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During this year’s process of figuring out what to get the kids for Christmas, my wife suggested a new gaming PC for our youngest. His last dedicated gaming setup was an Alienware laptop, and in addition to having reliability issues and sounding like a hair drier when running graphics-intensive games, it was limited in processing power by its portable form factor. There’s only so much hardware you can stuff into a laptop.

My immediate answer was ‘Great, I’ll start spec’ing out an Alienware desktop’ but she had another idea. ‘Why don’t you build something together?’ she suggested.

I wasn’t too keen on the idea. There’s a lot that can go wrong – all it takes is one incompatible or faulty component to start a chain of returns and exchanges – and I had visions of a half-built PC sitting unused in a corner waiting to be brought to life: The perfect recipe for Christmas disappointment. And living where we do, there’s no Fry’s or MicroCenter nearby so everything would have to be done mail-order.

But my wife insisted that it would be a fun thing to do together, and reminded me I had built many PCs back when that was common practice. I relented, started researching components, and began deciding which components to include in the build.

I wanted to create something that would run nice and quiet even under full load and opted to go with AMD’s Radeon R9 Fury X. Now before you tell me that I should have gotten the Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti which generally benchmarks faster, keeping the noise ceiling low was the deciding factor here.

I’m a huge fan of solid state drives and got a pair of Samsung 500GB Sata SSDs and a 3TB Seagate hard drive for general storage. At $87, the Seagate was just too inexpensive to pass up.

My choice of DRAM was complete overkill – 32GB worth of 3000Mhz DDR4. It was on sale, and nothing will trash performance faster than hitting the operating system page file. Even after accounting for OS overhead and running programs, 32GB can cache a ton of texture maps.

For the motherboard, I got an Asus MAXIMUS VIII compatible with Intel’s latest LGA 1151 CPU’s, and a nice, high-efficiency Thermaltake 750W power supply.

The only real snag I ran into was with the CPU. I could not find an LGA 1151 (“Skylake”) Core i7 anywhere – not online, not brick-and-mortar. I settled for a Core i5…not bad, and easy enough to upgrade later.

Last but not least, I chose an NZXT H440 case which was a nice minimal design devoid of slots for external media devices. This box was going to live primarily on Steam and other downloaded content.

I also ordered an Asus MG MG278Q 27” high frame-rate display which is compatible with ATI’s FreeSync monitor synchronization technology, and a Razor mouse, keyboard, and gaming headset.

Everything arrived via Amazon Prime a few days before Christmas. Whew! I cracked the case on the GPU to make sure that it had the latest CoolerMaster pump; earlier versions were prone to a high-pitched whine. Whew! on that as well.

Christmas morning rolled around, and the youngest had a good time opening box after box in his epic pile of presents.

While we were all still in our pajamas, we cleared off the dining room table to use it as our bench and got to work, our oldest son joining the fun.

The first step was to get a general sense of the case layout and what was going to go where. We then attached the CPU, heatsink, and CPU cooler to the motherboard, populated all four DRAM slots with the 32 gigs of memory, and screwed the motherboard in place inside the case.

We then had to figure out the location of the GPU since it is limited by the length of the hoses attached to its radiator. We chose the uppermost PCI-E slot, re-located the case-mounted fan at the rear to the top, replaced it with the GPU radiator/fan unit, and seated the graphics card itself into the motherboard slot.

We than attached all of the drives and SATA connectors followed by the power supply and connections to motherboard, GPU, fan controller, and drives.

Finally, we attached all of the miscellaneous connectors – front-mounted USB ports and audio, power/reset switches, and LED indicators.

It was time to see if anything worked. We attached the monitor and keyboard, turned on the power supply, and hit the power button.

The Asus motherboard has a pair of very handy old-school seven-segment LEDs mounted in the corner that provide status codes going through the POST (power on self-test) process. It was hanging at “99”, and the monitor was black.

Not great, but the CPU was probably fine, and the status led for the memory indicated normal, so that was good. We looked up the error code for 99 and is said “Super IO Initialization”. Hmmm. Well, somewhere someone was unhappy on the system bus.

In situations like this, you want to start eliminating variables to get down to the most minimal system possible. I suggested pulling the graphics card first. Next power cycle we went straight to the BIOS setup screen. A cursory inspection showed that everything looked good – CPU, memory, and storage.

On to installing the operating system! After a good chunk of time spent trying to create a bootable Windows 10 ISO USB thumb drive using Macs, my oldest son and I finally resurrected an old Windows 7 PC, and tried using the “Windows 10 USB/DVD Download Tool.” That utility turned out to be incapable of recognizing any of our USB drives, but we eventually had success with a free third-party utility. After that, the new machine fired right up into the Windows 10 setup.

I remembered that I wanted to set up the two SSD’s are a RAID 0 configuration creating an approximately 1TB SSD with interleaved reads and writes for performance. This should be no problem since the motherboard and chipset support RAID. But I wasn’t being given a RAID setup option as part of the BIOS setup. Why? Another stopper.

I tried changing as many settings in the BIOS that I could think of…and still no RAID controller option. One thing that was starting to bother me was the fact that while both SSDs showed up in the BIOS, the Seagate only showed up at the start of the Windows installation process as one of the potential OS installation targets. So it was definitely there and healthy, but why was it missing from the BIOS status?

I went back to the motherboard layout diagram to check where the SATA connections for the three drivers were made. The two SSD’s were at the top of the block, and the Seagate was just below in the next empty socket. The diagram however showed that the SATA block was split – the top two sockets, Intel, the next two, Asus, the rest, Intel. Hmmm. I moved the Seagate’s connector from the Asus block to the rest of the Intel block lower down, powered up, and got the option for Intel’s RAID setup. OK, strange, but that did the trick. Unlike the slick, graphics-based interface for the BIOS settings, the RAID setup screen was plain old DOS character-mode. Wow!


