Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning is currently the hottest tech topic, resulting in an industry-wide shortage of Machine-Learning trained developers and sky-high salaries for new graduates.
Some companies have been raiding universities by poaching staff with large offers, but Microsoft has instead decided to address the skills shortage by starting its own internal “university” to skill up Microsoft staff in the field and develop internal talent.
“We have a thing called AI University, which is an internal education programme so that people who are incredibly smart and capable but trained in a different domain can quickly learn about machine learning both in a foundational sense but also in a practical sense of how to use it,” said Chris Bishop, head of the Microsoft Research lab in Cambridge.
Microsoft is also trying to create a pipeline from universities to their offices by sponsoring students through university and scouting for early talent at conferences.
“We try to work with them [universities] to fuel that talent pipeline,” said Bishop. “So for example we’re a major sponsor of a masters programme at Cambridge University.”
Microsoft currently funds around 200 PhD scholarships at Cambridge University, significantly more than other companies like Google.
“One of the things we’re trying to avoid doing is simply going into a university, hoovering up all the top professors and then just leaving tumbleweed blowing down the corridors,” he said.
“That might be a short term fix for some companies but I don’t think it serves even the industry itself very well, let alone academia or the nation, to take that rather short term view.”
Microsoft’s competitors Google and Apple have both also set up research offices in Cambridge, with Google’s Deepmind offering AI researchers (who often previously taught at the university) an average salary of $345,000 (£258,000) in 2016. Possibly in compensation researchers from DeepMind are also giving AI and machine learning lectures to students, with some are even acting as PhD supervisors.
With AI increasingly touching more and more products we use every day, from our soft keyboards to our antivirus, clearly, this is an area where Microsoft cannot fall behind. With salaries rising to $1 million a year already for the most in-demand researchers, it remains to be seen if Microsoft’s strategy will pay off in the end, or if it would be better to compete directly in the job market against Google and Apple and secure the best talent first.