running XENIX, just until these people can find gainful employment. It would be a real humanitarian disaster otherwise.

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. 
Frankly, I don't think that the MSR leadership owes the academic community any kind of explanation or commitments whatsoever. If anything, this was a great wake-up call to anyone who was living under the false impression that being a "researcher" at a company gave you job security. This is how companies sometimes work.

Fortunately, especially in Silicon Valley, there are literally hundreds of great companies that the MSR SV folks can work for, doing all kinds of awesome and groundbreaking work. The tech industry as a whole is going strong, and I have no doubt that there will be all kinds of career opportunities for these folks.

Steps like these are essential to rebuilding the relationship between Microsoft and the academic community, along with all the mutual benefits that it brings.
On the whole, my guess is that the relationship between Microsoft and the academic community will continue to thrive. There are a lot of great people still at MSR and the ties there are incredibly strong. It's too bad that they had to shut down the Silicon Valley lab in the way that they did, but I'm not sure it's productive to cast a dark cloud over everything MSR does and stands for as a result.

Mostly, I'd like the authors of this letter to think about the message they are sending to students and junior researchers, which seems off base to me. We're all sad about the loss of MSR SV, but I think this letter really goes too far when it claims that anybody there will be "jobless" or that academic positions must open up to absorb the affected researchers.