The next day, OS installation proceeded smoothly. At the end of the install, we put the GPU back in place, fired up the rig, and successfully installed the Radeon drivers and control panel.

The only thing left was to see a game in action. A few downloads later, the machine was running an FPS at 2560 x 1440 completely effortlessly with quality cranked all the way up. Success!

Building a gaming PC was a ton of fun, and the only trick will be to figure out another project that we can work on together next year.


the aftermath in empty packaging

Xbox founder's shipit

Xbox founder’s award

While working on DirectX, I became friends with Ted H who was responsible for DirectX developer evangelism. His team was on the front lines with the game developer community and provided information, education, and hands-on support. Because of the team’s close relationships with game developers, they had a good sense of what the community wanted, and helped guide the evolution and prioritization of DirectX functionality.

Ted’s office was in Building 4, and at the time, the cafeteria there had a rare resource – an external food vendor called Pasta Ya Gotcha. They were a welcome change from the generic on-site institutional food fare, and Ted and I started having regular lunch meetings to discuss the state of the technology world and where things were headed. For me, it was always a toss-up between the Texas Tijuana, Tennessee Jack, and Thai Peanut entrees.

Although we were just starting work on DirectX 8, Ted and I both could squint and see the day of diminishing returns with Windows PC computer graphics. We were starting to ask “What’s next?” We had made significant strides legitimizing the PC as an entertainment-capable platform, but entertainment was not a natural destination for the PC. The PCs on the market were big and bulky, and engineered for productivity.

We were also keenly aware of the ongoing battle for supremacy in the living room between Sony, Sega, and Nintendo, with Sony in rapid ascendency. Where was Microsoft? Was it going to get into this fight, and if so, how?

At the time, Microsoft had a partnership with Sega to ship Windows CE on Sega’s platform. Sega already had their own development tools, infrastructure, and content development pipeline, though, so CE brought nothing fundamentally new or compelling for game developers. Windows CE had a very limited implementation of DirectX, so there was little incentive for a Sega developer to use anything other than Sega’s own tools. Windows CE checked the box in terms of having a Microsoft living room platform strategy, but it offered neither better economics nor higher quality of content.

DirectX was part of Microsoft’s Windows division, and Ted and I felt that Microsoft was missing an opportunity to lead with its strengths. We had a vibrant developer ecosystem, operating systems leadership, great relationships with silicon vendors, and a name-brand game API. Why not bring DirectX in the form or a platform to the living room?

With a kernel of an idea, we needed recruits. Ted brought in Kevin B from his team to help think through business models, and I drafted Seamus B, a recent PM hire for DirectX, to help plan and coordinate.

A handful of intrepid and talented developers on my team signed up to build the proof-of-concept of a Windows/DirectX-based living room device. Colin M led the effort to construct a prototype that would prove the idea: that a PC-based architecture could boot up in a few seconds and play games without input from a mouse or keyboard.

This was an all-volunteer effort, and our managers were not yet aware of what we were up to. We all had our regular jobs to do, and we didn’t want to jeopardize progress by asking for official support. We chose to stay in stealth mode knowing we could be punished with the dreaded 3.0 annual review score – or worse. But we believed we were onto something important.

Word was getting around. As we made progress, people came on board to help, advocate, and advance the cause of what Ted had named “Project Midway”. I no longer recall when my manager became aware of the effort.

At a critical point, Nat B offered to help build support in the right executive circles and to make the pitch. He was the technical assistant to the guy running Microsoft’s consumer version of Windows. I remember talking to Nat on my chunky, red Nokia on a typically horrific commute from Redmond to Seattle across the 520 floating bridge. Among other things, he was eager to have a more marketable name for our effort. At its essence, what we were proposing was a DirectX device – a box – in the living room. A DirectX box. I think it was Nat who suggested “X-box” for short.

At this point, X-box wasn’t about Microsoft building its own hardware; hardware is capital-intensive and Microsoft’s expertise was software. We thought partners could build the hardware and Microsoft would build the software ecosystem. Getting into the console hardware business was not yet a consideration.

Somehow, we got a billg meeting. We were expecting an intimate gathering in the usual windowless conference room with twelve or so chairs.  Colin wheeled in a small but sturdy cart with the prototype hardware. We passed out our printed Powerpoint slides and readied ourselves for the pitch and a lot of other people started showing up. By the time we were underway we found ourselves seated with two rows of people behind us, sitting, standing, leaning, and filling the space. Nat spoke. I went over the technical details. There was some other discussion. Colin pressed the power button. A few, anxious seconds later, he was playing a game on a TV with a game controller in his hand. Bill was convinced. There was also a very nice Powerpoint presentation about a future version of Windows CE for consoles, but it didn’t stand a chance next to a real game running on our own technology stack.

An expensive agency was later hired to come up with a real product name to replace “X-box”. They removed the hyphen, and came back with “Xbox”.

This is part three; part one is OpenGL, part two is Early 3D hardware.

As the team continued to work on improving OpenGL’s capabilities, another graphics technology effort – DirectX – had also been moving forward in parallel. In this earlier era at Microsoft, it was not uncommon to have overlapping product efforts, or even efforts the competed directly against each other. The prevailing attitude about such cases was to let the market decide. DirectX was focused on enabling games on Microsoft’s Windows 95 consumer operating system. DirectX got its start as a 2D-based technology providing game developers direct access to the graphics card’s frame buffer. This was very useful functionality up to a certain point, but games like Doom and Quake made it clear that 3D graphics would play a dominant role in the future of interactive games.

