Magic Ampersand: How Microsoft Research Combines Basic Research With Applied Development

Guest post by Lewis Shepherd, Director of the Microsoft Institute for Advanced Research in Government. This article previously appeared at his website Shepherd's Pi. Follow him on Twitter at @lewisshepherd.

According to Wikipedia, the lowly ampersand or “&” is a logogram representing the conjunction word “and” using ”a ligature of the letters in et,” which is of course the Latin word for “and.”

In my line of work I most frequently encounter the ampersand in the common phrase “R&D” for research and development, although I notice that with texting and short-form social media the ampersand is making something of a comeback in frequency of use anyway.

To the left is a neat infographic demonstrating the & in R&D, from a Microsoft perspective. To quote the Microsoft team which produced it:

We get a lot of questions about what Microsoft does with the more than $9 billion we invest in R&D every year. There’s a lot of research for sure, but most of that investment goes toward development. With 850 Ph.D.-level researchers in Microsoft Research and around 40,000 developers in our product teams, that should give an indication of how we balance that $9 billion between research and the development of shipping products. I call it small r and big D.

The Research part of our R&D has a stunningly broad remit across technology areas.  MSR has active projects in computational science, machine learning, semantic computing, data visualization,quantum computing,bioinformatics and biomedical computing, speech technologies, nanotechnology, robotics, sensors, and many more topics (see more information here).

The Development component of our R&D is even larger, and includes advanced work on next versions and future roadmaps for products you already see shipping such as Bing, Kinect, the Azure Cloud, Windows, Office, SQL, Exchange, Lync, etc.

But those two components can come together, and collaboration between them is absolutely critical.  The “&” can create magic when one or more research areas bears fruit in a way that makes commercially viable sense for a product team to adopt – or to create an entirely new product area. Kinect is a now well-known successful example, and consequently has officially become the fastest-selling consumer electronic device of all time.

The infographic describes several recent examples which make this a pretty exciting place to work – the kind of place where colleagues sometimes do answer the question “What are you working on?” with a profound and funny answer: “the future.”

Art credit: Mykl Roventine