While exuberant tech fanboys crowd Silicon Valley’s Apple stores today, eager to be among the first to get their hands on a new iPhone 6, a much more somber scene prevails at Microsoft Research’s outpost in Mountain View. The research lab, tagged Building 6, is separated by a quiet street from the rest of the company’s Silicon Valley campus, and its parking lot is half empty. A few knots of employees chat quietly, while two men stroll aimlessly, sipping coffee, and looping the soon-to-be-vacant building. Every now and then the front door opens, and out come two or three people carrying heavy packing boxes to their cars.
These Microsoft employees, mostly researchers, got the word yesterday that the company was about to evict them from their laboratory home, and most of them were about to be laid off, though some would be offered positions elsewhere. Today’s their last day on the job. They’re not talking to the press; they’ve been ordered not to; so their response to any questions is a wry smile and a shake of the head.
Once the packing is done, the goodbyes will likely be long ones. One large group finishes loading their cars then heads over to a nearby sports bar; other researchers pull into the parking lot with bags of ice and cases of wine for what is sure to be a not-very-happy Friday happy hour.
Meanwhile, the video display in the lobby, deserted except for a receptionist clocking in her final hours, cycles through just-made-obsolete facts about Microsoft research.
This research facility, set up in 2001, was by no means Microsoft’s largest one, with just about 50 researchers of the 1000 or so Microsoft employs around the world. Most members of the Mountain View team focused on distributed computing, security, and privacy. And it’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of layoffs Microsoft announced this week: the company cut 2,100 jobs altogether. Still, it wasn’t a group that’s easy to ignore. Earlier this year, the Association of Computing Machinery bestowed the Turing Award on researcher Leslie Lamport for his work in distributed systems. That award is considered the highest honor in computer science. He’s not the only Turing winner who had been in residence at Microsoft Research (and earned one of the parking spaces reserved for Turing winners). IEEE Fellow and Turing Award winner Chuck Thacker, the chief designer of the famous Xerox Parc Alto computer, ran a group there.
The official word is that the company is consolidating, not terminating, any research projects. But in a time in which companies from outside California are moving research groups into — not away from — Silicon Valley, it’s an odd decision. And it is also an unexpected one, given that Microsoft recently signed a new five-year lease on the property.
But I’m sure Microsoft will have little trouble finding a taker for its office space — and the researchers, though stunned and dismayed today, won’t have to go far to be snapped up in new jobs, because Google’s ever-expanding Mountain View campus is just outside Building 6’s back door.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.