Microsoft Looks to Academia for Talent
Microsoft's sponsorship of technology contests and its partnerships with university research centers hopes to bear altruistic benefits, as well as loyalty to company's products.
Although Bill Gates' massive philanthropic foundation tends to get the most attention for its efforts to transform education, the company he co-founded also is paying close attention to the world of academia.
Microsoft Corp. sponsors technology contests, partners with academics, runs extensive research centers around the world and donates products to educators.
While many of its competitors have similar programs, academics and analysts say the Redmond company's extensive involvement, especially through its Microsoft Research centers, seems to go further than most.
"Microsoft certainly pays a lot of attention to the education space," said Jeffrey Young, a senior editor with the trade publication The Chronicle of Higher Education.
But it's not a purely altruistic endeavor. Through academia, Microsoft hopes to convince young minds to become loyal to Microsoft products, help influence university and government research -- and perhaps ensure it doesn't miss out on the next big technological wave.
"As a whole, it's an investment for us, but it pays off in a pretty big way," Gates said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.
Analysts say another, less tangible goal may be to win the respect of researchers, who have traditionally shunned the company's consumer- and business-focused products. Open-source technologies and other competitors, including Apple Computer Inc., have traditionally thrived in the academic setting.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has had to overcome reputation problems stemming in part from the monopoly position of its Windows operating system and the aggressive competitive practices that came to light during its long-running U.S. antitrust case.
"It's about getting them on the tools and getting young developers, but it's also a prestige factor," said Joe Wilcox, a Jupiter analyst.
Hal Abelson, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has since 1999 partnered with Microsoft on an educational technology project, said it's hard to say whether Microsoft's increased involvement in academic research has helped improve the company's on-campus reputation.
"Microsoft's maturing a lot as a company, and they're getting lots and lots of good people," he said. "I think that's more responsible for getting a better reputation on campus than they had before -- and the products are better."
Gates said Microsoft placed an emphasis on education after he and others saw how, as students themselves, Microsoft's eventual rival, IBM Corp., wasn't doing the same thing. The result, he said, was that developers used Digital Equipment technology instead.
"There's even a commercial element of what you get exposed to when you're young," Gates said. "We'll never be able to measure it, but there's some benefit to us that people have this exposure."
Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, believes Microsoft's heavy educational investments reflect what he calls "enlightened self-interest." While Microsoft benefits from it, he said researchers who are able to use that involvement for everything from astronomy research to helping technology development in Third World countries do, too.
On Wednesday, Gates met with seven student teams who are competing in the company's Imagine Cup, a technology contest in which students must use Microsoft products. More than 70 teams will vie for a $25,000 top prize at finals later this year in India.
As the college-level students demonstrated projects, including technology to help blind and disabled people get around, Gates listened closely and peppered them with questions. Several times, he noted that his own in-house researchers could learn from the students.
"They're giving us a lot of feedback on what we need to do better," he said afterward.
Gates also has made a personal effort get people excited about computer science because he fears a growing shortage of U.S. engineering students. This clearly flummoxes a man who has spent his life devoted to technology.
"In some ways, it should be obvious. When they think what's going on that's neat in the world, that they wish they were part of, they can look at their cell phone, they can look at their iPod, they can look at their Xbox, they can look at the next version of Office," he said. "When they go and buy a hamburger they're not saying, 'Oh, I wish I invented that new hamburger."
In a nod to his competitors, Gates said it's not just Microsoft that should entice them.
"They're reading about the guys that founded Google, or Steve Jobs, or the great people here at Microsoft, and you'd think that would draw in a huge number," he added.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest philanthropy, also has placed a heavy focus on education, mainly in changing high schools. Those efforts are likely to get a significant boost with the announcement this week that billionaire investor Warren Buffett will give most of his wealth to the Gates foundation. Gates also plans to scale back his day-to-day duties at Microsoft beginning in mid-2008 so he can focus more time on the foundation.
On Wednesday, Gates said his company and his foundation have partnered on education projects in a limited way, but he said the primary common denominator between the two is himself.
"Microsoft cares a lot about education, and I care a lot about education," he said.