What’s so cool about interning at Microsoft Research Anyway?: A summer at MSR

On the low this blog is actually much overdue but we’re going to go with it anyway. There are a couple disclaimers I want to make before you, the reader, get into all this 🐸☕️.

First of all, NO, I was not at Microsoft as a developer. I was actually studying software developers while at Microsoft Research, or MSR as some of us call it. That’s actually what my whole research field is geared towards. We help developers become more efficient and productive. Personally I’m interested in how software developers are interested in participating in programming-themed communities in terms of gender.

Second, before you read this blog, let it be known that I have not officially drank the Microsoft Research “Kool-Aid”. I feel like many people who do not work at the fine organization have drank the Kool-Aid, so this was a very important point to make clear here.  The Kool-Aid wasn’t even sweet enough for me (*Prime example of an analogy taken too far. smh*). Nevertheless, I definitely did enjoy my time there.

And Third, NO, I don’t have any hookups to discounted Microsoft software. I gotta buy stuff like everyone else 😛.

I’m assuming majority of my readers are graduate students looking for a way to get into the magic that is Microsoft Research. Unfortunately, this blog isn’t that either, but if you’re interested comment below or let me know and I’ll see if I can gather up a couple interns for a blog about that. With that being said, I’ll put this in context for the grad students.

  1. Lunch Talks = Life + Research

Someone once told me that if a team goes to lunch together, that’s a good team. I can tell you that was something we did daily.  I can also tell you that that idea spoke volumes to me. There were definitely a couple of times where I had to host some meeting during lunch and meet with others outside my team, but I definitely valued that time we had together.

Lunch talks were a combination of updates on research blockers, pop culture issues, newly released papers, latest results from last night’s basketball game, and the list goes on. I can honestly say that was my favorite part of my summer.

This may have been a result of my cool mentors(which everyone may not have) for the summer, but I think their coolness definitely contributed to a nice balance. I think they’re goal was for their interns to feel as welcomed and as engaged as possible. I honestly think that idea worked best for me as an intern to open up and feel comfortable bringing research directions to them. There were a couple ways we built this rapport besides lunch. We went to baseball games, NFL training camps, movies, and we even had Microsoft Band Fitness Challenges

The picture below shows us at a Mariners game! From left to right, top row: Martin(one of the cool visitors), myself, Tom. Bottom Row: Chris and Eirini.

  1. The amazing minds that come from all over the world to be there….in addition to the amazing minds that are already there.

I mean you’re practically working with celebrities in our field right?! I mean honestly my mentors were rock stars. All three of them(Nachi Nagappan, Tom Zimmermann, and Chris Bird). My favorite part of having 3 mentors is that they all brought something different to the table – so  any time they spoke I was definitely listening! I would have never thought that they’d be so open to knowing about my general life as well as my research direction. I don’t think that’s something you find everywhere but it was a nice balance that their interns will definitely cherish.
But not only were my mentors amazing, so were the visitors.  We had researchers visit and give talks about their amazing research with eye tracking, social network, and gender inclusiveness in devices.


Vanessa, Robin, and I at the Lion King Performance
  1. The cream of the crop interns from so many different fields

When I think about the interns who were there this summer, it’s remarkable. All of the students have had some amazing accomplishments it their respective research areas and it was always a treat to be around so much of that. It’s truly like being around so many lit baby geniuses at once. I loved it!

Beyond the MSR Interns, I met so many who were doing research at some amazing companies like Google, Oculus, and Facebook. One of the awesome ones I hit it off with was Vanessa. She does HCI research in tech-enabled fabrics at the University of Maryland and we met through a couple of mutual friends like Robin and Rochelle.

I feel as though I was able to build  a group of snapchat friends that will last until the next big social media craze happens.


MSR Interns at the 2016 Signature Event
  1. Seattle was cool……but it wasn’t all that

Okay so here’s the thing that kind of blew me about Seattle. Yes it had a lot to offer in terms of exploring, but I just feel like it wasn’t everything as far as location. The biggest issue for me was that my family was too far away. It helped that I had friends who were in the area as well, but I don’t think that was enough for me.

I loved how seattle had something going on every weekend, but I just wanted more in terms of a solid community.

