Microsoft Big Brains: Gary Flake

Today I am launching a new series, "Microsoft Big Brains." Over the course of the coming weeks, I'll be profiling Microsoft's Technical Fellows -- the 22 or so individuals who are helping to fill Chairman Bill Gates' shoes at the company, in terms of setting Redmond's future product/strategy agenda. The series kicks off with Live Labs Director and Tech Fellow Gary Flake.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Just before retiring from day-to-day responsibilities at Microsoft, Chairman Bill Gates said that he expected Microsoft's 22 Technical Fellows to get a lot more publicly visible -- now that they wouldn't be living in his shadow.  While some of the Microsoft fellows already have been active on the public-speaking circuit, many of them are not widely known outside the company.

I'm launching this series -- "Microsoft Big Brains" -- to help remedy that shortcoming. In the coming weeks, I am hoping to profile as many of the company's tech fellows as to whom I can get access.

Microsoft's Technical Fellows came to the company via a variety of different routes. Some of them run divisions inside the company; some focus on particularly thorny technical issues that may span a variety of product units. Regardless of where they sit in the organization, the fellows all have been charged with helping Microsoft craft its next-gen products and strategies, much the way that Gates used his regular "Think Weeks" to prioritize what Microsoft needed to do next.

This Week's 'Big Brain': Gary Flake Claim to Fame: Director of Live Labs, Microsoft's MSN-Research mash-up How Long You've Been With Microsoft: 2 years More About You: Before joining Microsoft, founded Yahoo! Research Labs, ran Yahoo!’s corporate R&D activities and was Overture's Chief Science Officer. (I asked him what he thought about Microsoft's bid for Yahoo and he decided not to answer, in case you were wondering what a former Yahoo thought about the on-again/off-again Yahoo courtship.) Your Biggest Accomplishment (So Far) at Microsoft: Creation of Live Labs Team(s) You Also Work With:MSN, Web search, desktop search, online advertising Why Stay at Microsoft?  "The Internet has not historically been Microsoft's priority, but has become such a big part that I have no hesitation about staying here for the long haul."

"I didn't originally intend to build another lab. It just happened," concedes Gary Flake, the head of Microsoft's Live Labs incubator.

"It's hard building a new lab," Flake says. He describes the process as being similar to upgrading a highway from two lanes to five. "You can't just tear the highway down. Traffic still needs to flow."

So far, the "traffic" flowing through Live Labs has been fairly light -- at least in terms of the number of projects out in the public domain. (The best known of them is PhotoSynth, Microsoft's photo-stitching technology which Live Labs recently released in Verion 1.0 form.) But there are another 100 or so Live Labs projects that aren't public yet, Flake says.

"I want to remind people it's the early days of Web search and online advertising. The best is yet to come, not just from Microsoft, but from the industry as a whole," he says.

Flake notes that the user interface for search hasn't changed a whole lot over the past ten years. The number of new innovations can be counted on one hand, he claims.

"We are really hard at work on evolving these paradigms in a way that i not incremental. It is a set of problems you have to spend years on. I think we are going to shock and surprise people" when we finally go public with what we're working on, he says.

Inside Live Labs, "at any given time, there can be 40 active projects going on, ranging from having a partial person dedicated to them, to a 20-person team," he says.

While creating the culture, vision, mission and strategy of Live Labs is a big endeavor in and of itself, Flake says that he is actually spending most of his time working with other teams at Microsoft.

"I do a lot of technical work alone or with other (corporate and product) groups on spcific technology products," Flake says. The work "can be about company strategy, or a deep technical dive, or assembling a SWAT team, or managing hundreds of people."

The result can be anything from a new product, to the "secret sauce," never acknowledged publicly,  that is part of a larger product from Microsoft.

"Live Labs is about spanning a big part of the continuum from 'live' to baked. We're trying to fill in the gap between Microsoft Research and the product groups," Flake says.

For all of the "Microsoft Big Brains" profiles, check out the Big Brains page.

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