Microsoft purchased one of the few available software-based 3D APIs – Rendermorphics’ Reality Lab – early in 1995. The goal was to jumpstart the addition of 3D graphics capabilities to DirectX by incorporating the Reality Lab technology. I was asked to do the technical due diligence of the Reality Lab stack.

Unlike OpenGL, Reality Lab was a scene graph API. This meant that the full geometric representation of a 3D environment was fed to the API. Based on the viewer’s position and other variables, the scene graph engine would compute the necessary details for rendering the objects in the 3D environment all the way down to the individual primitives rendered at the end of the pipeline. As a scene graph API, I thought Reality Lab was pretty good, but it seemed to me an odd match for the intended game developer audience.

Games like Doom and Quake built their own engines for rendering 3D environments, and these engines were highly optimized and specialized for the game’s specific characteristics. What most game developers were looking for was a lower-level immediate-mode 3D API that allowed them to plug their game engines at the stage of processing where primitives were ready to be rendered.

directx_logoDirectX hoped to satisfy this need by providing a mechanism for developers to pre-construct lists of low-level graphics primitives that could then be handed to the graphics card driver to execute. In theory, this allowed direct hardware execution of 3D primitives. In practice, the interface was cumbersome and difficult to use, provided no performance benefit for all the extra trouble, and had limited functionality compared to OpenGL.

What game programmers like John Carmack were discovering was that OpenGL already provided a clean, efficient immediate-mode 3D API that could be used very effectively for game development as well as non-game applications. Whereas DirectX required adhering to overhead-inducing COM-based protocols, OpenGL was a clean, straightforward, well-documented C API.

The game developer community tends to be data-driven and immune to market-speak and spin; their bullshit detectors can be exceptionally good. They were being told to use DirectX for 3D games, but they wanted to use something proven that already existed and just worked. John Carmack’s observations on the topic is still a good read.

More and more developers were coming to Microsoft and demanding that it fully support OpenGL on both Windows NT and Windows 95. The technical work for Windows 95 had already been done, and hardware vendors work working with a pre-release version of the OpenGL MCD driver development kit anticipating final release. Developers wanted the OpenGL driver update for Windows 95 released as soon as possible.

An influential group of game developers even banded together and signed an open letter to Microsoft asking that OpenGL be fully supported on both Windows NT and Windows 95.

This was not how it was supposed to work out. DirectX was supposed to be Microsoft’s consumer graphics technology, and OpenGL was supposed to be “just” for high-end CAD for non-consumer markets. But the reality was that visualization technology didn’t care about somewhat arbitrary market segmentations: a good 3D API was a good 3D API. Many developers felt that OpenGL was the best 3D API at the time and wanted to use it for their games. This has been described as a religious issue, but game developers simply wanted tools that would help them get their work done.

Microsoft was in a tough spot. It now had two competing efforts on its hands, and it couldn’t simply kill either. OpenGL was necessary for continuing to compete in the workstation market, and DirectX was its high-profile brand and technology for enabling PC games. And while OpenGL was an external standard, Microsoft owned DirectX and was free to shape it on its own. Even though Direct3D had gotten off to a rough start, Microsoft couldn’t afford to retrench from DirectX.

The open letter had pushed things to a crisis point, and shortly after it went public I had a meeting with the senior manager in Windows whose task had recently become to clean up the OpenGL/Direct3D mess. I remember the central point of the conversation was that I was being asked to take responsibility for both OpenGL and DirectX graphics and to focus on ensuring that DirectX improved as quickly as possible while continuing to support OpenGL for non-game applications.

This would mean a number of things for me. I would have to leave programming as anything other than an occasional hobby since I would have my hands more than full with providing engineering leadership. I would never see my MCD driver work available in the much larger Windows 95/98 market. And I would also have to disappoint a large contingent of game developers who had hoped for a different outcome.

Of course I could have gone and worked on something else, but that would have served no constructive purpose. Microsoft was sticking with DirectX graphics, and the best thing for developers, users, graphics vendors, and Microsoft was to make DirectX as good as possible. Combining the OpenGL and DirectX graphics development efforts was probably the best way to achieve that; the OpenGL team had at this point a deep bench of 3D graphics talent.

So I said yes, and began the hard work of integrating and re-balancing the teams and getting people on board with a slightly awkward new mission and new priorities.

Over the course of the next three years we steadily improved DirectX. I felt we had finally accomplished our goal of building a world-class 3D API when we released DirectX 8.

The experience was a formative one for me. I had to step outside the emotions surrounding the situation to find a way to make the greatest positive contribution possible. I had to earn the trust of a new team that had viewed my team and me as the enemy. And I had to take something that I felt was technologically inferior and make it great.

But great challenges can provide great opportunities…

My children rolled their eyes at my excitement about the impending launch of the Apple Watch. “Why would you want one of those?”

I staunchly defended my pro-Watch position, arguing that a wearable device done right could be incredibly useful. Also, I love new devices. My kids range in age from late teens to mid twenties, and I did start to wonder if the appeal of the Watch would be lost on younger demographics.

The highly anticipated pre-order finally arrived last night, and I settled into a long evening waiting for 3:01 a.m. so I could place my order as early as possible. I knew exactly what I wanted, and all I had to do was click “select” on the stainless version.

