With a mix of full-time Microsoft employees, computer science graduate students, and faculty consultants, the Gray Systems Lab has a more academic feel than a typical industrial laboratory. One of our goals in starting the lab was to create an environment that facilitated collaboration between the graduate students and full time staff. In practice, this has worked far better than anyone had anticipated at the outset of the endeavor.
Each of the full time staff is involved with at least one of the graduate students. The involvement could be simply helping a student understand the source code for SQL Server or critiquing a paper or presentation but more frequently the graduate students and staff find themselves working together as peers. The benefits of mixing graduate students and employees flow in both directions. Students often find interesting and relevant research problems embedded in challenges and future directions being considered by the product teams; in the other direction, ideas from student research have found their way into products.
The fact that students have access to the SQL Server source code as part of the legal agreement between Microsoft and the University of Wisconsin has proved to be beneficial in ways that we never anticipated when we started the lab. In particular, many of the RAs have done summer internships with the MSR database group or with SQL Server development teams. Since typically source code access by a student is lost at the end of the internship, projects are generally scoped so that they can be successfully completed in 2-3 months. The common pattern is for the GSL RAs to continue working on their projects after the end of the internship because they have continued access to the source code. In one case the collaboration between the student and MSR has continued for three full years. We are very excited about the mutual benefits that such long-term collaborations can provide.
The GSL RAs are funded by a contract between Microsoft and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently the contract provides funds to support eight graduate students. The funds are provided by Microsoft to the University without any constraints, allowing the graduate students and their advisors to pursue whatever direction of research that interests them. We believe that this combination of deep integration of graduate students with Microsoft employees, under the supervision of their academic advisors, is unique, and that we are just at the beginning of exploring and reaping the benefits of such an arrangement.