Archive for the ‘Life’ Category
So I’ve spent the last 4 weeks in Cambridge working as an intern at Microsoft Research and I thought I’d share my observations on the differences between academia and corporate research.
Academia, I find, is far from the ivory tower that it once was. Forgetting the worrying need to find economic benefit for projects, most research is now being spun as a product.
Surely the last thing you want for a product is a buggy bloated research prototype, and surely the last thing you want for a research project is a polished product. I mean you want it for one thing, to prove a hypothesis for your thesis.
This of course, is a massive generalisation, and more applied to the recent batch of Ph.Ds coming through, especially as they come through doctoral training schemes which mesh (mostly unsuccessfully) different fields together. Still, scoring a blue-skies research project without lying through your teeth in the impact section of a proposal is like finding real ale in Essex.
Of course, there is the positive side of academia too. The freedom to tackle your problem via any means. Flexible working hours (unless you are an RA), flexible supervision, flexible scope. You can produce a highly polished massively overworked Ph.D, or the bare minimum which gets the job done. It is a very personal thing. Research projects are a bit more managed, you have a more rigid supervisory system, project meetings, but your section of stuff is pretty much yours to do as you will.
This environment breeds two types of people: the successful ones who generally ask for and give help to their peers, accept criticism with grace, and who thrive in a space where they make the rules; and the other ones who, having seen the gaping ravine of work in front of them, bottle it and fail. Maybe not straight away nor suddenly, as it could creep up after a year or two, but Ph.Ds have been known to just disappear into industry after 4 years, with not a word to anyone. It is very easy to lose sight of where you are aiming to get to, reaching a false summit of your thesis and calling it done.
Academia is very much a dog eat dog world. The UK has a much nicer tenure-free environment, but even the tenant of the American “publish or perish” culture still exists. Academics live off their reputation, and their reputation is written in the black ink of a bibliography.
Corporate research is exactly the same landscape but with a few key differences.
For a start, the “build a prototype” message is very clear, especially for systems which may one day be products. You are building and evaluating a proof of concept, as it should be.
Secondly, the atmosphere is completely different. Whereas in the academic environment it is almost taboo to ask on a struggling Ph.D how their work is going, in corporate research struggling researchers are actively propped up and discussions at lunch and the pub are refreshingly problem orientated.
Thirdly, your supervisor is your manager. Which from a managerial point of view is awesome, you have someone who is your boss and *knows* what they are talking about, whilst still being your supervisor and knowing all the issues that come from research and how best to stimulate ideas out of dead ends. From an intern perspective this is also good, as seeing your supervisor as your boss makes you want to impress them more, and meet deadlines days earlier.
Finally, the pay is miles better.
Those are the good bits, and of course, there are some bad bits too.
Corporate research labs tend to have a “eat your own dog food” policy, which means that if the company creates a tool that can do you job, you use it, unless you can find a valid research reason not to. Working at Microsoft and being a Linux user, you can see how this has led to initial slow productivity as I’ve readjusted to an alien tool-chain.
There are also some scary law type things which get attached to the job, such as losing a kidney if I speak of what I see on whiteboards and such. However, this style of development is slowly losing ground as projects like Gadgeteer are being released under an Apache licence.
As a final point, having worked in some small companies where you have the “family” feel, I still find that you get this here. It may be due to the organisation of the research lab, but everyone is very friendly and you associate with your research group quite strongly. But not in a “compete against other group” way, as everyone in the building is amazingly friendly.
So far I’m enjoying it, we’ll see if I still do in 8 weeks time
So I decided to go on a week long tour of the good bit of the south, namely, the southwest. First though, a stop off at Cardiff to see an old friend.
As Cardiff had been explored before, and I had the car, first on the list of places to go was a pilgrimage to Barry Island, the place where every Welshman should be scarred with. Not quite sure why it is called an Island, as it was inside a cove, but those southern welshies are fairly off most of the time, like those Taven Ferry folk. Apart from children, dodgy amusements, fish and chip shops, and a dirty beach, there really wasn’t much there. Some nice photo opportunities though, soon to be on my public Picasa profile. After a scramble up the headland, we decided to go and find a real beach!
The first one we hit … had a power station firmly attached to it. Nice. So biting the bullet we continued westward, edging towards Bridgend. Luckily, before we hit that town a sign for Southerndown Beach. This was a brilliant little surfer beach and had some excellent photo spots from atop the cliffs and within the ruined castle on the opposite hilltop. (Photos https://picasaweb.google.com/Carlc75/Cardiff)
Finally, we head back to Cardiff for food, narrowly missing the general 10pm restaurant deadline by a mere 45min, we opted for Dominos pizza. Dropping the car off in a 24hour place, I then endured the scariest walk of my life to the flat. Cardiff is scary compared to little old Lancaster, deserted hilltops, dense woodland, etc.
After that, I left for Cornwall! First stop was Newquay and a cliff walk from Watergate Bay to Porth, which was stunning! If you want to learn to surf, this seems like the place. Next day I moved towards a small village called Treen, near Penzance, via most of the southern coast. Amazing little village called Mousehole, where on the beach people had stacked rather flimsy towers of beach rocks, ready to be washed by the tide. It was like an art installation, but seemed so natural. (Photos https://picasaweb.google.com/Carlc75/Mousehole)
Treen has a history about it, near its headland is what is called the Logain Stone, which you can rock with your hands due to fine balance! Or you used to be able to, until some chap from the navy in the 1800s decided he wanted to prove the navy could topple it. After much complain by the local tourism industry, he paid to have it put back, but it has never rocked as easily since, which is something I can attest to after daring the rather leery scramble to the rock. (Photos https://picasaweb.google.com/Carlc75/LogainsRock)
Next day found me at Lands End, doing the usual touristy stuff, but I did get some dirty looks off passers by as I did some undaring bouldering to get a good photo. Then to St. Ives to wonder the streets. (Photos https://picasaweb.google.com/Carlc75/LandsEnd)
Today back to Newquay, and a day at the Eden Project (Photos https://picasaweb.google.com/Carlc75/EdenProject). Brilliant place, if a little inundated with small children, but then, it is for them. Big kids have to fit in I suppose! After chilling out in Watergate Bay again, Im in the pub writing this (Cornish Ale has nothing compared to Lancastrian). Tomorrow, I go bouldering at Carn Brea. Woo. Then back into the Shire.
Well, as everyone who has a blog is aware, its hard to actually find anything to put in it, never mind actually remembering to write it.
Ok, so personal stuff. Started my studentship at Lancaster University within the EIS(http://eis.comp.lancs.ac.uk) research group. Still unsure of an actual topic, although I will probably swing towards the algorithmic side of localisation in WSN.
Still, I rarely have time to do any personal code, yet some stuff happens. Recently wrote a basic heightmap generator in Ruby, currently porting to Lua, and it outputs some nice images using image tools like RMagick or just plain VT100 colour output.
Post to follow explaining the code.