Market research can be tricky, and purchase intent and action are not always closely correlated. It’s one thing to think about owning a shiny new product in the abstract, and it’s another to make the actual commitment to spend the dollars and incorporate whatever new thing it is into your life.

iPhoneWatch cropped

At around 2:00 a.m. I was starting to get second thoughts. Will I actually replace my classic automatic-winding watch that never needs batteries? Do I need another thing to charge every day? How many extra chargers will I need so that I always have one on hand? Do I want to invest in learning a new user interface and configuring and maintaining another device? If I wind up not using it, will I be able to pawn it off on my wife since my kids won’t want it? Will this thing simply end up collecting dust on a shelf after the novelty has worn off?

At 2:50 a.m., I finished my third cup of herbal tea, closed my MacBook Pro, and went straight to bed. I will watch from the sidelines on this one.

A couple of years into my work on OpenGL I was given responsibility for running the OpenGL team as the dev lead. The team – like many of Microsoft’s development efforts back then – was small enough so that I could continue to have a hands-on role in coding while being the team’s manager. Although I knew that I would have less time to code, I was comforted knowing that I wouldn’t have to leave it behind completely. I was excited to have the opportunity to lead the OpenGL development effort but also apprehensive about managing people, especially people who had been my peers.

By this time, I had turned my focus to enabling graphics hardware to accelerate OpenGL performance. Although OpenGL on Windows already had an available hardware acceleration model – the Installable Client Driver, or ICD – it required the hardware vendor to license the OpenGL technology from SGI. In addition to that obstacle, developing an ICD was also complex; it required implementing the entire OpenGL API stack rather than just the parts that the hardware could accelerate. The specific method for accelerating the parts that made sense for some specific piece of hardware was entirely up to the vendor to design and implement from scratch. There was no common template or protocol or framework to follow. This approach provided maximum flexibility but at a very high implementation and maintenance cost. An ICD vendor wasn’t simply maintaining a device driver; they were maintaining an entirely separate implementation of all of OpenGL. OpenGL ICDs and the Windows OS kernel had a mechanism to exchange chunks of generic data which allowed the hardware portion of the ICD to communicate with the rest of the ICD implementation. Again, this was very flexible but also meant that every vendor had to come up with their own custom approach to structuring the communications between client mode (where regular programs ran) and kernel mode (the trusted execution environment where the OS and hardware-level drivers executed).

At the time, ICDs were fine for their intended target of high-end workstations. But my passion was to continue to push 3D graphics into the mainstream. A number of hardware vendors had become interested in providing dedicated 3D-acceleration hardware at lower cost, and given Moore’s Law and the volume-based economics of the PC business, hardware-accelerated 3D graphics was well positioned for mass adoption. To help move things forward, I wanted to make it much easier for hardware vendors who were new to 3D to bring their products to market. The difficulty and investment required to write an ICD driver was a significant obstacle to an emerging ecosystem of commodity 3D hardware.

Having done a bunch of driver work in the past, I set out to architect an OpenGL driver model that would provide a standardized interface to lower-cost hardware and remove as much of the software complexity of ICDs as possible. I focused on exposing only the functionality that lower-cost hardware could reasonably support, namely, the rasterizing of 3D primitives near the bottom of a complex 3D graphics pipeline. For example, 3D transformations and lighting operations would be done on behalf of the driver; the driver just had to render the computed 3D primitives on the screen. This division of labor could provide massive increases in overall graphics performance.

I called the driver model the Mini Client Driver, or “MCD” since it was similar in flow to an ICD, but the vendor only had to implement the rendering-specific part of the OpenGL stack.

S3 VirgeI wrote a corresponding sample driver (if I remember correctly, it used S3’s Virge hardware), and with the help of the OpenGL team, got the sample code and the corresponding MCD documentation into the next releases of Windows NT DDK (Driver Development Kit).

It’s worth making a few comments on driver development in general. Writing driver code can be one of the most satisfying and frustrating experiences possible as a developer. It’s incredibly exciting to have a new driver you’re building to actually do something useful with a piece of hardware for the first time (for example, rendering a test triangle on the screen). But drivers run as part of the operating system, so bugs and driver crashes can take down the whole OS. And with graphics drivers in particular, you always risk screwing up the thing you rely on the most to program and interact with the machine – the display. Add to this the fact that hardware doesn’t always work as documented, and that it’s very easy to miss setting the needed bit on some register or to have an off-by-one or some other error send the hardware into oblivion.

With enough persistence, lots of reboots, and the occasional debug print when all else fails, a robust driver will eventually emerge. And with any luck, you will never hear about your device driver because the only time that you do is when it’s NOT working. As with so many jobs in technology, writing drivers can be a thankless and invisible job despite being critical to making the technology we take for granted actually work.

Back to the main story: having released MCD for Windows NT, any graphics card vendor could now quickly and relatively easily implement OpenGL hardware acceleration using a standard driver model. Since the driver model itself was largely OS-agnostic, I then shifted our focus to providing a Windows 95 version of ICD to satisfy both growing developer and hardware vendor interest in OpenGL and 3D graphics. Windows NT had a growing but still relatively small share of the market compared to Windows 95, and I wanted to see OpenGL fully enabled on both operating systems. We engaged the hardware community around making OpenGL MCD drivers available on Windows 95, got the Windows 95 version of the code up and running quickly, and everyone was expecting the DDK update to be released very soon.

And then, I was asked to do something that would change everything.

My wife bas been pestering me to write a post or two about some of my early years at Microsoft. Thinking about what to write took me back to a time when my entire focus at work was writing the best code possible. In those days, I would even sometimes dream about code. This post talks about software implementation details and may leave some readers behind in a few spots. Bear with me; future posts will be less technical.

