Bridging Business and Engineering at Microsoft

The youngest engineer to become an IEEE Fellow now carries the torch for Microsoft

8 January 2009

Ya-Qin Zhang was an engineering wunderkind. Entering college at 12, he became the youngest IEEE Fellow at 31, and now, at 42, is corporate vice president of the largest software company in the world—Microsoft Corp., where he oversees all of its R&D operations and strategic partnerships in China and serves on its executive management committee, which helps guide the region’s Microsoft organizations. But even these achievements didn’t come close for him to the honor of carrying the 2008 Olympic Games torch for 40 meters in his native Beijing last summer.

“You could just feel the excitement—the packed streets, the crowds shouting and clapping,” he says. “I don’t know how I was selected. Carrying the torch lasted a minute, but what a great honor and privilege it was. And the best part is that I got to keep the torch. It’s in a glass cabinet in my office.”

The R&D group is Microsoft’s largest talent powerhouse outside the United States, encompassing a staff of more than 3000 people focused on next generation mobility and communications, Web technology products and services, digital entertainment, servers and tools, and emerging markets. “It’s critical for us to develop new technologies and products that can work across different platforms,” Zhang says. “We’re also working on moving the PC platform into new arenas and devices, like smartphones and TVs.”

Zhang might have pursued physics if a college robotics lecture hadn’t lured him to engineering. He was so intrigued that he went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Science and Technology of China, in Hefei, in 1983 and 1985, and a Ph.D. in EE in 1989 from George Washington University, in Washington D.C. He also graduated in 1996 from the Harvard Business School’s Executive Education program, which offers short-term executive development courses resulting in certificates.

ARTICLES GALORE Zhang joined IEEE in 1986 as a student member, and went on to publish over 500 articles on video compression, digital communications, networking and software engineering in several IEEE journals and conferences. He was editor of IEEE Transactions On Circuits and Systems for Video Technology from 1997 to 1999, and chairman of the IEEE Circuits and Systems Society’s (CAS) Visual Signal Processing and Communications Technical Committee from 1999 to 2001. His dozen-plus awards include the CAS 2004 IEEE Industry Pioneer Award, the CAS Jubilee Medal, and several IEEE best paper awards.

“I joined IEEE for the learning experience, but I now consider it my home in engineering,” he says. “The conferences I work with provide a forum for like-minded people to talk about their research, hear what’s happening in their fields, and exchange ideas.”

Zhang isn’t the only IEEE member high up on Microsoft’s management ladder; other executives are members, too. “It’s really exiting to see such a strong IEEE presence here,” Zhang says of the Beijing branch that opened last year. “China is becoming a major force in engineering. So it’s important for engineers here to be in IEEE publications as well.”

After graduating, he spent 1989 to 1994 doing video compression and communications at GTE Laboratories (now Verizon Corp.) in Waltham, Mass., before serving as director of the Sarnoff Corp. Multimedia Technology Laboratory, in Princeton, N.J., from 1994 to 1999. He returned to China in 1999 to start Microsoft Research Asia, the company’s research lab for the Asia-Pacific region. Zhang went on to become managing director and chief scientist until 2004, when he was promoted to corporate VP and moved to the firm’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters, where he headed up its mobile and embedded platform division. After two years, he returned to China to found its R&D group there.

AND 50 MORE He also holds more than 50 U.S. patents in digital video, Internet, multimedia, wireless and satellite communications. Many of the technologies he developed in digital video compression, signal processing and mobile communications inspired start-up ventures, commercial products, and international standards in digital video and multimedia.

“In my job, I bridge the business and science sectors,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of basic research, wrote code, and published many papers. I also spent some time doing sales and marketing that put technologies and products into marketplace. But in my heart, I’m more of a scientist and engineer than a businessman.”

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