Microsoft mentors help BU students set sights on computer vision

 |   MSNE Staff

Here at Microsoft New England we are fortunate to be surrounded by some of the nation’s best colleges and universities. We regularly seek opportunities to collaborate with these local institutions so both students and MSNE employees can learn from each other, and to inspire students to discover a passion for tech.

Each semester our employees volunteer to mentor undergraduate and graduate students completing a capstone-like project in a Cloud Computing course at Boston University and Northeastern University. We’re one of several local tech companies that submit a project proposal for students studying computer science and computer engineering to translate their academic course experience into solving real-world cloud computing challenges.

This semester, three members of our Azure AI team presented students with a computer vision project, based on cutting edge technology called deep learning for image classification, object detection, and image similarity. With support from our mentors, five students were tasked with building a website that allowed for easy selection and upload of images, sending these images to a custom REST API on Azure, and lastly receiving and visualizing the output of the API call. The course culminates in a final poster presentation.

A screenshot of the students’ website featuring Microsoft image identification software.
A screenshot of the students’ website featuring Microsoft image identification software.

This in-depth project called on students to develop a variety of skills, including JavaScript, model deployment to the cloud, and developing a public Github “pull request” process to contribute code back into the Microsoft Computer Vision Best Practices repository. The repository is part of MSNEs initiative to share our work and learning with the open-source community, and already has over 2,400 stars on Github.

“Contributing code publicly like this was a first for all of us and much more involved than we could have imagined,” said Kelly Lee, a student at BU studying computer engineering.

The students each spent over 10 hours per week on this project, which was a heavy lift on top of their other coursework. A significant challenge to overcome was the varying skill levels and programming backgrounds of each student. The group needed to find ways to effectively work together, with the support of their MSNE mentors.

“Our mentors were very helpful and patient with us, while also keeping expectations high,” Kelly said. “They asked a lot of us and were good coaches — they let us struggle and learn on our own, but were always ready to lend a hand when we were really stuck.”

The students presented their final project through a Teams call.
The students presented their final project through a Teams call.

The rewards for completing this project go beyond the students’ valuable new cloud computing and data science skills: the students get a taste of real-world computer science work, and they make valuable connections at Microsoft that will benefit their career.

“It was nice getting exposure to work being done in a real, large, well-respected company and feeling like we were actually contributing,” Kelly said.

“I think it’s an amazing program,” said mentor Patrick Buehler, a principal data scientist here at Microsoft. “The fact that students can see how companies work, get an idea perhaps for their own interests once they graduate, have something to add to their resume as work experience, and finally also collect course credits. I wish it existed when I was working on my PhD. It opens the door to [Microsoft] and looks great on the resume.”

It’s also a valuable program for the Microsoft mentors themselves. “It was fun for us as mentors, and it was good to see how excited they are [to learn],” Patrick shared. Mentors spend about two hours per week advising students on the final project that will be used by Microsoft and our customers. “The website that they built is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but could never find the time.”

Orran Krieger, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at BU, began the Cloud Computing course in 2015 with fellow professor Peter Desnoyers as an experiment. “I was so frustrated that there was no safe place (i.e., outside of internships) where [new college grads] learned Agile and learned to work as a team,” he says. Since then, interest has grown: the waiting list is twice as long as the number of students Krieger can accept into the course. “It’s a ton of work, but it’s gotten insanely popular… Having great mentors is probably the most critical part of this.”

We’re proud of each student’s hard work this semester, and of each mentor’s commitment to supporting the next generation of technology leaders.

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Every day, the innovative technology we create here takes that mission to new and exciting places and impacts the lives of millions of people around the world. Learn more about life at Microsoft New England.