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October 7, 2008 at 5:53 AM

Q&A with Craig Mundie, Microsoft chief research and strategy officer

GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, and Bill Gates take the stage at a conference in 2007.

I spoke Monday with Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer and one of the two executives filling Bill Gates’ role in setting the company’s course. He is in the midst of a U.S. university tour, talking to students and professors about Microsoft and the future of technology in many different disciplines. (Here’s today’s story from the paper.) It’s something Gates used to do regularly, and another way Mundie has assumed Gates’ functions at the company. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation, covering his tour, views on technology in education, Gates’ transition, and the Windows ad campaign.


Q: With the U.S. university tour, you’re picking up a torch Bill carried for a number of years. How are you approaching tasks like this differently, and what are you taking directly from Bill’s playbook?
Mundie: To some extent, this role is not completely new. I’d been doing college tours of my own for many years. In the last few years, a lot of them were more focused internationaly, in China and India, in particular. In a way, with Bill’s departure, I’m just shuffling the priorities around a little bit and doing the U.S. tour, which Bill was always notable for having done. But many of the things that he and I have always done, I think are very similar, in terms of trying to both speak and listen, to both talk to faculty and students and to show them some of our view of what the technologies are going to look like in the future and help interpret that along lines that might be interesting to them. In that regard, that’s been a common playbook for some time.”
Q: How frequently are you talking with Bill Gates these days?
Mundie: Oh, probably about once a month. Bill’s been gone now for July, August and September, we’ve probably had one scheduled meeting and two serendipitous ones.
Q: What else can you say about Gates’ transition, now that it’s actually happened?
Mundie: Yeah, it really did.
In a sense I think it’s gone pretty much exactly as we would have planned and hoped. We spent two years really operating in a sort of dual oversight role, but where the line responsibility had shifted for virtually all these things to [Chief Software Architect] Ray [Ozzie] and me, more than two years ago.
I think there are elements of this — which I’ll deem more psychological than operational — where some people in the company still had to get used to the idea that he really wasn’t there everyday. And you can’t really get them down that path until he really isn’t there very day. And so there’s been a little of that, but nothing I think is really significant.
Things have really proceeded quite smoothly. Bill made the intentional choice after he retired from full-time operation on July 1, that he arranged his travel with his family and his vacation, the trip to the Olympics and a few other things and he literally was gone for 60 days. I think he chose to do that in part to reinforce that he really wasn’t gonna be around and it made it a little easier for people to acclimate to the idea that, OK, Ray and I really were at the controls with respect to those issues.
Q: At the same time he’s done this smooth transition away from the company, his public association with Microsoft, I think you could argue, is as high as its ever been as a result of the Windows campaign. Was that a topic of discussion at all, strategically, to use his personality for that at a time when he was also distancing himself from the company in other ways?
Mundie: There was no specific desire to link the two together. But Bill was always an iconic figure that people associated with the company. I think that ad campaign was started out and it was executed with multiple phases. … Those initial ads weren’t intended to be the speaking, they were just intended to announce the speaking. And in that environment, pitting Bill in the ads and Jerry Seinfeld in the ads took two people, both of whom were known to the demographic groups that we wanted to address, and, I think, in a fairly disarming way, got them to pay attention to the fact that the company wanted to speak.
That worked, I think, spectacularly well, and we’re now into the second phase of the campaign, where the company is really starting to talk more with the voice of the individual product groups as opposed to the broad sort of teaser phase.
But there was no real intent to retain a stronger linkage there, it was just a way of utilizing the fact that people associate Bill with the company.
Q: Is the campaign something that resonating with people at least in your conversations on campus?
Mundie: It didn’t even come up. They were a lot more interested in the technology than the ad campaign.
Q: How did your education demo go over with students who are already immersed in technology?
Mundie: I’d say most of the people were very favorably impressed by the forward-looking nature of those demonstrations. I think these kids are very comfortable using the technologies as we know them today, but aren’t that frequently exposed to quite different or forward-leaning ways of thinking about using it if it was substantially changed.
Q: What are you trying to get across with this demo?
Mundie: One [thing] was that there are many both technical or service-oriented elements that people are starting to becoming familiar with, for example, instant messaging or community networking type of things, but they’ve never been brought to bear on the education problem. So in the demo, we could show how those things that kids already demonstrate some affinity for, may in fact find application, if well supported, in the education process, like getting together to work on a paper or sharing notes.