For many years, one of my main pursuits as a developer was software-based graphics acceleration. This meant using the CPU to render graphics on the screen as fast as possible by carefully tuning software and algorithms. The goal was to extract every last bit performance from the CPU. One of the key reasons I joined Microsoft in 1993 was for the opportunity to work for Mike Abrash who even then was renowned for mastery of CPU-based performance optimization, and he was aware of some of my work. He was running the Windows NT GDI (Graphics Device Interface) team at the time, and I had come on board to focus on optimizing GDI performance in the first version of Windows NT (somewhat confusingly named “Windows NT 3.1”).

GDI was a 2D graphics framework doing the important work of rendering fonts, lines, rectangles, and all of the primitives that rendered the Windows desktop UI and programs written for it. But being strictly 2D-based, GDI was never going to include 3D graphics, and 3D was as fascinating to me as VR is to some people today (including Mike, who is now Oculus’ chief scientist).

One of NT’s goals was to take a share of the workstation market, and Microsoft had licensed the OpenGL graphics API from Silicon Graphics (SGI). SGI’s business was based on selling expensive high-end hardware, and they had put little effort into the performance of their reference software implementation of the API. Without very expensive hardware, OpenGL was pretty useless.

I had fallen in love with 3D graphics in the late 80’s, and I joined the recently-formed OpenGL team soon after Windows NT shipped. Even though speeding up OpenGL wasn’t part of my job when I joined the team, I was excited to be part of effort that would broaden access to 3D graphics capabilities. My dream was to have 3D graphics be standard on every PC. My job was to help integrate OpenGL into the Windows operating system.

But official responsibilities aside, I couldn’t resist the temptation and challenge of speeding up OpenGL to make it useful without requiring very expensive hardware. I immediately started tinkering with the OpenGL stack when I had free time. This was the mid-90’s – the era of Intel’s new Pentium processor line. This family of CPUs allowed overlapping of floating-point and integer instructions – a primitive form of parallel processing. A floating-point instruction could be started, and then integer instructions could continue to be executed while the much lengthier floating point command was processed. This mixing of floating-point and integer operations was perfect for speeding up 3D rendering operations which could be broken into floating-point setup and fixed-point, integer-based scanline fragment processing.

A complicating factor in speeding up OpenGL was the complexity of its state machine. There were many possible combinations of rendering modes based on attributes such as color depth, z-buffering, shading model, transparency, texture-mapping, etc. An early (Windows 3.1 or Windows 95) solution for optimizing GDI rendering was to build the rasterizer on the fly on the stack based on the GDI state (I believe this was all or mostly Todd Laney’s handiwork). But I was working on Windows NT, and such clever hackery was not allowed in a next-generation operating system. After considering my options, I determined that my best bet was to pre-compile a set of renderers that represented the most common cases for rendering (for example, Gouraud-shaded, 16-bit color, 16-bit z-buffered triangles). I did this by building rendering functions that consisted of groupings of macro statements that themselves were chunks of hand-crafted inline assembly code. These macros could then be grouped together to perform unique sets of rendering operations. In order for this approach to work, I constructed a framework for the chunks of assembly code in the macro blocks to be able access variables and registers in a common and consistent way so that they could interoperate predictably and efficiently.

This was definitely not how the C language was intended to be used. It wasn’t pretty – I believe I even used “goto” statements out of necessity – but the code was highly effective. The approach also entailed risk because things could go horribly wrong with unanticipated edge cases. I remember one embarrassing bug that in certain cases failed to return the floating-point control register to its previous state which effected floating-point operations in the rest of the operating system. I quickly found and fixed the issue but it was a reminder that there was no safety net with what I was doing.

It’s interesting how thinking about past work jogs the mind. In the middle of writing this post, I had a dream about how I may have implemented dithering. Dithering is an old technique going back to the print business that allows gradations in tone and color to appear smoother by breaking up transitions using patterns of dots or pixels at different densities. For example, an area halfway between one color and another would have half the pixels in that area set to one color, and the remaining half set to the other color. Today, even our phones are capable of producing millions of colors eliminating the need for such techniques, but in the mid-90’s, the capabilities of most PCs were far more limited. In my dream, I implemented dithering look-up-tables (LUTs) for red, green, and blue values so that I could construct the right 15 or 16-bit RGB value using three highly-cached indexed memory operations and two OR instructions. I probably did something along those lines, but who knows…I’d love to have access to that old code (of no use to anyone at this point) just to remind myself how I did what I did.

My initial performance improvements were compelling enough to justify making the software acceleration work a full-time endeavor. I added functionality over time culminating with real-time texture-mapping using quadratic subdivision. Even though it was still part of a fully compliant general-purpose OpenGL implementation, textured rendering throughput got reasonably close to that of Doom, the texture-mapping speed champion at the time. In fact, my software-accelerated pipeline became competitive with high-end hardware graphics cards and beat them in some instances (anti-aliased lines comes to mind).

I had taken rendering performance from being measured in seconds per frame to dozens of frames per second; many operations were over 100 times faster than the original versions. Ah, the power of highly-tuned, efficient coding! I often worry that Moore’s Law is being buried under so many layers of frameworks, objects, interpreters, and interfaces that it’s hard to tell what the hardware is actually doing at the bottom of the pile multiple layers of indirection. Then again, even CPUs now hide some of their internal operation with sophisticated out-of-order instruction execution engines. Sadly, the last time I tried to out-optimize a modern C compiler with an integer-only routine, the results were a draw.

