05.30.10

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Robotics Chief Tandy Trower Left Microsoft, Entryism Still Eyed at Cisco, AOL (Updated)

Posted in Microsoft at 5:32 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

US Navy - The ex-Oriskany, a decommissioned aircraft carrier

Summary: Another missing piece of the Microsoft exodus (almost everyone with a long history at a high-level rank has left in recent years, except Ballmer)

WE are gradually compiling this large page and an increasingly-long list of major departures from Microsoft. We started doing this in late 2008 and a departure we did not notice at the time it happened is that of Microsoft’s Robotics chief. Mary Jo Foley brought it up some days ago:

Given last year’s departure of Robotics chief Tandy Trower, I’m wondering about Microsoft’s future intentions and directions in the robotics space…

Mary Jo Foley can only hope that Microsoft will appeal to professionals in robotics (she also promotes vapourware at the moment, despite similar fluff to this, never mind if nothing ever came out of it). In this one particular area they are losing to Linux big time. No wonder the managers are leaving, which is never a good sign because it’s statistically correlated to failure. Departures from Microsoft are not necessarily good news however. On the one hand they are a sign that Microsoft is losing, but on the other hand, those who depart can actually cause damage to companies other than Microsoft by twisting and bending those companies in Microsoft’s direction. It’s mostly an HR issue. One failed unit of Microsoft was responsible for phones, devices, and the likes of these. Prior to the departure of J Allard and Robbie Bach [1, 2, 3] it was Enrique Rodriguez who left this team [1, 2]. He was a Vice President. Guess where he ends up? Cisco (see background [1, 2, 3]). He won't be alone.

Enrique Rodriguez, a former exec at Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)’s video and music division, is joining Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) to take on a key role at the tech giant’s Service Provider Video Technology Group (SPVTG), Light Reading Cable has learned.

Another recent departure from Microsoft is Alex Gounares [1, 2] and finally he explains how or why he left Microsoft to join AOL. He becomes a CTO there.

Why did you decide to move to AOL after so many years with Microsoft?

It really was the opportunity that attracted me here, and it started with a phone call that I got a couple months ago. I started doing my homework, and of course I knew about AOL, obviously being in the industry I had tracked it somewhat, but I hadn’t tracked it in depth. And the company that I saw was an amazing company; it was not the AOL that maybe I had thought of before.

We have already shown (some time earlier this month) the role of Gounares in Microsoft’s abuses at least as a quiet observer.

Update (02/07/10): Tandy Trower contacted us and offered clarifications regarding his departure. With his kind permission, we add these below.

Not certain if this will get through your spam filter, but someone passed on your blog mention of my departure. You may not be interested, but I thought I would provide you with some information regarding my departure.

First, you are correct that robotics development is mostly done on Linux, some on VXWorks or other proprietary OSes. This was actually the case when I proposed to Gates that we develop a robotics toolkit. However, that recommendation came directly from many of the leaders from diverse parts of the robotics community including people using robotics in education, academic research, industrial automation, and even innovators like Helen Greiner of iRobot.

The invitation/encouragement for Microsoft to participate came from people like Red Whittaker, long time robotics veteran and leader of the CMU robotics department and organizer/founder of the CMU DARPA Challenge teams. When Red encouraged Microsoft to get involved, one of the first questions I asked him was why since it was obvious he and other key researchers were not using Microsoft technology and I highly doubted with their investment in Linux based development that they would switch. Red was very clear. It was not to help him or other experts already in the field but the broaden the market. From his perspective (and this was shared by the people I talked to) for robotics to really emerge into its potential required not just the experts to participate but as wide and diverse a community as possible to contribute their creativity. And there simply were not enough tools out there and plenty of room for other alternatives.

