Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Your Field Guide to Industrial Research Labs

There are a lot of different kinds of industrial research organizations out there. Identifying them can be tricky, so I've compiled this field guide to help you out.

The Patent Factory Research Lab

This is the classic model of research lab, and the main model that existed when I was a grad student in the late 1990s. Many of these labs no longer exist, or have transformed into one of the models below. Generally attached to a big company, this style of research lab primarily exists to bolster the parent company's patent portfolio. A secondary mission is to somehow inform the long-term product roadmap for the parent company, which may or may not be successful, depending on whether the research lab is located 50 miles or a mere 15 miles away from any buildings in which actual product teams work.

How you know you're visiting this style of lab: The main decoration in researcher's offices are the little paperweights they get for every 20 patents they file.

The Academic Department inside of a Company Research Lab

This model is somewhat rare but it does exist, and a couple of companies have done a superb job building up a lab full of people who would really like to have been professors but who really don't like teaching or getting too close to undergraduates. This style of research lab focuses on cranking out paper after paper after paper and padding the ranks of every program committee in sight with its own members. Product impact is usually limited to demos, or the occasional lucky project which gets taken in by a product team and then ripped to shreds until it no longer resembles the original research in any way.

How you know you're visiting this style of lab: It feels just like grad school, except everyone gets their own office, and there are a lot more Windows desktops than you would normally expect to see.

The Why Are We Still Here, Let's Hope The CEO Doesn't Notice Research Lab

This type of research lab exists only because the C-level executives have either misplaced it or forgotten it exists. Researchers here are experts in flying under the radar, steering clear of anything that might generate the slightest amount of media coverage lest they blow their cover. When asked what they are working on, they generally mumble something about "the cloud" which grants them another two-year reprieve until another VP-level review comes around, at which time everyone scrambles to put together demos and PowerPoint decks to look like they've been busy.

How you know you're visiting this style of lab: Nobody has the slightest idea what's happening in the actual research community, and the project titles sound auto-generated.

The It's We-Could-Tell-You-But-We'd-Have-To-Kill-You Research Lab

This type of lab deals exclusively in classified defense contracts. These labs all have innocuous-sounding names which evoke the Cold War and bygone days when it was acceptable, and even encouraged, to smoke a pipe while working in the lab. Projects are done under contract from some branch of the military and generally involve satellites, nuclear warheads, lasers, or some combination of the above. On the plus side, this is the type of lab where you are most likely to encounter alien technology or invent time travel.

How you know you're visiting this style of lab: All project names are comprised of inscrutable acronyms such as "JBFM MAXCOMM"; nobody seems to have a sense of humor.

The "We Have a Research Lab Too" Research Lab

This is the model exemplified by startup companies who are feeling jealous that they don't have enough Ph.D.'s working for them and feel the need to start "Doge.com Research" to make their mark on the world.  This generally happens the first time such a company hires an ex-academic and makes the mistake of putting them in any kind of leadership role. Projects in this kind of lab aren't that different from regular work on the product teams, apart from the expectation that launching anything will take three times longer than a non-research team would be able to do.

How you know you're visiting this style of lab: Hoodies with the word "Research" on them; free lunch.


  1. So where are the research labs that work on cutting edge problems that end up making a significant impact in practice/products? Are you getting a little cynical about your academia-to-industry transition? (And dare I ask where your current lab fits in your taxonomy?)

  2. In case it's wasn't clear, this whole post is meant as a joke, and you might recognize that I'm making fun of everyone, including my current employer. Don't always take me so seriously :-)

  3. I admit, I'm often out there arguing against Matt for things he says, but I found this funny (and clearly intentionally so).

    Labs are hard. There's a tension in that a company would -- I would think -- like to have smart people around who, on occasion, will save the company millions of dollars, and even more rarely, will come up with new ideas that are worth even more than that. The downside is that many of these people want to work on more abstract or pie-in-the-sky things much of the time (we call that "research" here in academia), and aren't necessarily good at or even interested in products and productizing.

    There are various approaches (as Matt points out), ranging from limiting what the people you hire work on (we'll call you research, but you'll be working on this product with this product team), limiting the types of people you hire (to avoid people who are too "research-y"), to letting your researchers run wild (and then having to explain how to justify their budget). I admit, I'm VERY biased toward the last model, and think its payoff is generally underestimated, though I acknowledge it's hard to maintain in a non-monopoly business environment.

    1. 'hard to maintain in a non-monopoly business environment'

      - I'd say there is some poetic justice assisting with this: research results close to product development are both more excludable [as the production process you get entangled with] and obvious prone to competitive poaching; the abstract research may well contain an entire new industry, yet so difficult to interpret and execute, one can pave the streets [or free access journals] with it and find nobody understanding what it is good for, willing to pick it up.

      Odd job this...

  4. I loved this, thought it was hilarious. It reminded me of that Simpsons episode where Bart joins the mafia, shows them Itchy & Scratchy, and the mobster says "its funny because it's true".

  5. The missing variety:

    * cool-ideas-from-cool-places research lab, where a company opens a research lab outpost in a far-away place that's known to be "innovative" in hopes they can bring some of that culture back to their main office. Xerox, of course, and perhaps IBM's San Jose lab back in the 1950's. Olivetti's Cupertino research lab back in the 1980's always struck me as an odd move. Fujitsu's research lab in California. Walmart Labs and the Bay Area auto manufacturer labs might be examples these days. These differ from the patent factory because they really do seem to be trying to bring culture as much as ideas into the parent company.

    The "Academic Department inside a Company Research Lab" seems less a function of the researchers being standoff-ish than trouble getting ideas out into product groups. One former researcher at Apple's Advanced Technology Group said he fought for years to get his technology into the OS; each time, he was rebuffed because the product group wasn't interested. When ATG folded, he got moved into the OS group. In his first meeting with his new manager, he was asked, "so can you get your stuff into the upcoming version of the OS?"

    Would you classify 1990's Interval Research as a "patent factory"? Although they turned into a patent factory, their initial vision was research for five years and productization for another five. Maybe it's an example of "We have a research lab too" without the surrounding company.

    Personally, my pet peeve has been engineers working in a product group who act as if they're doing research (and shun the group's practical work) while being unable to justify why their research-y longer-term work deserves to be done. There's always someone writing the paychecks, and you always need to do something to convince them to keep writing those checks.

  6. This is a great post. You might say that this whole post is meant as a joke, but I believe in Freudian slips :-) In fact, for each category of lab that you mentioned, I could relate directly to a lab that exists today. What I didn't quite get was in which category to place Google Research. Maybe you can shed some light on this?

  7. Hint: which research lab has free food?

  8. To Anonymous 6:32AM: I'd like to think of Google Research as a bit more sophisticated than the 'Hoodies with the word "Research" on them' model.

  9. so where is IBM Research and Microsoft Research in the category? what do you guys think?

  10. IBM Research used to fall in category 2, now it is squarely in category 1. As regards Microsoft Research, isn't this sufficiently large a hint? "It feels just like grad school, except everyone gets their own office, and there are a lot more Windows desktops than you would normally expect to see."

  11. Huh. I posted about this in 2005, and complimented Google on making "Labs" a web site instead of a division: http://radar.oreilly.com/2005/10/yahoo-research-berkeley-launch.html

    Is that no longer true?


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.