Pipes screen shotmaze2Our OpenGL implementation was incorporated into both Windows NT and Windows 9x code bases and was starting to get significant traction. Being part of the operating system and eliminating the need for hardware acceleration meant that an OpenGL application could now target a very wide audience. As a means of promoting our OpenGL’s capabilities, I wrote the first set of 3D screen savers (“Flying Objects”) which proved popular and inspired other people on the team to write their own as well (such as “Pipes” and “Maze” pictured here). For many years afterward, I would get a chuckle when I saw one of our screen savers running in the background of a TV or movie set. Our efforts had taken what had been an expensive workstation technology and made it readily available on millions of desktops.

Despite the effort’s success, the writing was already on the wall for the future of software-accelerated computer graphics. Hardware acceleration and the rise of the GPU were just around the corner.

Ragnar selfieA couple of weeks ago, I travelled down south to Florida to run from Miami to Key West.  Not all by myself – I was part of a long-distance relay race called the Ragnar. The race series originated in Utah with a run from Logan to Park city organized by Steve Hill and a handful of supporters, and has grown to a dedicated organization hosting Ragnar races all over the country. This was a great excuse to get out of the deeply frozen Northeast.

I signed up when friends on one of the teams invited me; they had a few people drop out of their 12-person crew, and would I be interested, they asked. I wasn’t training for such a race, but I run regularly; I’m signed up to run the NYC Half Marathon in March. I figured I should be able to run the three segments required for the Ragnar just fine.  Although she is not a runner, my wife was also eager to get a break from the cold weather and we scrambled to plan the trip with the race day less than two weeks away.

I had a lot of fun researching and shopping for the special gear needed for the Ragnar – in particular for running at night (flashers, reflective vest, headlamp, knuckle lights). It’s a road race, but it’s also a bit like camping as well. Who knew there were disposable bamboo-fiber towels, or athletic body wipes perfect for this event?

Our Ragnar team was a 12-person co-ed group divided into two full-sized utility-type vans that served as transportation, lodgings, and changing rooms for about 24 hours. My assigned segments (or “legs” in Ragnar parlance) were 7.1, 4.5, and 2.0 miles – the last being (hopefully) a sprint at the end in Key West.

The logistics for these races are somewhat staggering – there are 36 legs for the 12-person teams, and each hand-off has to be carefully coordinated.

Everyone packed energy bars, and all the vans loaded up on bottled water and other quick-calorie foods like bananas and donuts. We also got a chance to have a real meal during a nice long break while the other van of 6 was taking their turn running, and we feasted on pasta at a nearby Olive Garden.

Most of the people on my team didn’t know each other directly but had at least one acquaintance in common. I didn’t know anyone in my van since my connections were both in the other van, but we all got to know each other quickly and settled into the business of the race.

We each did some road, highway, and nighttime running. My first leg was the longest and it was in the middle of the Florida heat. I was relieved when I finished it but also anxious about having two more legs to complete.

My 3:00 a.m. run was surprisingly fun, and quite fast at least for me (a 7:36 minutes per mile pace). I had thought that running in the middle of the night would be difficult, but it was easier than I thought, and sleepiness wasn’t a factor either once the adrenaline got going. I was lucky to have my night leg be mostly on one of the stretches of the bridge to Key West that had a separate, uninterrupted pedestrian path.

We were all really sore by the time we got to our third and final runs. Even though the last leg is typically shorter than the first two, it was in many ways the most challenging run because of the pain and accumulated fatigue.

I signed up to run at an 8:11 minimum pace, and I was well under that for all three of my runs. I’m very happy about that because even though we weren’t running to finish in a top spot, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone on the team.

Our team was “Air Ragnar” with an airline motif. All of the teams had specific themes, and decorated their vans with stickers and washable markers with a great deal of enthusiasm and creativity. It’s very much part of Ragnar, and it felt like part road race, and part festival/party. Although it had a party feel, everyone was there to run their best and do their best for their teams. It had a community feel to it that other large organized races simply do not have.

The weather was almost perfect…a few drops of rain, and warm. The heat and humidity were a shock to many of the people there who were also escaping the cold, but it felt great to actually be hot outside again.

It was a great experience, and I would certainly do another one. Running is a highly individual sport, and the Ragnar format blended in some of the best aspects about being part of a team that was focused on a single specific goal. I don’t know if we just got lucky, but we had 6 people who didn’t all know each other crammed into a van to run a 200-mile relay race who all came out smiling at the finish line. Good stuff!

When people attempt to build complex software solutions using a mix of vendors, I call it vendor soup.

A recent example is That particular vendor soup was rich with delays, chunky with cost overruns, seasoned with vague requirements, and thickened with a lack of leadership and accountability. The GAO report on the problems with is a great case study. The soup got made, but was it tasty?

Vendor soupThe problem with vendor soup isn’t necessarily the vendors themselves. There are plenty of technology solutions and services that typically don’t make sense to implement from scratch: large-scale cloud computing infrastructures, billing systems, content delivery networks, source code management systems, software development tools, databases, and content management systems are just some examples. Vendors also provide expertise needed on an infrequent basis that may be inefficient to build in-house. I’ve used vendors in the past to help implement hardware prototype designs.

Even companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft use technology vendors because it makes economic and strategic sense; they don’t re-invent the wheel, don’t spend more than they have to, and focus on the things that are core to their businesses. But these companies still have armies of highly skilled software engineers and technical leadership to architect and direct the use of external technology vendors.

Quality software is hard to make. It requires a robust and well-defined architecture, a clear product vision and leadership, well documented code and APIs, consistently high engineering quality, common coding conventions and design principles, friction free communication between functional groups, an efficient and repeatable process for continuous product improvement, and relentless focus on the consumer experience.

