Microsoft Research, Redmond: Ayush Kanodia

In this edition of Insight’s summer blog, Ayush Kanodia talks about how researching with Microsoft brings together the best of the academic and corporate worlds.

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Arrays of stout beige buildings with glass exteriors, curated gardens, white and green shuttle cars, and a humdrum of office goers greet you as you make your way each morning to good old Microsoft, and the largest computing research organization in the world, Microsoft Research. From live language translation over Skype to the brilliant Cortana, this is where it happens. Nestled in the charming city of Redmond, Washington state, there are well over a hundred buildings out of which Microsoft Corporation’s headquarters operates, one of which is dedicated to its Research division, where I worked this summer.

Getting There
Applications for a summer internship in research at Microsoft India and Microsoft Redmond are invited by the company through the institute internship cell starting August. A multi stage shortlisting process follows, which is accompanied by interviews for positions in both the locations – there is no fixed format in which the selection process must proceed. Research groups at both these locations scrutinize applications and independently conduct skype interviews of candidates who they are interested in. After this is done, there is an internal “research group – research project – applicant profile” matching, based on interview reviews and the company’s requirements, and offerings are made, which happened in late September this year. It was momentous to be made an offer, something I’ll cherish forever. The timing, however, is not ideal, as a number of other organizations make their selections in the interim- so you either go big or go home. You get to choose between the research divisions in Bangalore and Redmond locations, if you get picked for both.

From that point on, the logistics are smooth. Visa and travel are handled by the company – the visa process is notably simple compared to all the hype surrounding it. You have an informal idea of the project that you will be working on, and the amount of preparation for it is left between you and your mentor. Since my internship was only 10 weeks long (2 – 3 weeks shorter than ideal), I had a bit of preparation to do before setting off.

Accommodation and Getting around
Microsoft managed our accommodation and provided studio apartments – you could chose to handle it on your own and save some money. They really pampered us – putting us up at a nice hotel for the entire period. Breakfast and all major amenities were provided; we had lunch at Microsoft’s canteens, and I cooked for dinner. Indian restaurants and groceries are everywhere. They also finance your membership to a health club. Getting around is easy – you could either bike around, drive, or use the bus – all of which are supported by Microsoft


Infrastructure and work environment
The infrastructure provided by Microsoft is extraordinary. Interns are equipped with personal, top end, powerful desktops, and you work in glass enclosed offices with up to 3 other interns. The work area is organized by research groups, and your mentor usually sits “somewhere around the corner”. I had a very accessible mentor, and could meet him almost anytime he was in his office, which was very often. Your group interacts with you through group meetings, informal chats, and little group interaction sessions. Since MSR Redmond does not usually take undergraduate interns, you generally end up as the youngest member of your group, and can’t answer questions about your rather non-existent research profile in everyday conversations. There is a marked absence of peers, and you feel slightly awkward with everyone around being significantly older. However, that does not translate to alienation – people are very open to conversations. I’ve had numerous candid ones, talking about my future career options, specifically whether to take up a PhD, and it would be fair to say that if I do take up one, this internship would have a significant role to that effect. My guide was so friendly that he regularly pointed out research talks (these happen here everyday) which would interest me, and pointed out interesting people to consult, and interesting reads, which would help me make up my mind. This was a large value addition, I feel. To take a break, we would play light games such as table tennis, and once we even played cricket in the office!


My work
My project was in the applications of cryptography, specifically – Attribute Based Encryption. Broadly, this is a recent encryption scheme which is of academic interest in general and business interest to Microsoft – hence, my project. That is pretty much all I’m allowed to say. The work culture is open, rather like a university I felt, and I worked with some really smart and well known people, which is enriching. As far as work hours are concerned, there is no fixed requirement. You must be accessible to your mentor as you mutually decide, and the only performance indicator is the completion of your project, or progress in that direction. I would typically drop in post breakfast, and leave late in the evening. Apart from work itself, you end up attending at least two research talks a week, and that could shoot up to as many as 10.

Washington state is pretty, and Microsoft itself offers a number of leisure activities. There are events such as city tours, karting, bowling, and day trips conducted by Microsoft. The most notable among these was the weekend day trip to Mount Rainier, which is a beautiful snow clad peak, and a must-visit for all visitors. The University of Washington is close by, where we have some seniors (most notably Antariksh Bothale) studying. This university is also actively involved with Microsoft Research in various collaborations, and employees take part time courses here. We attended the university fair organized in the summer, and enjoyed canoeing on campus. Redmond, with its adjoining areas of Kirkland and Bellevue is a beautiful, rather posh, modern settlement. There are nice market places here, and walking in the quiet downtown is a pleasure. Seattle is a nice place to visit, with a pretty waterfront and a fair history (by American standards). It also has the distinction of having the largest IMAX in the world. This region is also the second largest hub for technology companies in the US, after the bay area, and you could go to the offices of quite a few companies there, such as Amazon, Expedia, and for the gamers, Valve. Of course, there’s Bing and Skype, too.

The public transport in the region was poor, to put it mildly. It compares very poorly with Europe to be specific. You cannot travel as seamlessly – you cannot travel at all outside the city, indeed, if you don’t drive. We went for a couple of hikes, to a lake and a waterfall with our seniors working at Microsoft Redmond after soliciting a ride in their cars, which worked out well. On one weekend, I rented a car and drove to the Pacific coast, which was quite an experience. It was a pretty long trip, something I’ll remember for a long time. (FYI, You can use your Indian driving license on the internship). This was followed by a crazy road trip to Yellowstone National Park, again courtesy our seniors (they were really gracious), known for geysers – the famous Old Faithful Geyser is found here, and I’ve seen nothing like it before. It shoots up water a few metres into the air every hour and a half without fail.

Summing Up
It was a nice internship, in my opinion. The work was nice; I enjoyed it, especially during the later stages. There was considerable work freedom, which was great. My mentor is a wonderful guide and helper, and I met some nice people and visited some beautiful places. With a nice work culture, a hospitable location, and some brilliant people around, I would like to go this place again, given an opportunity.