Wednesday, October 22, 2014

MSR SVC Letters

The Committee for the Advancement of Theoretical Computer Science put together an open letter to several research leaders at Microsoft.
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.
I recommend reading the whole letter. Many in the theory community and beyond, including myself, signed the original letter or added their support in the comments.

Yesterday Harry Shum, Microsoft Executive VP for Technology and Research sent a reply.
No one at Microsoft feels good about the fact that a significant number of our friends and colleagues were laid off.  These people contributed to the success of Microsoft over many years.  As one can readily imagine, the decisions made about how the cuts were implemented within MSR were extremely complicated and personally painful.  We feel with you the sense of loss that has been evoked by the closing of our Silicon Valley lab. 
Theory Matters has a cover email. More on the CRA Policy Blog.

I'd like to thank the CATCS leadership in putting together the letter which expressed well the thoughts and concerns of the community. The tone of the letter hit the right notes and really made Microsoft research leadership think about the important role the company plays in the larger computer science academic world.


  1. Honestly I thought the letter from the researchers was arrogant.

    I definitely think the closing of MSR SV was a huge mistake and still can't wrap my head around it but Microsoft is a business and it has invested huge amounts of money in computer science research for its own benefit but also for the benefit of others (for example, MSR research is mostly public). It has donated money to tons of universities and funded a lot of research at universities around the world. It doesn't owe anything to the theoretical computer science community.

    Like any business, sometimes you have to let people go. In MSR's entire existence I don't think it has ever laid people off even when Microsoft was cutting budgets and firing people all across the company.

    The tone of the letter was self-righteous and indignant and asking for MS to provide more money to universities to support the SV researchers was--at best--odd. I understand that letting people go in the fall is less than ideal for the academic job market but let's not exaggerate the researchers' "plight". They received severance packages and relatively generous ones from what I hear.

    Also, if MS decides to make cuts to its workforce worldwide at a certain date (likely as a function of internal budgeting issues, external PR issues, wall street analysis, local economic issues etc.) do you really think it's fair and reasonable that MSR be the only group that gets to push that back so that it can fit the academic schedule?

    Let me stress that I am very sad for the SV researchers and hope the best for them. And like I said I think closing the lab was a huge mistake. I just think that the letter (as written) from the TOC community was in bad taste and arrogant.

    1. That is the problem, that until now they have been supportive, they should not radically change this policy. This is one of the main messages in The Little Prince. (In case, like Ylvis, you also don't know what the fox says: "If you tame the rose, you become responsible for it.") A more debatable but similar question is in the movie Manderlay.

  2. I (mostly) agree with anonymous 1. I mean, I feel bad for anyone who loses a job, but out in the real world, people lose their jobs all the time, and most of them don't have the luxury of knowing they'll be hired at a plush university job in the next year. A little perspective, please.

  3. I totally agree with the previous comment.

    When you are part of MSR, you know that you are part of Microsoft, which is a company trying to maximize its profits in a free-market world. So, if they need to fire somebody, they will.

    I know I am stating the obvious here, but it seems to me that some people have forgotten about these very simple facts.

    And this looks at least contradictory to me, taking into account that a lot of these people have, of course indirectly, benefited for many years from these exact same rules of the free market that led to the closure of the MSR-CV lab....

  4. "I understand that letting people go in the fall is less than ideal for the academic job market ...."

    Why do people keep saying this? It seems that it is actually the best time to lay someone off if that person wants an academic job.

    The researchers have a good 2-3 months to prepare their applications for the academic job market. Many academic jobs let someone begin in June or July and perhaps earlier with negotiation.

    Suppose MSR had cut the researchers on March 1. That would be after most application deadlines and the researchers would have had to wait ANOTHER job cycle to apply. If they had cut the jobs in December or January, the researchers could still possibly apply to academic positions, but the departments would not have had the time to plan for the large number of researchers on the job market.

    So since the fall is the best time to be given notification of a layoff for an academic researcher, the argument seems to be that MSR should have given the researchers
    notification in the fall, but let them stay until the spring/summer, which is essentially
    the same as giving them more severance pay.

    Realistically, if MSR said, we are going to close the lab in a year, everyone would spend that year looking for a job rather than focusing on producing products for Microsoft. And then at the end of that year, the researchers would get their severance pay plus a salary in their new job! So, assuming that the severance pay + available unemployment can last for a year (which is probably a decent salary), it seems like the fall is an optimal time to close an academic research lab if you are going to do it.

