My Time in Silicon Valley

This is an overview of my time in Silicon Valley, where I worked for Microsoft Research in 2009. In the meantime, I have left Microsoft. A few years later, in 2014, the research lab in Silicon Valley was closed.

This text is a purely personal collection of impressions, published here with the sole purpose of entertainment. By reading this text, you agree that I will not accept any responsibility for correctness or completeness.

Where I work

I work for Microsoft Research. This is an independent branch of the Microsoft company. Its purpose is, as the name suggests, to do scientific research. That is, we come up with new ideas, we study the bases and consequences of these ideas and we publish papers about them. Founded in 1991, Microsoft Research is well respected in the research community. It has attracted some of the brightest heads in computer science, including multiple Turing award winners.

Microsoft Research has offices in several locations all over the world: 3 in the USA, 1 in the UK, 1 in India, and (following a strong trend in research) 1 in China. I am in a department called ISRC (Internet Service Research Center). This department is present in two locations: In Redmond in the US state of Washington and in Silicon Valley in California. I am in the Silicon Valley location. So although the ISRC is physically co-located with the Silicon Valley group, the ISRC is not part of the Silicon Valley group. This is why you will not find us on the Internet when you look for "Microsoft Silicon Valley". (And neither did I, prompting serious fears that my department had been washed away by the recent wave of job losses. But trust me, it's still there.) Rather, you find the department when you look for "Microsoft ISRC".

The ISRC is concerned with research around Microsoft's Internet services. These include Microsoft's online portal MSN as well as the search engine Live. Live is a kind of Microsoft's Google. It is an Internet service that allows you to find Web pages. The unfortunate catch is just that Live trails far behind Google. The ISRC is there to change that. The sub-department of ISRC that is concerned with Live is called the "Search Labs". They do the research with Live (which does not mean, as my girl-fiend suggested, that they do a search with Live and since you never find things with Live, they do a "re-search" with Live. Rather they do the scientific research with Live.). The Search Labs is where I work.

The Search Labs Building
The Search Labs are located in the beautiful building pictured on the right. The group consists of about 15 people. The head of the group is Rakesh Agrawal. The researchers are from all over the world, from India, South America, Singapore, Greece and (new!) Saarbrücken. It is striking that a country as small as Greece (with a population of 11 million) contributes 20% of the group. At the Max Planck Institute, too, the greek diaspora seemed particularly large. This may have different reasons, ranging from speculations about the living conditions in Greece over assumptions about their particular intelligence to the hypothesis that the greek diaspora is not truly that large, but that the greeks just seem more numerous because they talk more loudly. Be that as it may, the group is scientifically extremely strong, sporting 3 publications at the WWW conference this year and 4 best paper/best dissertation awards last year. Strikingly, they achieve this productivity seemingly without stretching their work/life balance. People come to work at around 9 or 10 and they leave at around 6 or 7. This seems to be the official policy, as these are the times of the Microsoft bus shuttles to the local train station. True, Microsoft also provides a taxi service in case you stay longer in office and you cannot catch a bus to get home ("Guaranteed Ride Home Program") — but you can use this service only 6 times per year. So, up to now, it seems as if Microsoft Research people really work as much (or at least as long) as others. They just seem to work extremely efficiently.

That said, the working conditions are wonderful. This is primarily due to the region, boasting eternal warmth and sunshine (see picture). I am seriously considering shifting my rhythm of the day so that I get up earlier and profit more from the sunny part of the day. Second, Microsoft provides all kinds of delicacies for their employees, ranging from bus tickets to insurances. Last, Microsoft Research Silicon Valley has a marvellous cafeteria ("Mensa" in Saarbrücken terminology). You have the choice of about 6 different dishes. Food is prepared before your very nose, much like in these Chinese restaurants where you choose the ingredients and they fry them for you. Prices are cheap (given the quality of the food), with about 7 USD per dish. We usually go with our group, sometimes opting also for one of the restaurants nearby.

Where I live

The Yahoo! Building
For most years of my life, I thought that "Silicon Valley" must be a very cool place but I had no idea where it was. (Much like the people who came to the Max Planck Institute had no idea where Saarbrücken was, although maybe for Saarbrücken this is forgivable.) Silicon Valley is a region in California that encompasses all the nice cities you know from paper headers (or Beach Boys songs): Cupertino, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Santa Clara, Stanford, and some more. Numerous companies have their headquarters or offices in the region, including Adobe, Apple, eBay, Google, HP, Intel, Oracle, Sun, Symantec, Yahoo!, Facebook, Netscape, Opera, Siemens, Sony, VeriSign and Youtube. Microsoft, for example, is located in Mountain View. Silicon Valley is also home of military facilities, including an airport (and strange-looking radar receivers) for the NASA.

NASA satellite dishes.
These guys must have wonderful satellite TV quality!
Silicon Valley itself is part of the Bay Area, that is the area around the Bay of San Francisco. This area encompasses places such as San Francisco itself (with the Golden Gate bridge), Napa Valley (known for its wine), San Jose (the third largest city in California, after Los Angeles and San Diego, with 1 million inhabitants) and the universities of Stanford and Berkely. Wikipedia teaches us that the Bay Area has around 7 million inhabitants and is particularly rich: The median household income is roughly 60% above the national average and the area sports 160,000 millionaires. The population is diverse, with only about 58% of people being white (much like at the Max Planck Institute).

