from catalysis to creation

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Last week, MSR put on its annual TechFest, which is basically a giant science fair that lets researchers show off their cool projects to the rest of the company. (Most of it is Microsoft-confidential, but a few projects get shown to the press--including two that my colleague here in the Community Technologies Group, AJ Brush, worked on.)

Though a stomach bug knocked me out on Thursday, I got a chance to check out some of the exhibits on Wednesday, and was overwhelmed by the brilliance and creativity of my colleagues here. Which was followed quickly by overwhelming self-doubt. "What the f*ck am I doing here?!" Seven months down (hard to believe), and not a paper to show for it.

That resulted in some deep consideration of what exactly I've been doing here, and I found myself thinking about all the connections I've sparked--between people in research and those in product groups, between people in different product groups, between people outside of Microsoft and those within. About the events I've worked to help make successful, about the meetings I've sat in and provided feedback and suggestions. I told Gerald a month or two ago--probably about when search champs happened--that I was finding myself to be most useful as a catalyst, rather than an creator.

Of course, that's not what researchers are typically rewarded for. Being a catalyst is great fun, and it's something I'm really good at. But quite frankly, it's not enough.

[Ha! As I was writing this, I got a visit from another MSR researcher who's working on a very cool imaging project and wanted to show it to me and get feedback. After seeing it, I realized there was a great possible connection with a not-yet-announced product over in MSN/Windows Live, and gave him the contacts for that group. That's the kind of thing that I know adds value, but that you just can't put on your CV! It's also an example of yet another thing I can't really blog, because the details of both the research project and the new product are still considered confidential. :P ]

The good news is, I'm about to embark on a project here at MSR that involves creation rather than catalysis. I'm going to be building (well, specifying and helping to build) something that I'm deeply interested in, and will then (if all goes as I hope) turn into an interesting ongoing research project as I study the use of the system in multiple environments. I hate, hate, hate that I can't be any more specific than that, but I've promised the lawyers that I'll keep my mouth shut about it until we at least file some predisclosure forms. (Please don't go ballistic on me about the evils of software patents. The reality is that the patent system is broken, and all companies are doing what they need to do to survive in this climate. If I don't file on this idea, it's all too likely that someone else will, and will then prevent me from working on it. I agree that it all sucks, but it's the reality of the current world of software development. Plus from a selfish CV standpoint, it sure doesn't hurt to have a patent or two listed...)

2 Comments

It sounds as if you're extremely productive in both the creative and catalytic ways, in this sabbatical -- I'm impressed and I'm sure the same can be said of people around you at MSR and back at your home institution. The frustrating part of sabbaticals is that you want to get running on new things the minute you start, but, in reality, you need those several months to generate enough to create something new and worthwhile as opposed to publishing for publishing's sake.

Hi Liz -
You are a catalyst in other fields as well - I would not be blogging if not for the encouragement (well, kick in the tail, actually) that you and Gerald have offered. Catalysis is, and ought to be recognized as, a creative achievement.
The patent system is not the only system that is broken; in the end, though, in the big big picture, the making of connections is what will matter most.
Hats off to you.

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on March 6, 2006 1:46 PM.

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