Was even a single one of these attributes present with

No matter how competent the vendors may be, you can’t create an accountable, coherent, and high-functioning software development organization with vendor soup. Vendor soup is a tempting shortcut that looks great on a PowerPoint presentation to management. But who’s in charge when the countless things that can go wrong so easily in the software world…unstable apps, web sites that crash, user accounts that disappear, confusing user interfaces, links to nowhere, transactions that never go through…do go wrong?

If you’ve managed to cobble together a consumer-facing product relying primarily on vendors, you may be asking yourself: Did I make vendor soup? Obviously, the first hint will be that you have a lot of vendors doing things for you. But that alone does not make vendor soup. You need to ask yourself a few more questions. Does my product scale for future growth? Can I deploy new features and functionality quickly and easily? Are my costs under control? Do I have an efficient, well-defined architecture? Am I generating and protecting relevant intellectual property? Is my product constantly improving? Is the code elegant, robust, maintainable, well documented, well tested, and consistent? Do I have clear accountability? Is my product uniquely differentiated and superior to competitive solutions?

Now, be honest. If you find yourself saying “no” to more than a few of those questions, you have vendor soup. Don’t panic, it’s not the end of the world – you’ve gotten this far and nothing terrible has happened. They’ve fixed (with help from former Microsoft colleague, Kurt DelBene). And there’s the possibility that for what you need, vendor soup may actually be OK. But at the very least, if you can recognize what you have, you won’t be surprised when vendor soup fails to meet your needs in the future. And if your long-term goals exceed vendor soup limitations, you can start planning a different approach.

This is the text of my 5/17/2014 commencement address for the University of Vermont’s graduate college:


Thank you very much for the introduction.  It’s an honor and a privilege to be speaking to you today.

This is a very special day for me as well because I received my master’s degree from UVM at a similar May commencement 25 years ago.  When I graduated, I did not imagine that I would be returning one day to address a future class of graduates.

I confess that getting ready to speak with you today has posed a real challenge for me.  I’m a perfectionist.  I wanted to find something to say that each one of you would find useful or at least thought provoking.  I wasn’t really sure that I could give the same advice to someone studying historic preservation as someone studying biochemistry or public health, so that goal seemed like a tough engineering problem to me.  Also, my preferred presentation format includes lots of Q&A and interactive dialogue rather than simply talking to an audience.  I did ponder the possibility of trying something a bit different, but I ultimately decided that it may be too soon to innovate with the commencement address format just yet.  And finally, as a UVM graduate, I felt that I had an extra measure of responsibility to this audience given my shared connection to this school and this community.

My path to UVM and to computer science was not a direct one.

My family and I came to the United States as political refugees.  It was the late sixties, and my native Hungary was still behind the Iron Curtain.  In addition to lacking many other basic freedoms, education was highly controlled and censored by the political system in place, and my parents didn’t want to raise their children in such an artificially limiting environment.  We ended up gaining political asylum in the United States, and I had to get busy learning English.  Back then, there were no classes in elementary schools for English language learners.  But I remember learning lots of English watching The Three Stooges and Bug Bunny cartoons on our small black-and-white TV, and trying to figure out what the characters were saying.

A few years later in the mid-1970’s, the first generation of video game consoles were coming to market, and the first real blockbuster video game was Pong.  For those of you haven’t ever heard of Pong, the game consisted of two electronically simulated paddles that could be moved up or down on the screen with a pair of controllers to try to keep a ball – really, just a crude square – bouncing between them.  If you missed the ball, your opponent got a point.  That was it.  But it was a simple, fun, and intuitive game, and the market was eventually flooded with Pong game consoles hooked up to TVs.  My brother and I received one as a gift at some point, and after the novelty of playing the game finally wore off, I took it apart to find out what made it work.  How did the paddles and the ball get painted on the TV screen?  How did the ball know whether or not it missed the paddle?  I was determined to find out.  Inside the device, there was a printed circuit board with a bunch of components soldered to it, including funny-looking rectangular parts with lots of legs.  As I discovered, these were chips.  And as I found out, the mysterious process that made the Pong machine work involved those chips, and digital electronics.

In the process of taking the Pong machine apart, I broke it, and when I put it back together it no longer worked.  But I still wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery of what made the device work.

The late 70’s and early 80’s were a golden age for digital electronic hobbyists.  Technology was still simple enough to be able to build your own projects from the ground up.  I learned to solder, and how to design and make my own printed circuit boards to do things like count up or down, or measure things like temperature, or create sound effects.  With enough trips to the local Radio Shack, it seemed you could build anything.

Eventually, my projects got complicated enough that they required being controlled by a computer to be useful, so I taught myself how to program.  The majority of my early software efforts were simply a way to bring my hardware projects to life.

I went to college and ended up being a physics major.  Middlebury didn’t have a computer science major yet, and besides, computers were still just a side interest of mine.

That changed when I got my first real job after graduating from college.  I applied for a programming job in the “help wanted” section of the newspaper.  It might be hard to imagine now, but answering help wanted ads in the paper was how people actually found jobs back then.  This was the mid-80’s, the PC revolution was just starting to take off, and people who knew how to write software were in high demand.  In my case, the people looking for software help looked past the self-taught nature of much of my knowledge and hired me.  I dove right in, and re-wrote the tiny company’s bread-and-butter product over the course of a number of months.  By now, I was now completely hooked.  Not only did I love what I was doing, but I was getting paid for it!  It was also fantastic to be able to thumb through a magazine and point to an ad for the product I was responsible for and to be able to say “I wrote that”.

