Vikram Rao is a fourth year B.Tech student in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. He spent the summer interning at Microsoft Research, Redmond (MSR Redmond).
While MSR Redmond takes interns from IIT Kanpur and some other IITs quite regularly, this was the first time in at least four years that they hired from IIT Madras. One fine morning, my mailbox was bombarded with about twelve emails from various research groups wishing to speak to me about their projects. Since we are undergraduates with little or no research experience, teams usually have a well planned out project in their mind for their interns. They scan candidates’ resumes and email them for interview slots if they find their past experience matches the project. The “interview phone call” (chat, as they call it) comprises just a description of their project and some clarifications about your skills and past projects. Try to offer intelligent comments on their project ideas as and when possible as that is the only way to show your interest over a phone call. The teams give their judgments to a central authority who randomly assigns you to a group/project which had accepted you. There is a strong CGPA cutoff even before the email stage as this is a research opportunity.
The work itself is very much like an extended course project. The mentors have an idea in mind and you polish, implement and improve it. You do not do a lot of independent research, but you do have a say in how the project takes shape. Learnings and experiences largely depend on the project and mentor, but I learnt how to conduct research, to carefully design experiments to validate hypotheses, to critically observe and interpret results and how to ask the right questions, apart from various tidbits about everything from US firearm laws to the European financial crisis. The atmosphere at MSR is extremely inspiring, with many luminaries of various areas in Computer Science working in the building. There are many research talks everyday, apart from the occasional talk by a famous person.
Being one of only about ten undergraduates at MSR, I had a very interesting experience interacting with my grad-student co-interns. There were interns from every country imaginable and it was fun interacting with people from various cultures. Also, if you can speak a foreign language, you’ll have ample scope to show your skills off to native speakers. Not many undergraduates have the privilege of working at MSR Redmond, and most undergraduate interns are from the IITs. That itself says a lot about the image and expectations they have of an IITian. Also, many IIT alumni are researchers there and will love to talk to you about their work or anything else under the sun.
MSR does know how to treat its interns well. You are allowed access to a five-star gym frequented by people in their Porsches and Hummers. You also get discounts at many stores, restaurants and e-stores and are given a bus-pass to help you explore the area. The office has table-tennis tables, XBoxes and Foosball and Air Hockey tables in case you want to chill out. Did I mention that soft drinks and coffee are free and that MSR buys you a bike to ride? MSR has special events for interns every alternate week. Sometimes it is just socializing over ice-cream. At other times, it is a tour of the majestic Mount Rainier or a trampoline dodgeball session at an arena rented out specifically for the purpose. There is also a special event held every year called the Signature Event. This time, it was a cruise of Lake Washington along with the senior management of Microsoft Research, where it was announced that every intern would get an XBox and a Kinect as a gift.
Apart from the Microsoft-sponsored trips, I went around for several hikes around the Seattle area, which is naturally very well endowed. One perk of being among PhD co-interns is that they graciously invite you to carpool with them to trips. I’ve written at length on my hiking experiences on my blog. Since July 4th (the US Independence day) fell during my internship period, I took a few more days off work to visit New York City and Washington DC.
Seattle and its suburbs are beautiful. The people are polite, the streets clean and traffic extremely ordered. The low population density and the possible lack of a social circle outside of work may bother you, but you will quickly learn to cope with them. I had no problems conversing with foreigners and never had to change my accent. Vegetarians will find themselves with limited options for food, but you could take that as inspiration to learn to cook. I didn’t, though, as I was lucky enough to be put up near the restaurant and shopping district of the town.
Go to MSR Redmond if you want to experience the best research atmosphere that exists in industry today. You also get pampered, get to stay in the beautiful Pacific Northwest of USA and have the opportunity to get highly valued recommendation letters in case you want to apply for a PhD. If you aren’t yet convinced about going to MSR Redmond, consider the fact that you’ll leave boiling Chennai to live in rainy, pleasant Seattle for three months.