Former Microsoft exec tapped to lead Chinese search giant Baidu

Qi Lu, Microsoft’s former executive VP of applications and services, will be involved with AI efforts in his new position as Baidu's COO

Former Microsoft exec to lead Chinese search giant Baidu
Blair Hanley Frank
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As China starts its New Year's celebration, Baidu Chairman Robin Li announced that Qi Lu will become the company’s chief operating officer, “in charge of products, technology, sales, marketing, and operations.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Baidu, it’s huge, with a market capitalization of $61 billion (compared to Alphabet/Google at $556 billion). The company has had financial difficulties this past year as a result of complying with shifting Chinese government regulations, but Alexa pegs as the world’s fourth most-commonly visited website, behind Google, YouTube, and Facebook. 

Lu joins former Google “Brain Trust” alumnus and Stanford adjunct professor Andrew Ng at an increasingly international Baidu. Straddling both East and West, Baidu walks an increasingly complex middle path. 

Like Alphabet/Google, Baidu is furiously building artificial intelligence into all of its products.The financial press in general, and Bloomberg in particular, bills Lu as an “AI specialist,” but that’s a narrow niche. A little more than eight years ago, Lu was working for Yahoo. As I wrote last September:

He moved from Yahoo to Microsoft in December 2008, and then-CEO Steve Ballmer put him in charge of three hard-charging engineers: Brian McAndrews (advertising and publisher solutions), Yusuf Mehdi (product manager for MSN and marketing), and one Satya Nadella (search, the Microsoft portal, and the advertising platform). Elevated to president of online services in July 2009, Lu was the only top exec who survived the Ballmer-Nadella transition. Seven years ago, Nadella was working for Lu. By all accounts, Lu wasn’t interested in taking over Ballmer’s job.

Then quite suddenly, Lu left Microsoft. Four months ago, Kara Swisher and Ina Fried reported in Recode that he left Microsoft “following medical issues that arose from a bicycle accident that took place several months ago, according to sources.” At the time, I was skeptical, as the sources weren’t identified, and I couldn’t found independent confirmation.

Now it looks like we have the answer: Lu fell off his bicycle in Seattle last summer and somehow landed in Beijing.

I don’t know why Lu left Microsoft, but my guess is that the reorganization announced last September had something to do with it. Prior to Lu’s departure, he was in charge of the Applications and Services Group -- one of only three operating groups in the company. After he left, Office and Skype split into a new group headed by Rajesh Jha, and the AI part (Cortana and Bing) was grafted onto the Microsoft Research/Information Platform/Robotics effort, to form Harry Shum’s technology and research group.

Although the Baidu press announcements about Lu’s new position emphasize that he’ll be involved in AI efforts, the job description encompasses all of Baidu’s day-to-day operations, which include plenty of nuts and bolts. I’ve seen no explanation how his new position will interact with Andrew Ng’s long-standing Baidu Research efforts in Sunnyvale, Calif., for example. It appears that Robin Li is shedding his operational duties, to concentrate on setting Baidu’s direction.

Lu is diving into a competitive environment entirely unlike the one at Microsoft or Yahoo. He has his work cut out for him.

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