Chris Malachowsky, NVIDIA
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
Any successful company is made up of lots of disciplines and skill sets. Every role in the company isn’t necessarily one that requires a deep technical level of understanding, but many of them do. A large portion of the more attractive, financially lucrative roles would benefit from having some technical understanding. Technical-oriented roles benefit from a deep technical knowledge in some areas and just a broad technical understanding in others. You never know what challenges you’re going to be presented with and from what discipline or technical area your challenge will come from. So the broader somebody is in the fundamentals of good engineering, science, and problem-solving, the more likely they’ll find a route to success.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence?
Part of avoiding obsolescence is in avoiding the belief that you know everything. Not only that but no one should believe that what they did yesterday is sufficient to ensure a good tomorrow. So, your life and your career should always be viewed as a learning opportunity.
You avoid obsolescence in a number of ways. I advocate being an avid reader. Read industry journals and magazines. Read broadly, cultural things and science things as well as engineering things. Read a lot about whatever you’re interested in—motorcycles, cars, boats—but stay in a mode where you’re always taking in new information.
Professionally, take jobs and assignments that are outside your comfort zone. Choose companies that have a broad set of things they need done that you can contribute to. Take assignments that stretch you—that take what you know as only the rough basis for what you need to accomplish. Top people read a lot, regularly go to talks and conferences, and expose themselves to people and events that will help them grow. A lot of those things are necessary, but nowhere near sufficient if done individually. You must embrace a broad range of modes of continuous learning to stay sharp and relevant.
Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
Well, it’s part of it. It depends on the company and the field that you choose. If you’re the inquisitive, inventive, highly-motivated type that always wants to be learning, then you should find your way into those aggressively forward-thinking companies where utilizing the latest and greatest is relevant to them. However, if you’re in a company that’s happy to keep doing what they have been doing in the same was as its been done in the past, there’s no reason to assume that being “cutting edge” would be relevant.
For those that want to stay current and pursue the Holy Grail of success in a “hot” technology company, you should join a company that is forward-thinking and fast paced, where technology advantages are important for their success.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
There’s a basic level of expertise that’s common. Having a good fundamental understanding of a technology and the technology sector you’re involved in is key to both roles. Technology is just a means to an end, not a product, not something you sell. Your customers appreciate having a problem solved; they appreciate elegance and efficiency, not technology. So when you’re in a leadership position at a technology-oriented company, you should have a sense of the larger picture: why are you in business? What will make you successful? What tools, techniques, and technologies can you exploit to achieve success?
Technical leadership & managerial roles both require a similar set of skills: listening, objectivity, intellectual honesty, the ability to motivate others. Architectural or technical lead jobs additionally necessitate a deep and broad understanding of the pieces that go into a product or a system so that you can leverage the best of everything, bring it together, motivate people and get everyone to march in the same direction. Technology management benefits from a good technical understanding of the elements of product though it doesn’t require the same depth or breadth. However, management roles do have an organizational element to them—the formal part of managing people, schedule, and resources.
Does someone interested in these roles have to take a different path depending of which job they ultimately want? No, but a good technologist does not necessarily make a good technology manager and vice versa. There should be no assumption that just because someone has excelled at designing a complex system that they would be good at managing people or vice-a-versa; the skills required are not necessarily related. I would encourage anyone interested in one of these roles to find a way to experience them. Identify someone who is an architect or manager you admire. Try to get yourself in that person’s sphere of influence to try to envision yourself in the role. See how well people respond to you. See how well you respond to the role.
Is mentorship structured a lot in the technology industry? Is there a system in place?
I can’t speak for all companies, but it is a reasonably formalized program at NVIDIA with people assigned the role of helping somebody moving in to a new role or team get up to speed.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field?
Absolutely. It’s a broad set of skills that make you successful as a company. Having said that, the technologically-averse will likely not be able to keep up with the pace and will likely stick to the old ways of doing things, which may not be as productive. You don’t need to be a technology geek to work at a modern company but you would at least need to be open to technology and automation. You can pick up a lot of this stuff on the job but you’ve got to be willing to learn and adapt to the systems and processes your organization is using. You have to become adept at working with them. To be resistant to the basic technical tools used to run a business as the “newbie” in an organization seems like a recipe for disaster.