The Bay Area is located in California, the most populous state among the 50 states of the United States of America. California is home of places such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Death Valley, and the Yosemite National Park. Despite being governed by the Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Assembly is mostly Democratic. California (and especially the Bay Area) are rather known to be on the liberal end of the political spectrum. California does have the death penalty, but capital punishment is on hold indefinitely as human rights issues are addressed [>]. The time zone of California is "Pacific Standard Time" (PST), that is UTC-8, trailing 9h behind Central European Time. In summer, California switches to "Pacific Daylight Time" (PDT), that is UTC-7, still trailing 9h behind Central European Summer Time.

My "home".
Swimming pool in the back.
But let's get back to Silicon Valley: Microsoft provides temporary housing for me for the first 3 months. I am in a facility known as "corporate housing". Corporate housings are clusters of apartments, much like vacation apartments in ski regions. My apartment has a living room, a kitchen, a sleeping room, a bath room and a small balcony. It is fully equipped with everything you need (or don't need) for your daily life, including a micro wave, an oven, cutlery, crockery, bed linen, towels and a fridge that could hold food for a whole family (plus the family itself). On the technical side, the apartment boasts internet access, a DVD player, telephones and two (!) TVs. The place is approximately 10km away from my office.

How I live

Fair Oaks Avenue.
All other streets similar.
The first thing you notice when you step out of the airport (or, indeed, out of the apartment in the morning) is the scent [der Duft]. It smells different here — mediterranian, tropical, southern. The air is warm and sweet. You can smell the salt water from the Bay, you can smell the Eucalyptus trees when you walk by and when you walk near a flowerbed or trees, hundreds of smells come out of there: pine [Kiefer], fennel [Fenchel], thyme [Thymian] and dozens more (whose names I don't know, neither in German nor in English). The climate is sunny all year round. Usually, there is not a single cloud on the sky. However, there seems to be a constant breeze, so that it is actually not hot.

Silicon Valley is a continuous urban region — or, rather, sub-urban region. In the North, it consists of flat, one-storey houses with small gardens. In the South, East and West as well. Each city in Silicon Valley has a center. The center differs from the surrounding areas by signs on the street lamps that say "Center". Sunnyvale actually also has a pedestrian precinct, which is exactly like European pedestrian precincts, just that cars have priority. The area encompasses a street of about 100m length and consists mainly of restaurants. All streets are extemely wide by European standards. This, combined with the one-storey houses, entails that all things are extremely far apart. It can take up to 15min of walking just to get from one crossroad to the other. Fortunately, there exists a relatively good public transport system, with regular busses until midnight, tramways and local trains. Still, it can take hours to get from one place to another, because the region is so extensive and you might have to change busses. Google maps has a very accurate idea of when busses go and since Google also provides free wireless Internet access for the whole city of Mountain View, you can actually figure out how long you have to wait when you have your laptop with you.

Things are a bit complicated for Europeans, because the United States are the only country in the world where the metric system is not the official system of measurements (together with Myanmar and Liberia, which is not exactly an excuse). This means that they measure in feet, yards, ounces, inches, miles, cubic inches, pints, gallons, barrels, cups, Fahrenheit and hogsheads. Consequently, the scale of a map will state for example that "1 inch equals approximately 0.54 miles" — which is not a very handy measure. Maps tend to scale in multiples of 10, just like metric units, but US units don't. US units usually scale as multiples of 2, 3, 12, 33/50, 27, 231 or 1728, depending on the unit. For example, one cubic foot is exactly 1728 cubic inches. US-American units are called the same as English units, but have different values. For example, American feet are a little smaller than English feet (even though they usually have to carry more weight). Finally, the US and the UK have agreed on the "international foot" — which is defined in meters.

The Central Expressway
with what I think is a bike lane on the right
Moving around in the city became drastically easier for me when I finally bought a bike. This area is wonderful for cycling! All roads are newly paved and wide and most have a bike lane. The area is completely flat, with the only elevations being bridges across railways or freeways. According to my experience, car drivers are very considerate and polite, stopping and smiling whenever I cross a street. Most points of interest (and my office) are in a radius of 10km (for our American readers: that is a radius of roughly 393,700.787 inches, covering an area of 7,763.04451 square furlongs).

One such point of interest is Whole Foods, a giant supermarket. Whole Foods sells only "whole foods", i.e. food that is called "natural", "organic" or "bio". After having analyzed the lists of ingredients, I think this means that no chemical or nuclear materials are in the food (it contains flavor agents, color agents and vitamin supplements just like any other supermarket food). Anyway, the main component (or second component) of most food is sugar. Even bread contains sugar. But it is the choice of the sugar food that is so impressive. Take for example peanut butter [Erdnussbutter]. In Germany, there are 2 types of peanut butter: crunchy and soft. In Whole Foods, there are crunchy and soft peanut butter, but also medium peanut butter, almond [Mandel] butter, cashew butter, soy [Soja] butter, sesame butter, walnut butter and macadamia butter. All in all, there are 46 different types of nut butter. Plus, lest I forget, a machine where you can grind your own peanut butter from fresh peanuts. The nut butters cover one meter of the shelf. A shelf is 5 meters long and there are about 30 of such shelves. There is freshly cut soap, fruit, all kinds of (sugar) juice, around 30 different types of milk, and boxes for around 100 different sorts of fresh nuts and grains that you can buy by the kilogram (or ounce). Surely, I will not die of hunger here.