But I also knew that much of what I was able to do was self-taught, and as valuable as teaching yourself is, it has its limits.  I felt that there would eventually be a gap between what I wanted to do with technology, and the deeper knowledge that more advanced work would require.  I loved the science and the craft of building software, and I wanted to be as good as I could possibly be.  That’s how I finally ended up studying computer science at UVM.

When I graduated with my master’s, I could not imagine everything that would unfold in the computer technology area over the next 25 years.  In 1989, the PC was still emerging as a mainstream product, the Internet was essentially a research project, and so many things that we take for granted today – everything from mobile phones and connected devices to seamless access to information and connectivity – were still in the future, yet to be invented, created, and developed.

My next three jobs after graduation were software programming jobs, and I wrote many thousands of lines of code and loved programming.  But there came a point when I was asked to become a development lead at Microsoft.  This role entailed management responsibility in addition to continuing to write software.  After some consideration, I agreed, figuring that I could go back to pure software development if the management part of the job became too distracting.

You may know where this is going.  About a year later, I was asked to take on even more responsibility as a development manager.  This meant an end to me writing code.  But it did not mean an end to me being an engineer, and everything I had learned in grad school continued to be incredibly useful, just applied in different ways.

In fact, this was the period of time when I co-founded Xbox.  The Xbox effort started as an unofficial side project that was not approved by senior management.  I was able to formulate an engineering and technology plan, but now as a manager, I was also able to assemble a small team of volunteers within my group to build the prototype software for Xbox.  This working prototype convinced Bill Gates that the idea of creating a console platform using Windows technology was actually feasible.

Later, I led an effort in Microsoft research developing and patenting new technologies in anticipation of a future boom in mobile computing and touch-based interaction for product categories that did not yet exist such as today’s smartphones and tablets.

I also served in general management and architecture roles developing products, product concepts, and designs that were predecessors to modern tablets and e-reader devices.

When I graduated from UVM, I never imagined that I would have a product design portfolio, or patents, or management experience leading teams of hundreds of people.  Much of my work since graduate school may not seem directly related to a computer science degree, but from my perspective, all of it was built on the foundation of engineering that I established here.

The basics principles in my field are still true today.  Sound engineering practices don’t go out of style, and creative problem solving and innovation still look very much as they did when I graduated.

I have a whiteboard in my office, and I use it to map out designs, processes, architectures, and potential solutions in the same basic way as I would have used it 25 years ago even though today I may be solving organizational or business challenges rather than engineering ones.

Trust the foundation you have established here, and your ability to build your future upon it.  Remain open to new possibilities to develop and grow as the future reveals itself to you.  And stay curious about how things work even if means that you occasionally take something apart and can’t put it back together as I did with Pong.

I want to wish you the best of luck, and congratulations on your achievement.

Thank you.

I’ve tried to keep the number of obsolete reference manuals and technical books I have to a minimum over the years.  That stuff has been getting outdated at the same rapid rate as the evolution of the technology industry.  And with on-line references available for all things technology-related, there is almost no need to keep paper copies of anything.

Despite best intentions, however, possessions tend to accumulate, and when we moved from Seattle to New York a few years ago after being in the same house for close to two decades, it was necessary to do some significant culling.  If I had a book or manual that didn’t pass the “will you ever use this again” question, it went into the donation pile.  The Friends of the Seattle Public Library organizes book sales every year to support the library, and this made saying goodbye to about thirty boxes of books our family assembled much easier.  In this process, I did make allowances for sentimental reasons.

One of the exceptions I made was to hang on to my original copies of Borland Turbo Pascal. It came on a single 5.25” floppy disc along with a paperback reference manual.  This is a picture of the original 1.0 and 2.0 versions that I’ve kept:


I credit this product as much as any other for taking me down a path that would lead me to become a professional software developer.

I was an undergraduate at Middlebury College when I bought it.  Much of the software development I was doing was self-taught using one of the earliest IMB PC clones available – a Sanyo MBC-555.  The Sanyo was not a very good machine and had lots of problems with compatibility, but it was the cheapest PC I could convince my parents to buy.

I had reached the limits of what I could do with Basic, and let’s face it – a real program was a compiled, self-contained executable package (a proper “app” for all the young readers out there), not some Basic file that you had to run through a slow interpreter.  Also, I had been involved with assembly-level programming since the beginning of my interest in computers, and wanted a tool that allowed access to BIOS- and hardware-level functionality, even if it meant hand-compiling the opcodes using the 8086 CPU reference manual.

Turbo Pascal would let me do all of this, and at a price that a college student could justify to his parents: $49.95.  This was a bargain compared to the high cost of any of the Microsoft tools available then; Microsoft’s Pascal compiler was $400.  That was a lot of money back in the early 80’s, and a $400 compiler for a student was out of the question.  At the time, I couldn’t have imagined that I would eventually go work for the Microsoft that wanted so much money for a software development tool.

I bought Turbo Pascal mail order, sight unseen.  There was no Internet as we know it today, no Amazon, no on-line reviews, and my connectivity consisted of a 300 baud modem (that translates to 0.00029 megabits).  Everything I knew about the product was contained in a glossy advertisement in Byte Magazine.  I realize how quaint that all sounds, but when I got the package with the small paperback reference manual and the floppy, I was in programming heaven.  The compiler was incredibly fast even by today’s standards, and produced real executable programs even if they were limited to the smaller .com variant rather then .exe files.  And the fact that Middlebury’s math department taught a few Pascal classes (the college did not have a computer science department back then) was a big plus.

I would remain a big Turbo Pascal fan for a number of years until I fell in love with the C programming language, but that’s another story that also involves a thin paperback that I have also kept to this day.