What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
What I think is often missing isn’t so much a role, but a global sense of the mega organization, of what cog you are in the wheel and what the wheel is trying to do and where is it going.
Having been in a number of companies, I think very often people in big organizations think in silos: If I’m the in the marketing group I only need to worry about marketing issues or if I’m in the shipping department only delivery issues, etc. This type of ‘silo mentality’, that idea that you shouldn’t reach out of your department, is highly limiting behavior. All the more successful companies I know of have found a way to have management systems and a culture that encourage people to think more broadly even when they are making more localized contributions. This engages everyone in the inter-departmental optimizations that can really turbo charge efficiency.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
I believe that understanding the fundamentals of a technology or a process is a really critical for the advanced technologist. Very often, you’ll need or want to re-derive things from fundamentals or look at things from a fundamental way to build up a new answer.
Beyond that, though, you’d really want to be a great communicator be it in writing, formal talks, or just through casual conversation. More often than not, how well you communicate really matters. The fact is the most successful technical leaders educate, and inspire others through all means of interaction.
Yet another attribute of good technologist’s is being self-confident enough to be self-critical and open to suggestion. They should also not be afraid to ask for help when its needed. You should never believe that something you’ve done is so good that it can’t be improved upon. Good listening skills, a perfectionist attitude, and being somewhat anal about details are also attributes of successful technologists.
Finally, I would add that good technologists should continuously broaden their overall understanding of the business, the other functional organizations, and the markets served. This will broaden their sphere of influence. They should also develop a good sense of why someone would want their product. In the end, their company is not just selling a thing or service; they are selling something that should “help” their customers in some manner. The deeper this understanding is, the higher the likelihood that a given solution will be optimized for success.
There seem to be companies that are tech-centric and those that are more user-experience centric. Is this an important distinction in choosing the “right” company to work for?
Yes, most product or service companies that think that their product is just a delivered technology are not likely to be overly successful. A customer-focused or solutions-focused company is really what who you’d want to work for. A company that understands what value they’re providing, and why a customer would want it is more likely to meet their customers’ needs. They would also likely understand how to navigate their business and product offerings as market dynamics and customer needs evolve.
Bottom line is I feel that technology for its own sake has limited commercial appeal.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
The typical technology or design organization is just one piece of the overall business’s pie. There were days where technology companies were driven by the design organizations and everybody else just took what they got and ran with it, tried to accommodate whatever was given. History has shown that this approach doesn’t generate the products that customers are likely to want most or the returns the typical business needs to flourish.
Today the technology organization of most technology companies is generally recognized as just one cog in the wheel. They need to integrate and cooperate with all the other departments involved in delivering the company’s end product. They also need to be held accountable for the ramifications of their decisions on the rest of the organization and in the marketplace.
The products that come out of a technology company often have their origins in what the technology group does. But if the technology group operates in a vacuum and just throws something over the wall, the results are generally sub-optimal. However, if they can effectively integrate the needs of the other departments, they will likely produce designs better able to exploit the company strengths, reduce overall waste, and improve overall efficiency.
Technology organizations should not see themselves as the be-all, end-all of the company. They’re simply part of the bigger picture, and they need to constantly reassess what they are doing to do a better job for the company as a whole
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
If you’re going to design a product, you better understand what that means. You better understand how the costs of the production and appeal of the product are affected by your design decisions. Technology organizations need to have really broad tentacles that extend in to the manufacturing, marketing, sales, and support departments.
What issues plague the technology industry?
