Microsoft Worker in Beijing: Focus Is Collaboration Tieyan Liu of Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing says that as a researcher, he isn't focused on the competition, but rather on his own projects — and on how best to collaborate with his colleagues in the U.S. He reflects on what his facility has meant for Chinese-educated researchers and for the country's universities.
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Microsoft Worker in Beijing: Focus Is Collaboration

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Microsoft Worker in Beijing: Focus Is Collaboration

Microsoft Worker in Beijing: Focus Is Collaboration

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One place where Microsoft has opened a research lab is China. Microsoft Research Asia, known as MSRA, was established in Beijing 10 years ago. Today, it houses about 360 researchers. On my recent trip to China, I spent some time with one of them.

Mr. TIEYAN LIU (Researcher, Microsoft Research Asia): So usually, our worker (unintelligible).

NORRIS: Tieyan Liu is 32 years old. He's been with Microsoft for five years. He's got a round face, glasses and an outfit you'd see on any IT guy this side of the Pacific, slacks and a white and blue dress shirt, casual jacket. He works in a cubicle, and on his desk are a couple photos of his wife, a few books and a tower of granite blocks.

Are those awards that are stacked up there?

Mr. LIU: I've received a patent awards from the Microsoft. Once I filed a patent and Microsoft give us such a stone.

NORRIS: Thank you for your inventive contribution to Microsoft. You have a lot of them.

Mr. LIU: Yes, I think I have more than 30. Some of our senior people, we joke, they can build a wall using those kind of patent awards.

NORRIS: Liu's research at Microsoft involves Web searches. Currently, he's using algorithms to figure out how best to rank results.

Mr. LIU: (Unintelligible) even that search engine user, you know, it is definitely that the current search engines cannot really satisfy all our information needs. You know, sometimes we can find quite a good answer, but sometimes, we cannot. So I think there's a long way to go along this direction.

NORRIS: What's that like for you to know that people all over the world are using this in their daily life?

Mr. LIU: You know, I think I will be very proud of that, you know. You know, we are inventing greater technology and really, people are using that. You see, sometimes, the luxury, you know, not every researcher have this chance to that kind of work, I think.

NORRIS: Liu says he's aware of the importance of the work he's doing given the strength of Microsoft's rivals, like Google and Yahoo. But he insists that as a researcher, he's not focused on the competition, but rather on his own research projects and on how best to collaborate with his colleagues in the U.S., whether by telephone, video conference or in face-to-face meetings.

Mr. LIU: Because we really want to influence a production by presenting our technology to them, by provide our consultant. So I think within the company, there is a very good channel for us to collaborate with others, no matter in China or in U.S. or in U.K.

NORRIS: You know, a lot time, in companies, some of the most important business happens in the hallways. You know, you just happen to bump into somebody and that's your aha moment - that you just happen to run into the right person at the right time. It's hard to do that if you're in one place and the person who might spark that aha moment is on the other side of the world.

Mr. LIU: Mm-hmm. I think that's one of the challenges. So, you know, we travel a lot to the (unintelligible). At the time, I will try to talk to more people and use every chances to communicate with them, to know about their concerns in any thing. So the distance is usually some - a problem but more than we can do in a way we like to do is to minimize the negative effects of that.

NORRIS: How often do you go back and forth to…

Mr. LIU: Once a month.

NORRIS: To Redmond, once a month?

Mr. LIU: Yeah.

NORRIS: Wow. I didn't…

Mr. LIU: When the (unintelligible) is really going to (unintelligible) but sometimes when we just brainstorming or planning, maybe not so frequently like that.

NORRIS: Thankfully for Liu, he has five interns working for his group, PhD students from China's best schools. Altogether, Microsoft Research Asia employs about 200 interns from around the world. I asked Liu whether the presence of Microsoft's research facility in China have benefited the country's universities. His answer was yes.

Mr. LIU: As far as I can remember, when the lab for Microsoft's Research Asia was just established, local universities do not really have a huge presence in the world. For example, in the area of information retrieval, my area, I know there is no paper really published by Chinese researchers at that time. So after 10 years, I think if you look at the top conference and tell the journalist of the information retrieval, you will see many papers written by Chinese professors and their students. And most possibly, these professors have some kind of relationship with MSRA. Maybe some of their interns have - students helping interns here or they have some collaborations with MSRA. So through this collaboration, we really have (unintelligible) whether they have the experience to the local educational system.

NORRIS: It sounds like there are new opportunities for people in your field that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, certainly, 20 years ago, wouldn't be here.

Mr. LIU: I think it is certain that Microsoft has contributed something to this process but I think China also grow very fast in these years. So from one point, I would say, Microsoft have contributed something, but from another point, I think there maybe a trend. The universities in China are very - have more presence in the world and they have really trained more and more very excellent students and really have the influence in the world.

NORRIS: That's Tieyan Liu, a researcher in Internet search technology. And one last note; we did asked what a Chinese researcher earns. Microsoft's response to us was, quote, "in part due to competition, its Microsoft's policy to not disclose employee salaries. We offer competitive salaries including those in the area of research."

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