Top flight - spotlight on Microsoft Research


10-01-2006

Mike Levy, editor of Cambridge Network Connection, talks to Andrew Herbert, MD of Microsoft Research in Cambridge



Visiting the Needham Building can be a little disorientating: the reception area looks like a hotel with its glass atrium, caf area, comfy sofas and a Forza car racing simulato

r (more of that later). In fact you are at Andrew Herbert, MD of Microsoft Research in Cambridge Microsoft Research just off the Madingley Road - a powerhouse of R&D for one of the world's biggest companies.



Andrew Herbert had been handling a complex VAT issue for an international conference he had organized earlier in the year when we sat down to talk in his small and unassuming office on the first floor. The lab was Microsoft Research's first base outside the USA and Cambridge had to fight off some pretty fierce competition.



An obvious first question: why did Microsoft choose Cambridge? 'The Cambridge brand was a huge attraction, as was the lure of working closely with the university,' recalls Herbert who added that the parent company (the 'Mother Ship' as they call it) was expanding and looking to tap into the rich talent pool in Europe. Cambridge seemed an obvious choice not only because of its peerless reputation for research and development but also as Herbert says: 'We tend to speak good English here.'



The city was also well known to Mother Ship captains through the reputations of the then VC, Sir Alec Broers and the outstanding work done by Roger Needham at the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory. Herbert joined the team in 2001: 'Roger was not at all ready for retirement at the official age for academics and revelled in his second industry career. It was a real honour to work with him - he had been my PhD supervisor 25 years before. He was always my most important mentor.'



Andrew Herbert joined Microsoft Research as Assistant Director to Needham: 'We were in offices above Lion Yard - it wasn't an idea location with the pounding beat of nightclub overhead and no car parking'. Their move to the purpose-built building was a welcome step for everyone, says Herbert. He replaced Roger Needham after his sad death in 2003.



Prior to joining Microsoft Research, Herbert was Director of Advanced Technology at Citrix Systems Inc., where he was instrumental in steering the company towards Internet thin-client technologies, initiating development of products for web based application deployment and for the emerging online services market. He joined Citrix in 1998 from Digitivity Inc., which he had founded in 1996 to develop product to enable secure deployment of Java clients for business-to-business applications.



Digitivity grew out of ANSA, a collaborative industry research project, that Herbert led after leaving his lecturership in the Computer Laboratory in 1985, where he had worked with Roger Needham and Maurice Wilkes on early seminal developments in Local Area Networks and Distributed Computing.



Coming back to work with Needham in Cambridge seemed like an opportunity not to be missed: 'We do world-class research here and set up many collaborative projects with industry partners and other research bodies.'



Herbert's mentor Roger Needham was also a pioneer of the Cambridge Network: 'Being a member is so useful', says Herbert, 'the internal support network is second to none and it's great to know that there are so many top-class people I can call on if I need support or advice.'



The Microsoft Research Cambridge laboratory was set up in July 1997 and was Microsoft Corporation's first research laboratory established outside the United States. Today, 75 researchers, mostly from Europe, are engaged in computer research at the lab.



Research carried out at Microsoft Research Cambridge will be at the forefront of these developments, helping to advance the state-of-the-art in computing and will play a significant role in delivering Microsoft's long stated commitment to innovation.



Research at the Cambridge facility focuses primarily on programming languages, security, information retrieval, machine learning, computer vision, operating systems and networking. MSR Cambridge maintains close links with the University of Cambridge, including the Computer Laboratory, the Engineering Department and the Statistical Laboratory.



Herbert is in charge of around 90 research staff. So what are they up to at the moment? 'We are working in many areas including artificial intelligence and machine learning, resulting in new games software and breakthrough technology for search engines'.



The Microsoft team developed machine learning technology for the Xbox Forza racing game (hence the set up in the reception lobby). The unique racing simulation allows users to own, customise and race their favourite cars in the most technologically advanced way. The work they are doing with MSN search engine involves an intelligent search facility for images based on the actual image rather than its caption description.



Given the exciting work being done at Microsoft, does Herbert have time for anything else? 'I keep fit by cycling to work most days and spend most Saturday mornings flying a Tiger Moth from Cambridge Airport'.



The questions for this high flier were nearly done save one more: what does he enjoy most about his job? 'This job is a real blast - imagine being surrounded by 90 people who are far cleverer than you. My job is to put our research into a larger context - and ask lots of questions.'





The Microsoft Research Cambridge laboratory was set up in July 1997 and was Microsoft Corporation's first research laboratory established outside the United States.



Today, 75 researchers, mostly from Europe, are engaged in computer research at the lab. Research carried out at Microsoft Research Cambridge will be at the forefront of these developments, helping to advance the state-of-the-art in computing and will play a significant role in delivering Microsoft's long stated commitment to innovation.



Research at the Cambridge facility focuses primarily on programming languages, security, information retrieval, machine learning, computer vision, operating systems and networking. MSR Cambridge maintains close links with the University of Cambridge, including the Computer Laboratory, the Engineering Department and the Statistical Laboratory.

 

At Microsoft Research in Cambridge, we truly aspire to transform the world through deep research. The bold and inquisitive minds of our researchers and engineers have produced, and continue to produce, significant contributions to Microsoft’s most successful products and services, as well as to the broader research community. The interdisciplinary nature of our lab ensures that we push the boundaries of computing in an inclusive way, resulting in robust and trusted technologies that can be deployed at scale. We have only scratched the surface of what technology can do for us, and I am tremendously excited to be working in a team that is so committed to having a significant impact upon our society.

Microsoft Research Ltd