One big issue faced by our industry is the high cost of advancing technology and the trend to more and more product customization. It is becoming increasingly hard to have any one new product see the type of unit demand and price margins needed to recoup the high costs of product development. High volume manufacturing has traditionally led to optimized costs, and the requisite profitability needed to fund future developments. Today, however, consumers expect their products to be unique and differentiated (for example think of how many models of cell phones are available from even one supplier) leading to lots of different designs and smaller volumes per any one design. This is challenging the old ways of doing product definition, product design, manufacturing, procurement, and marketing.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
Early on I didn’t appreciate how fast it moved. How quickly what you do is obsolete. How past successes are discounted when people look towards your future opportunities. Success in this environment has required staying sharp and never resting on your laurels.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
I don’t think technology is a product. There are plenty of companies on the internet whose products are based on some technological advantage they have yet “tech” is not the product. Many internet company offerings are simple based on or hosted by computer and network technology they bought. I really don’t think this qualifies the internet as a “tech” industry.
Fact is the internet is well beyond just technology. It’s really more about user experience, commerce, and how to exploit the fact that you can get a zillion eyeballs on something easily and relatively cheaply..
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
I think you shouldn’t dedicate yourself to something you don’t love. I asked some folks around here on what their view was and one person phrased it as “I would keep taking introductory classes in subject areas until I found the one that I’m willing to stay up all night to make my project perfect for.” So, it’s about passion. When you find your passion, you more likely pursue it to a point of success than if you’re just doing a job. For students trying to find where their passion is—and its likely something aligned with their personal interests—they should find those classes and professors that inspire them, that they get jazzed about. And then they should look to make that subject area a central part of their career. The more you’re in love with what you do, the more likely that you’ll bring that little extra something to the role that will distinguish yourself from the next guy.
Once they find the avenue of technology that they’re passionate about, they should then learn everything they can about it. And before they get totally enamored, they should go try it out. If it doesn’t turn out to meet all their expectations, find something else. One of the things about creative pursuits like you’d find in an exciting tech company is they often turn into big time, and energy sinks. The work can quickly become so consuming, seductive, and engaging that if it’s not something you really love, you’ll get disenfranchised.
Bottom line is I would advocate finding a technical area you love, a company whose philosophy and culture is compatible with your personality, and a business that has the right opportunities for you to grow. Then I would suggest simply diving in and giving it all you’ve got!
Also, there is no denying we are in some challenging times given the world-wide financial situation. As companies try to tighten their belts, they will naturally focus on the few things they do well and their more strategic growth opportunities. Less strategic or profitable areas of the business will likely be shut down. They’ll continue to need people but they’ll be more critical about their hiring needs. They’ll be more apt to hire the more experienced, higher skilled, and/or better-rounded people. As someone entering the work force at this critical time, think about what can help you stand out to an employer. Think hard about the companies and roles you apply for, you might consider creative ways to gain some differentiated experience or skills either through continuing your education or gaining experience in ancillary industries. Most of all work hard and try to excel at every thing you do. People and employers want to be associated with folks with a track record of success and a can-do attitude.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
By far, the biggest thing to hit computing in decades is CUDA. CUDA is our GPU Computing Architecture. Engineers, Software developers and Scientists around the world are seeing 100X better performance when running their compute intensive code on the GPU. This has enabled breakthroughs in nearly every industry:
- Video transcoding and encoding – Elemental’s BadaBoom can transcode a two hour movie in 9 minutes
- Video Enhancement – Motion DSP dramatically enhances poor quality video in real time
- Photography – Adobe’s photoshop now uses GPU acceleration for major improvements in photo editing and management
- Gaming – Physics that is far more realistic than before
- Weather modeling – NCAR shaved a week off of large scale foreacasts
- Molecular Chemistry – UIUC - 200X faster molecular dynamics enabling breakthrough cancer research
- Medical – Tomography that allows patients to have a comlete scan of both breasts and consultation in one session versus three visits spanning several weeks
- Oil & Gas – Several companies experiencing an order of magnitude increase in resolution and processing time for the discovery of natural resources
- Astronomy – breakthroughs in the modeling of the origins of stars, galaxies and the universe
- Financial – one-to-two orders of magnitude improvement in the time to model complex derivatives and financial instruments
- We will look back at this period in history as the time when computing went through a rare and fundamental discontinuity. This will likely to be our company’s greatest contribution to mankind.