Microsoft AI Development Acceleration Program: Transforming Microsoft teams

 |   MSNE Staff

From Cortana to CRISPR to XiaoIce, Microsoft’s commitment to artificial intelligence is clear. As part of our dedication to providing the best-in-class technology to our teams as well as our consumers, we’re constantly looking for ways to use AI to improve and empower lives. The Microsoft AI Development Acceleration Program (MAIDAP), Microsoft’s newest investment in AI development, is here to further that mission.

Introduced in 2017 as the Microsoft NERD Artificial Intelligence program, the Microsoft AI Development Acceleration Program is now currently hosting its first cohort. Over the next two years, these 15 cohort members—fresh university hires and now full-time Microsoft employees—will be engaged by individual product groups at Microsoft on a rotational basis, delivering AI solutions to their specific product groups as they go. This placement’s benefit is twofold: program members will gain broad exposure to as many Microsoft products as possible (for example, working on Microsoft Azure products for four months before transitioning over to Office), and will be delivering these product groups with as many AI solutions as possible, in effect transforming our products as they work.

“These projects are both meaningful and impactful,” explained Soundararajan Srinivasan, MAIDAP director. “For example, our first project with Office may end up with hundreds of thousands of users by the end of the project. We’re looking at targeted applications that can get AI into the end users’ hands.”

The Microsoft AI Development Acceleration Program sits in the Microsoft New England R&D (NERD) Center, working with teams across the facility.

We’re excited to see this cohort grow as they begin to work with various product groups, gaining mentoring on both a technical level and on a leadership level. This ingrained mentorship and coaching is a special perk to MAIDAP, providing our cohort with valuable skills as well as practical AI applications. And Srinivasan is hoping this can make a cultural impact as well.

“All of these elements make it a unique program,” he said. “In addition to the leadership aspects, we’re going to place a lot of emphasis on creating a prototype of a diverse and inclusive team.”

Part of our reasoning behind building this program is the need to bring in fresh talent from universities. Colleges and universities are still in the ramp-up phase when it comes to AI; not many have AI programs yet. Because of this, there’s fierce competition for those who have the experience; AI is currently the hottest technical job on the market—employers have to compete for every graduate, especially those from top schools, quite strongly.

Because of the nature of this beast, we’re approaching this program like an accelerator. Our recruiting priorities included identifying a group of young talent that may not have much professional experience but has proven dedication to AI and technology.

“All our cohort members are recent grads who have just graduated from their university program,” said program coordinator, Xhulia Bratja. “Even though you went to school this whole time, you don’t know what applicant you want to work on specifically. A rotation gives you the feel of other projects and teams. We focus not just on topics in technology but on teams; our cohort gets to see the culture and meet people on a regular basis. That is a huge part of your work and happiness.”

As a new program, MAIDAP has some main goals in mind. First, the program is looking to establish success stories, to show that a rotational cohort within Microsoft can excel and work in terms of delivering AI content to product groups and in engaging these product groups as a remote team. Secondly, MAIDAP aims to prioritize bringing in top, diverse talent that can be competed for by these top product groups — and show that we are also a fun team to work with!

AI is primarily viewed as a key differentiating technology in Microsoft. But AI is not just something that goes into a few products—it’s changing every aspect of Microsoft’s operation, including things you wouldn’t normally think of as technology, like finance, HR, planning, and budgeting. This integration enables Microsoft and its customers to create products and services that use AI to better understand, anticipate, and respond to people’s needs. That’s helping us address problems we couldn’t solve before and freeing up our time for higher-value tasks, like helping other organizations to accelerate through AI.

As our cohort begins diving headfirst into projects with our product teams, we’re ready to engage with them to plan our next cohort, using Boston as a springboard for the program.

“Boston is one of the top academic destinations worldwide,” Srinivasan told us. “It is a prime driver for technology. The northeast region of the U.S. and southeast Canada form a big AI hub, which is a good place to be from a talent perspective.”

Boston itself is a very attractive place to live; as the second-largest destination of venture capital in the country, AI is one of the top drivers of VC funding. That brings in a lot of young talent and brings in a lot of disruptive ideas, which makes it easy to build an AI team and exchange ideas. New England is also home to large AI groups that we leverage to find mentors and resources, and we’re hoping our cohort can tap into those as well.

“AI is not a topic that can be done and built in silos,” says Srinivasan. “We believe open innovation is easier when you are in an innovation hub.”