What they’ll work on in Microsoft’s new B.C. facility

Microsoft Corp. this week officially opened its Richmond, B.C., development centre where the team of 300 works, in a distributed approach, on a little more than 50 per cent of the software company’s overall products and services, according to the facility’s managing director.

Parminder Singh of the MCDC (Microsoft Canada Development Centre) said the facility’s team of software engineers, having expanded from 21 in July 2007, tackle a variety of tasks including software development and testing, program management, user interface design, system architecture and specifications development, development of system tools, and IT infrastructure development.

The team also engages in research, for instance, in algorithms for mobile Web search, and works on programming languages and tools for the developer community.

The team’s work eventually gets integrated in the Redmond, Wash., development centre along with other contributions from the other centres around the globe, in Ireland, Denmark, Israel, North Carolina, and Massachusetts.

The products being worked on in the Richmond location are Office, Vista, Visual Studios, Silverlight, Exchange Server, Unified Communications, Zune, Xbox 360, Ad Platform, and Ad Search. The development of Office, for instance, “has tentacles that take you to dozens of countries globally,” said Singh, “it’s a distributed strategy that Microsoft uses.”

But although products and services eventually get pieced together in Redmond, Singh doesn’t want it to appear as if the global facilities are merely toiling to feed the company headquarters. “It shouldn’t be thought about in that way,” he said, because it’s more like an extension of the facilities in Redmond. He added that even within the Redmond campus, integration of work is required given the dispersed buildings.

Richmond software engineers have reporting lines that stem back to Redmond and they can work interchangeably as needed to coordinate on projects given the short two-and-a-half hour commute, said Singh, and “at some point, depending on how many people from a Redmond product group are actually in Vancouver determines the depth and complexity of work that we do there.”

While the global facilities should be viewed as an extension of the Redmond campus, there is the advantage of drawing talent from wherever the centres are situated, said Singh. He did, however, note that recruiting solely Canadian talent is not the objective of the Richmond location, rather it’s “to get the best and brightest folks we can get.”

The Richmond facility hadn’t actually hired any Canadian-born or Canadian-trained employees as of six months ago, said Peter Grant, president of the Canadian Information Processing Society’s British Columbia division, in an e-mail to ComputerWorld Canada. But Microsoft’s motivation has little to do with attracting or developing Canadian talent, he added, because the choice of locale is “purely a response to the cap on foreign workers Microsoft can bring into the U.S.” He added that the Canadian economy nonetheless benefits from that restriction south of the border.

And while the majority of the 300 software engineers are foreign-born and now make Canada their home, Singh said there are recruits who hail from Canada “so we do hire locally”. The reason for the foreign-born majority, he explained, is the tendency for those individuals to pursue disciplines like mathematics and computer sciences “and that’s the talent we need.”

“I understand it’s in lockstep with the Canadian recognition that there is a huge shortage of skilled talent within the country,” he added.

Singh said “it would be wonderful” if there was more local talent pursuing those disciplines, but the pool has shrunk in Canada and the U.S. over the last while.

The presence of the Richmond facility can only help make Canada more attractive to IT professionals from around the world, said Grant. “Microsoft is certainly one of the most reputable software companies in the world,” he said, adding that the idea of working for the software giant in Vancouver has already attracted global IT talent.

In an e-mail to ComputerWorld Canada, Nigel Horspool, professor at the University of Victoria’s department of computer science, said many students in co-op degree programs head to Redmond for work terms, and that the Richmond location is expected to provide more options for students. However, Horspool did note that the new Centre is not likely to have any direct effect on the plans of B.C. youth and that the “creation of 300 new software developer jobs means little to today’s high school students who, unfortunately, tend to see careers in computing as being careers for geeks.”

“If high school students can look beyond the image problem,” Horspool wrote, “they will see that there are well paid and interesting careers waiting for them when they have a degree in computer science.”

Singh said he hopes to see the Richmond facility expand in the future and certainly doesn’t anticipate growth will slow down. However, he’s hesitant to put “an artificial number in the air” as expansion will depend, at the time, on available talent and economics.

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