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Communications of the ACM


Microsoft Research, New York City

John Langford

Yahoo! laid off people. Unlike every previous time there have been layoffs, this is serious for Yahoo! Research.

We had advanced warning from Prabhakar through the simple act of leaving. Yahoo! Research was a world class organization that Prabhakar recruited much of personally, so it is deeply implausible that he would spontaneously decide to leave. My first thought when I saw the news was "Uhoh, Rob said that he knew it was serious when the head of ATnT Research left." In this case it was even more significant, because Prabhakar recruited me on the premise that Y!R was an experiment in how research should be done: via a combination of high quality people and high engagement with the company. Prabhakar's departure is a clear end to that experiment.

The result is ambiguous from a business perspective.  Y!R clearly was not capable of saving the company from its illnesses. I'm not privy to the internal accounting of impact and this is the kind of subject where there can easily be great disagreement. Even so, there were several strong direct impacts coming from the machine learning, economics, and algorithms groups.

Y!R clearly was excellent from an academic research perspective. On a per person basis in relevant subjects, it was outstanding. One way to measure this is by noticing that both ICML and KDD had (co)program chairs from Y!R. It turns out that talking to the rest of the organization doing consulting, architecting, and prototyping on a minority basis helps research by sharpening the questions you ask more than it hinders by taking up time. The decision to participate in this experiment was a good one for me personally.

It has been clear in silicon valley, academia, and pretty much everywhere else that people at Yahoo! including Yahoo! Research have been looking around for new positions. Maintaining the excellence of Y!R in a company that has been under prolonged stress was challenging leadership-wise. Consequently, the abrupt departure of Prabhakar and an apparent lack of appreciation by the new CEO created a crisis of confidence. Many people who were sitting on strong offers quickly left, and everyone else started looking around.

In this situation, my first concern was for colleagues, both in Machine Learning across the company and the Yahoo! Research New York office.

Machine Learning turns out to be a very hot technology. Every company and government in the world is drowning in data, and Machine Learning is the prime tool for actually using it to do interesting things. More generally, the demand for high quality seasoned machine learning researchers across startups, mature companies, government labs, and academia has been astonishing, and I expect the outcome to reflect that. This is remarkably different from the cuts that hit ATnT research in late 2001 and early 2002 where the famous machine learning group there took many months to disperse to new positions.

In the New York office, we investigated many possibilities hard enough that it became a news story. While that article is wrong in specifics (we ended up not fired for example, although it is difficult to discern cause and effect), we certainly shook the job tree very hard to see what would fall out. To my surprise, amongst all the companies we investigated, Microsoft had a uniquely sufficient agility, breadth of interest, and technical culture, enabling them to make offers that I and a significant fraction of the Y!R-NY lab could not resist. My belief is that the new Microsoft Research New York City lab will become an even greater techhouse than Y!R-NY.  At a personal level, it is deeply flattering that they have chosen to create a lab for us on short notice.  I will certainly do my part chasing the greatest learning algorithms not yet invented.

In light of this, I would encourage people in academia to consider Yahoo! in as fair a light as possible in the current circumstances. There are and will be some serious hard feelings about the outcome as various top researchers elsewhere in the organization feel compelled to look for jobs and leave. However, Yahoo! took a real gamble supporting a research organization about 7 years ago, and many positive things have come of this gamble from all perspectives. I expect almost all of the people leaving to eventually do quite well, and often even better.

What about ICML? My second thought on hearing about Prabhakar's departure was "I really need to finish up initial paper/reviewer assignments today before dealing with this." During the reviewing period where the program chair load is relatively light, Joelle handled nearly everything. My great distraction ended neatly in time to help with decisions at ICML. I considered all possibilities in accepting the job and was prepared to simply put aside a job search for some time if necessary, but the timing was surreally perfect. All signs so far point towards this ICML being an exceptional ICML, and I plan to do everything that I can to make that happen. The early registration deadline is May 13.

What about KDD? Deepak was sitting on an offer at Linkedin and simply took it, so the disruption there was even more minimal. Linkedin is a significant surprise winner in this affair.

What about Vowpal Wabbit? Amongst other things, VW is the ultrascale learning algorithm, not the kind of thing that you would want to put aside lightly. I negotiated to continue the project and succeeded. This surprised me greatly — Microsoft has made serious commitments to supporting open source in various ways and that commitment is what sealed the deal for me. In return, I would like to see Microsoft always at or beyond the cutting edge in machine learning technology.

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