Irene Y. Zhang: My Job as a Microsoft Researcher

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2024-03-30 02:00:03

Recently, I spent some time reflecting on my 6 years at Microsoft Research. I have thank my management chain – Shan Lu, Ed Nightingale, Desney Tan – for triggering this analysis of how I view my job. My previous management chain certainly spoke about their values and MSR culture, but I had not been at MSR for long enough to think about or understand what they were saying. Certainly, my experience and goals do not encompass all researchers at MSR, that is one of the really great things about MSR, most of us get to write our own job description. This musing is also not meant to speak for others, even the folks named in it; it is simply my own opinion, values and goals.

Many folks have asked me in the past: what is being an MSR researcher like? It’s an interesting question because, in some ways, it is much more nebulous than academia, but on the other hand, I report to a manager, who reports to another manager and so on, and is solely responsible for evaluating my performance. However, I can choose what I spend my time on, whether it is writing papers, writing code, interacting with faculty, grad students or software engineers. My job is not as fixed in terms of how I spend my day-to-day time, and success can be evaluated in a number of ways, compared to academia, where I feel the goal posts are much clearer.

As a result, in addition to defining my own research agenda, some days I feel that I also have to figure out what the heck I’m suppose to be doing in the first place. As I told folks that have asked, when I showed up at MSR, they gave me an empty office and just said: do your thing! It took me months to figure out exactly what my “thing” was. This statement is not a poor reflection of my org chart, I am so grateful to my manager at the time, Ricardo Bianchini, the rest of my management chain, (Donald Kossmann, Johannes Gehrke) and the fantastic members of the systems group and other groups who provided tons of advice, guidance and inspiration. But I think most researchers find their own journey when they start at MSR, and this does take some time. The great thing is that no one will really expect you to be productive in a research sense for the first year or two out of your PhD, so this time is really fun – but also scary – because there are so many possibilities, much like when first starting your PhD.

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