  1. The opportunity to PUBLISH of course

I think the cool part here is that my mentors like for their interns to spread their wings a bit when they get to MSR (at least that was my case). They purposely did not want me to work on something that would be directly related with my dissertation project. One reason for this may be(you would have to ask them for the real reason) that there are so many other amazing projects going on in our field and at MSR you have the means to try them out. You have so many resources at your disposal for the summer. Why not make reasonable use of them?

And when I say reasonable, I mean reasonable enough to form a full study worthy of a publication. From the beginning of the summer my mentors mentioned the outcome of a publication being the highlight of the summer. They meant that seriously. I mean we are still having weekly meetings right now to make sure things go smoothly. I thought that part was super amazing.

For me this was only the second research lab I’ve ever been to, outside of my university, so my comparison in that regard may be slim. With all that being said, as the 6th internship I’ve had this was definitely one of the best ones.

💰💰💰The Million Dollar question💰💰💰

Would I go back? I actually would. Once again, I definitely enjoyed myself this summer. I think it was a nice balance of intern activities and quality research getting done. I think I have sometime until I graduate so there is another summer for me to intern somewhere that’s relevant to my research. But honestly, we’ll just have to see how the year goes.

So that’s my two cents about my summer, but I wanted to provide another perspective from another former MSR intern. I’ve invited Brittany Johnson, a Ph.D. Candidate in Human Factors in Software Engineering and fellow blogger, to offer her 5-10 cents!

As told by Brittany:

As usual, I really couldn’t have put this into better words than my esteemed colleague Denae! MSR was an experience for me that helped solidify my post-doctoral ambitions and build a lasting network of passionate researchers. I interned last summer (2015) and also worked with Tom Zimmermann and Chris Bird, but one of the most valuable things about interning at MSR during the summer is that there are always visiting researchers to meet. The summer I was there, I not only met a number of MSR researchers, I met other researchers in academia that I am still in touch with to this day.

Lunch away from the office with my mentors, fellow interns, and visiting researchers. From top left to bottom right: Tianyi Zhang (fellow intern), Me, Pavneet Singh Kochhar (fellow intern/intern bay buddy), Chris, Mei Nagappan (who I’m still in touch with to this day), Tom, Prem Devanbu (Chris’ PhD advisor!), Bogdan Vasilescu, and Vladimir Fiilkov

As Denae mentioned, MSR does a great job fostering the building of these relationships and networks via social events that bring together researchers from different groups, together in the same space. The most memorable for most interns is the intern event in Redmond each summer, which bring together ALL Microsoft interns. One thing I noticed about MSR (and maybe it was just the group I worked in) is that you see much more of the “outgoing computer scientist” – I spent many a lunch on the petanque court kickin ass :). Oddly enough, I believe I made many more connections over lunches than I did doing anything else at MSR.

Finally, my final 2 cents…would I go back?

Most definitely! My passion is research: solving the unsolved and disseminating that knowledge. MSR is a champion at doing just that. Especially in my area of research, which is hard to find outside of academia.The only downside is, as Denae mentioned, the office I would want to work in is pretty far from home and I’m all about family. But maybe I can move them out with me! 😀

I’m happy to be a resource for anyone interested in learning more about MSR…and maybe I can convince Denae to organize this collaborative blog post on getting to MSR for an internship 🙂

Wading in the Shallow End: Why You Should Get Your Feet Wet at Research Conferences

Recently I’ve received a lot of questions about research conferences I attend and how do I make the best of them. I feel like I touched on this a bit in other blogs about other conferences but I’m going to put this is in context of a recent conference I went to in Cambridge, UK. The conference is titled VL/HCC and it stands for Visual Language and Human Centered Computing Conference. There are actually many reasons, some shallow and some deep, why I like to go to conferences but I’ll just touch on a few here.

P.S. All of these reasons are addressed to you, the reader,  in hopes that each one will encourage you to make it the next research conference you’ve been thinking about going to. I do want to make sure I acknowledge that these are really my reasons for going to conferences.

  1. Get to know the state of your research community….beyond what you can read online

For conferences in Computer Science I feel like this is especially important because I get a LIVE interpretation of what’s happening in the field. One important thing to mention here is that it is a different interpretation from what I get online from just reading the papers. When I’m in the presence of the actual researchers I can engage in intense conversations and go on tangents about our research. I have the opportunity to ask thorough questions and have a researcher’s honest attention rather than adding to the millions of emails that get caught in their spam filters.