While it is true that the toolkit my team created was based on Microsoft OS and tools, we very much tried to build bridges to other toolkits and technologies. For example, the interprocess communication library we defined we published as part of Microsoft’s Open Software Licensing that would enable anyone to create a compatible interface on Linux or other OS. In fact we did have developers who used our libraries to interact with code run on other OSes including Mac and Linux. I even explored doing versions of our core libraries for Linux. I’d be the first to admit we had a long way to go, and never proposed that developers already invested on other platforms convert to using our toolkit. As you might know robots often have multiple processors and so multi-OS solutions are not uncommon. Windows never was a very good OS for real-time programming. Few, including Linux, are. Often very tight processing scenarios an OS isn’t even used but driven by FPGAs as was the case with the UBot-5 created by students in Rod Grupen’s department at UMass Amherst. FPGAs drove the two-wheel dynamic balancing, but they found Windows with the Microsoft robotics layer as a compatible solution.

You are welcome to your own opinion, but my departure from Microsoft was not a failure at my job, unless you want to consider that after Gates’ departure (my original and primary exec sponsor) I was unsuccessful in convincing the executive management that took his place of my next steps in strategy. Given the directive to take the next step beyond the toolkit and define a compelling application solution (since outside industrial applications, entertainment, education, and simple cleaning) robotics still lacks “killer applications”. This is pretty much universally acknowledged by all in or observing the state of the current industry. After looking at several application areas (automotive, military, education, consumer, etc.) I decided that assistive care was not only the best opportunity, but where the technology could applied to the growing number of people needing help in performing normal daily activities. Already according to the reports on disabilities in the US, 25% of the population falls into this category and incurable chronic diseases like autism and Alzheimer’s are actually on the rise. When you add to this that the boomer generation will almost double the number of seniors over the next 20 years, while we are facing an increasing shortage of care providers, I was able to imagine scenarios where a self-mobile PC (aka robot) could be used to make up for the inevitable reduction in cognitive and physical abilities.

For the first time in my 28 years at Microsoft, my proposal wasn’t funded, due in part to the economic conditions that allowed for little new investment. However, I felt so strongly about what many observers characterize as a potential coming care tsunami that I decided to leave and try to do this by creating my own company. Further, despite my 28 years at Microsoft I am open-minded to what tools and platform I build on. The people at Willow Garage will confirm that I have been to visit them and explore their ROS work. To me its a practical matter of determining where the best enabling technologies are. The task of creating a semi-autonomous robot that can enable people to compensate for the deficits of aging, chronic disease, or other severe disabilities will be hard enough without having to develop everything from scratch. As I had done at Microsoft, my intent is to find the best of breed technologies I can license and combine for building this.

What all this means about Microsoft, I’ll leave to your own opinion, but I did want to clarify that I didn’t leave because I had failed in my efforts to start the robotics at Microsoft. The group continues there and has actually grown in number since I left. There’s important work going on. Where they go from here is no longer my concern. I have a new mission and my experience at Microsoft will help me in what I do, though since it has yet to be done by anyone, my chances of success may be remote, but considering the potential impact on addressing the challenges we will be facing not only in this country but around the world (in Asia, EU, and China assistive care ranks as one of the top motivators for robotics research), I do not think my efforts will be wasted.

Best regards,

Tandy Trower
CEO/Founder
Hoaloha Robotics (btw Hoaloha is Hawaiian for compassionate friend)

[...]

You are welcome to post provided you don’t do it in a mean spirited way and take sound bytes to flail with me with. (I am trusting that if that was your purpose, you likely wouldn’t ask for permission to use.)

However, again my departure was no so much triggered by a reduction in the investment in robotics. As mentioned, I believe the organization I founded has actually grown in size since I left. But the primary reason I resigned was to pursue an application scenario that execs there did not wish to invest in (at least for the present). Microsoft is obviously already invested in many different areas already, so it is unclear that management can be faulted for not wanting to invest in the strategy I feel compelled to pursue. Perhaps that may be analogous to J Allard’s departure, but I do not know since I haven’t sat down with J to understand the circumstances of his departure.

I spent 28 years at Microsoft and had the opportunity to help start a number of new things for the company. This is one where we had to part ways.

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