    1. You need only a few months to find a job in the industry. In academia there is an annual cycle and it makes complete sense to take that into account and give advanced notices.
      The perception that MSR created is that working there is similar to a tenure. Now MSR is saying that is not the case and of course they are going to get a huge backlash. If a credit company tries to convince you to use their service by playing into "we are your friend, we care about you" in place of "we are a business that don't give a shit about what happens to you" then people will obviously be pissed off if they don't act so.

      What the research community is telling MSR is "Make up your mind!". Do you want us to think of you as a business that can lay off people without prior notice or as something like a tenured position in academia. If the second then act like as you promised implicitly to the community. If the first one, then we are going to treat you differently and you will suffer severely as a result of this change.

    2. "In academia there is an annual cycle and it makes complete sense to take that into account and give advanced notices."

      So you are saying that MS should have given the researchers advance notice in addition to their severance pay? How much advance notice? 3 months? 6 months? a year?

      Why didn't the researchers negotiate that into their contracts? Maybe it was because the conditions (salary, research freedom, working with Ph.D students who already have a research track record thanks to the work of professors, no committees, no grant writing, huge travel budget) were so much better than academia, that the absence of advance notice was not a deal breaker.

      p.s. A credit card company is a business no matter what it "says".

    3. I think the severance package plus the notice should have been at least a year.

      There is a general dislike of academia in your reply and that I think is the real reason for your dislike of our position on this matter.

      Your claim about MSR being a business has no value for us when MSR itself has created a different perception in academia and have benefited from that perception. Contracts do not need to explicitly state everything. In fact anyone who has written a couple of them knows well that is not a good way of writing them, there is the spirit of agreements which are way more important. A party can be held responsible for misleading claims and misrepresentation even if they don't appear in the signed written document.

      What we are telling MSR with this letter is quite simple: should we treat you just like other jobs in the industry or do you want to continue to receive the preferential treatment you have got from academia because (rightly or wrongly) we thought we can treat you like an academic institution? Of course we would prefer the later, but if you go with the former understand that there will be quite negative consequences for you as well. This is good faith reminder reminder to people in MS who decided to fire many productive reputable researchers for purely business reasons.

  5. The fate of researchers is particularly harsh because in regular industry jobs you can "precompute" whether the layoffs will affect you (based on information in the grapevine, the depth of the announced cuts, whether your group is a revenue or cost center, total headcount of the group, your ranking in the group based on HR evaluations, etc).

    Usually when layoffs are announced, the energy of most employees quickly switches to figuring these things our. People whose computations shows a high risk of being laid off will try to quit and take another job before the axe falls. Pretty much everyone whose computation shows significant risk will update their CV and try to line up alternatives.

    MSR theory researchers cannot do this type of computation, since theory research has no relation to the main company business. So they were basically sitting ducks when the axe hit.

    1. While we may not want to admit this as researchers, why not simply act according to the following simple rule: "The axe can hit at any time, so keep your options open." It is exactly, as you say, because our work does not align with the interests of the company that we should be alert all the time.

      It seems to me that many of us who are in research labs behave already according to this rationale, so maybe we should make people just a little bit more aware of this principle.

      It is true that some of the contributions of a research lab may generate occasional revenue, and these are nice success stories of theory work. However, most companies do fine without pure research. Even more revenue and innovation is generated elsewhere, by engineers, in a more cost and time efficient manner.

      These labs are simply prestige objects, nice to have for a company (as much as it is nice for them to do charity), with some occasional returns. But as long as one company's goal is to make profit, one cannot take anything for granted.

    2. If the assumption becomes that the axe can hit at any time at MSR, then only people who have no other option will join MSR.

      It is just not worth the risk of being unemployed "ghetto-style" for a year, and risk having your academic career derailed altogether. All these concerns are even more prominent for people with families.

      For a long time, Microsoft represented that this was not the case, and as a result they were able to attract people who had lots of other options, including people who already had tenure-track or tenured positions.

      This is what the letter is basically saying to Microsoft - "do you realize what your handling of this episode means to the researchers affected, and to your own ability to attract researchers in the future?"