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The NERD at work and play

Microsoft’s Cambridge site multitasks well

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By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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Software developer Adam Fletcher spent two days last month at a tech conference at Microsoft Corp.’s New England Research and Development Center in Cambridge.

Actually, it was four days at the NERD.

“I was here at an event with my girlfriend,’’ he said. “Four straight days.’’ And then he laughed, probably embarrassed at how often he finds himself at the NERD.

In 2007, when Microsoft opened the NERD in Kendall Square, the software giant said it was envisioning more than a regional research and development facility. The goal was to create a community center for the New England technology scene.

It worked. Over the last two years, the NERD, as it’s widely known, has evolved into a clubhouse for local techies. Nonprofit organizations and tech groups use the space for everything from sprawling parties to trade conferences to intimate programming workshops.

And what a space: Of the center’s eight floors, three have public meeting spaces, all with sweeping views of the Charles River and the Boston skyline. There’s a dramatic, two-story function area that can easily hold 500 people, with a cinema-size screen that hangs from the ceiling for larger-than-life presentations; a large, glass-enclosed auditorium that can accommodate 470; and a variety of more intimate spaces that are available for smaller groups. Three expansive serving tables, located in common areas, are often overloaded with pizza, hors d’oeuvres, and soda. Evening events frequently entail a bartender situated just inside the entrance.

It’s all available at no charge, making the NERD a place to meet, greet, network, and learn. No wonder local tech workers and activists find themselves bouncing back to it over and over.

“I’m at NERD literally all the time,’’ said Bobbie Carlton, head of the technology-networking group Mass Innovation Nights. “I know this place so well, I was just showing someone how to use the coffee machine.’’

What’s in it for Microsoft? The center’s hospitality has fast-tracked the software giant, based in Redmond, Wash., as a player on the Massachusetts tech scene, which hosts major regional offices firms like Google Inc. and IBM Corp., along with home-grown tech companies. Counting the operations at NERD, Microsoft has 1,000 employees in the Bay State, including offices in Waltham and Andover.

NERD is also home to a number of working researchers from Microsoft. The center’s website lists Microsoft Research New England, Microsoft Technical Computing, and Microsoft Advertising among the teams based there, and says more than 500 events and 40,000 visitors have passed through NERD in the last two years.

“From the moment we opened, we knew we wanted to interact with the local technology ecosystem,’’ said Leah Brunson, marketing manager for the facility. “It’s been more successful than we ever imagined.’’

Some nights, there are as many as five different tech events at NERD at the same time. In one week last month, they ranged from a programmer conference to an after-school program for sixth graders to a mixer celebrating International Women’s Day.

NERD can also be job central for the state’s tech sector. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, more than 100 programmers were scattered around a glass-walled conference room on NERD’s first floor for the second day of the DevOpsDays conference. Around the perimeter, representatives of local companies manned recruiting tables.

“Basically, anybody here who wants a job can get one today,’’ said software developer Fletcher.

At the same time, in a small conference room on the other side of the building, 11 sixth-graders were seated around a large conference table, trying to control Lego robots with laptop computers. A ravaged plate of cookies sat on a table next to an untouched tray of fruit and vegetables. The group was from Citizen Schools, a Boston after-school program hosted weekly by two Microsoft volunteers.

As the sun went down, NERD’s two-story, concrete-and-steel community space took on a softer look. Mulberry-colored linens were draped over cocktail tables arranged around the floor. A vase of fresh-cut flowers graced each table.

The evening’s event was an International Women’s Day mixer. Eighty attendees were sipping drinks, sampling hors d’oeuvres, and networking.

Phyllis Speen, a sales and business networking consultant from Quincy, usually attends at least one NERD event a week. “I’m a geek woman, so it’s great for me,’’ she said. “There’s always something going on here.’’

Meanwhile, on the first floor, in the conference room that had been occupied earlier by sixth graders, Eric Swanzey, an Internet developer and designer from Manchester, was about to make a presentation about a site he created for a financial firm.

“We’re here every month,’’ Swanzey said. “We used to meet in Waltham. This is a much cooler neighborhood.’’

The next day, Alan George, national sales manager from Chipalizer, a circuit testing start-up, was setting up a laptop and an oscilloscope on a vendor table. He was attracting attention from both the departing attendees of an event called Mobile Madness and the crowd arriving for Mass Innovation Night.

The variety of people was no surprise to George. “There’s no better place to network than here,’’ he said. “Maybe in the world.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

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