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March 6, 2007 12:33 PM

Microsoft TechFest goes glam

Posted by Brier Dudley

The annual science fair held by Microsoft's advanced research group was just too interesting to keep under wraps.

As soon as the event started in 2001, reporters began whining to get in and see the demonstrations of the company's latest research.

Researchers from the company's six labs around the world come to the conference center on Microsoft's Redmond campus for the event. It's a chance to interact directly with thousands of employees -- from Bill Gates on down -- who come to the fair for inspiration, ideas or just geeky fun.

The marketers also realized that it's a chance for the company to highlight its research group, so more and more reporters were allowed in. But they were kept on a tight leash and only saw a few of the exhibits.

This year the company decided to capitalize on the PR value of the event and added an extra day just for press and high-level customers. Today, attendees are getting briefings by research managers, and a chance to see 50 of the 150 exhibits that will be shown to employees.

Attending are some 70 reporters and bloggers, including some flown in from Asia, Europe and Latin America. Also here are customers, including a big contingent from government agencies such as the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency.

The event opens to company employees on Wednesday and Thursday. Confidential exhibits will be added, and about 7,000 employees are expected, roughly a fourth of its local workforce.

It's also an opportunity for researchers from the different labs to convene. The entire group came up from Silicon Valley, as well as 64 of the 100 researchers in Cambridge, England, and 40 from Bangalore, India.

"They'll meet 7,000 people tomorrow. They'll learn a lot,'' said P. Anandan, director of the Bangalore lab.

There were no news announcements, but research boss Rick Rashid provided an update on the organization he left Carnegie Mellon University to start in 1991.

Rashid now employs 750 people and will hit 800 by the end of the year, he said.

"To put that in perspective, that's about like creating a Berkeley Computer Science Department faculty a year every year for the 16 years Microsoft Research has been in existence,'' he said.

(It's also making it complicated for Rashid to continue offering one of his special perks: He has taken all of his employees to every new "Star Trek" movie, starting back at CMU, and he comes dressed in a "Trek" costume. For the last release he had to rent an entire multiplex for 500 researchers and their families.)

Rashid said Microsoft Research has a bigger footprint because of all the partnerships it has with universities and government research organizations.

Rashid said the research group runs the largest Ph.D. internship program in the tech industry, hiring more than 800 interns worldwide every year. Just in the U.S. the company employed more than 300 Ph.D. interns last summer.

For perspective, he said, the computer science field produces about 1,200 Ph.D. graduates a year. That means a big portion of everyone with computer science Ph.D.s will have worked at Microsoft at some point.

"During summers we'll have as many as 1,500 people doing basic research, including Microsoft Research, interns and visiting faculty,'' he said.

Rashid said Microsoft invests in advanced research to be agile, so it's prepared to quickly react to new developments. When a new area of technology emerges, "the chances are good we already have an IP portfolio in whatever this new area is because we have such a broad research group."

The company can also quickly move researchers into new areas and work with product teams.

Rashid said it's in the governments interest to support basic research so the country can also be agile and "quickly react to change."

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