Also important was to make people realize that computers will probably be able to do a lot more for us in the future than they do today. … To some extent we’re now getting to a point where there’s so much data, that you don’t know its relevance completely and it’s too large for you to consume, you really need help. So that demo was intended to make people think, well what if your computer could analyze all these things that you might be interested in, categorize them and then present them to you so you could pick the ones that were likely to be the most useful. In a sense it’s making the computer a lot more of a personal assistant in that type of work than they are today.
Today, people tend to think of [the Internet and the PC] as somewhat disjoined. There was the PC as the primary client, and that’s now diversifying into game consoles and cellphones and cars and televisions and other things. And there’s the Internet as people have know the web.
But both of those are getting transformed in the next few years by more computing power and different ways of using them together.
What I was trying to show in part is if you don’t think of these two as separate things, but in fact think of them as sort of bookends that are matched to one another and used together, then it raises the specter of a class of applications and services that go well beyond what people are building today.
Q: How far off is this vision in education?
Mundie: Today, certainly at the universities, professors put their notes online, their class schedule on line, their meeting schedule on line. Students post their homework online, the grades are reviewed online. They’re really living from an administrative point of view in a much more online environment. But the fundamental model of how we teach hasn’t yet fully gotten there and that is something we’re working toward, and hopefully in calendar year ’09 we’ll see more and more capability in that regard.
The other thing I hope for, and we’ll see whether we can make some of these products move us in that direction, is many of the things we just talked about are normal in elite universities, but they’re not really everyday practice in high schools or certainly not grade schools. That is something I think we can begin to address more directly, and I hope that that is something that doesn’t take us another five or 10 years to get going.
Q: I learned in talking with your staff that you’re very hands on in creating these conceptual demos, down to some surprisingly small details. What do you like about doing that, about crafting those?
Mundie: Almost the entire time I’ve been at Microsoft, my job has been to incubate or start up things that the company wasn’t already doing and also, in part, to try to help people understand what we thought the future of this software and computing technology held. I’ve always found that I don’t have any shortage of ideas about what I think those futures might be …. I’ve often felt that building these prototypes so that there’s a real tangible way of experiencing what the dream is was a much more powerful thing than just either trying to describe it to them or stand up and show them some PowerPoint slides. And so, really, almost the whole time I’ve been at Microsoft, I’ve been very focused on creating either these strategic prototypes of things or immersive demonstration facilities, like the Microsoft Home, for example.
To some extent, I’d say, my gift is to be able to look at all these complex technologies and synthesize, at least in my own view, interesting ways that they will be used or could emerge. …
But the devil is in the details in many ways because, it’s a bit more like going to Disneyland. You want to suspend disbelief for some short period of time and feel what it might be like in the future. And getting the key elements of that right I think are quite important and it’s one of the reasons I’ve had that team and worked with them for many years on refining the way we talk about this stuff.
Q: To what degree are these visits, both in the U.S. and in India and China, elsewhere in the world, recruiting tools for Microsoft?
Mundie: In the broadest sense they’re a recruiting tool. There’s no specific recruitment that I’m doing while I’m on the campuses today.
I view this as looking at two different opportunities. One, are there more opportunities to exchange people and ideas and collaborate on things in the research realm and, so visiting these institutions that have big research programs and having a big research activity at Microsoft, I think there’s always some serendipitous opportunities that emerge from those discussions.
On the other hand, I think today, kids grow up with a lot of exposure to technology as it is. The media tends to expose people to what’s hot and what’s not and I think in many ways, the breadth of what Microsoft does is not very effectively communicated in a uniform way to people in universities. …
I think by going on these tours it gives the students some direct exposure to the breadth of the work that Microsoft does that they might not otherwise encounter. To the extent that that is good promotion for the company and as they consider going to work, they at least have had some first-hand exposure to those things.
Q: I know in your job, you’re looking at a longer time horizon, but does the economic turmoil were experiencing right now have any impact on what you do?
Mundie:Our research, we try to maintain at a fairly steady percentage of the company’s total investment in R&D and I see nothing in the current situation which would alter that commitment. We may slow down the overall company’s growth in some way just to deal with the uncertainty that’s created in the current economic climate, but notably I don’t think that will alter either our college recruiting program this year, and won’t make anything other than a pro rata difference in what we would do in research.

Comments | More in Bill Gates, Education, Natural user interface, Personalities, Research, Strategy

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