Also, something else really important here is that I get to actually put a face to the researchers. This is really important for me since I struggle trying to remember which papers goes with which name off the top of my head. However, at conferences, they are no longer just names on my golden set of go-to papers to cite; they are now tangible beings that have a wealth of knowledge to share. It helped me retain more details about their work now that I had a face and a real person to match with it.

  1. Makes you get on YOUR game

When you’re at a conference you have the opportunity to present your research through a tool demo, poster presentation, or even a 15-30min talk. Preparing for these presentations can encourage you to know what you’re talking about. After all, how can you give a talk convincing others that your research project has made a real impact to the field if you don’t believe it yourself. You also have to be equipped with the ins and outs of the project to answer the detailed questions people may throw at you. Conferences are a healthy way to challenge yourself. For this conference in particular, I should have equipped myself with more of the background literature for my presentation. But this was a nice opportunity for me to recognize that!

I once heard people refer to these talks as a mini interview talks. You want to have a good presentation so audience members can ask  good questions that really make you think about the next steps of the project.

(Quick Aside: You can always tell how confusing your talk may have been if you get a lot of questions about things you already explained)

Me trying to make a “neutral face” as Justin snapped a pic at the Graduate Consortium

Another reason I would say conferences make you get on your game is because there are so many people who are at the conference who are killing the game and doing some down-right amazing things! Being around excellence really does encourage you to strive for more. Conferences are a good way to compare the strive amongst your colleagues. Especially those who are at the same stage in their tenure as you.

  1. The many opportunities to collaborate

At these conferences you will find out that you are not the only who may be investigating a particular problem. In fact, you may find that you have other people investigating a similar problem but from a perspective you never really thought was feasible before. My advice is to definitely reach out to that person! After speaking with them and discussing the pros and cons for each direction you may discover that this will be a great opportunity to team up and work together on a project.

For me it was great to small talk with people about my project at my poster and hear how they were able to connect their research to my own. This drove an amazing discussion about new directions to test out together!

I’m not saying that it’s going to happen so eloquently for everyone but at these conferences you have the opportunity for this to happen naturally.

  1. Gaining mentors (network, network, network)

If I learned anything from my undergraduate schooling, it is to always network and meet new people. Our NCSU Software Engineering rule is to intentionally hang out with people you didn’t know before you got to the conference. The unspoken rule some of us like to go by is to leave the conference with at least 3 new contacts. It’s always great to get plugged into the community and meet the other players of this game we call “research”.

In addition, I think it’s important to network with the other students as well. After all they will become your peers, if you ever graduate(*really just reflecting on my own progress here*), that will write our tenure letters in the future. It’s too soon to tell yet for me but according to what the professors keep telling me, it’s important to form these bonds early before your peers get too famous 😜.

Justin, Pat, and I at Big Ben!

At a small conference like VL/HCC there happens to be a lot of veteran researchers who are open to discuss budding research projects on an intimate level. It’s important to take advantage of these opportunities to put your name and work out there. Especially since many of them have been in your shoes before and can provide 1:1 guidance and informally become one of your mentors.

Picture of the beginning of the Graduate Consortium
  1. “Oh the places you’ll go..”

A faculty member once came and gave a talk about about glorified reasons we should actually finish our PhD and pursue faculty positions. His pitching point: “Oh the places you’ll go”. For conferences, you may travel to places you would have never imagined. Of

course it’s good to keep in mind that you are actually there for the conference, but you also have the
opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture wherever the conference is located. Often times the conference will intertwine the theme of the conference with the location. For me, it’s important to take advantage of this.

The beauty in all of this is that you get to go to these places for FREE(sometimes). The conferences may have funding from your advisor, graduate consortiums(as I participated in at VL/HCC), student volunteers, or external conference travel awards to knock down the full price of attending.

So with that being said I encourage anyone(researcher or aspiring researcher) to jump on the opportunity to challenge yourself and present your research at a conference!

Buckingham Palace and a selfie at the Queen Victoria Memorial