Friday, June 11, 2010

Clay's Story (So Far)

The drastic surgery to transform one of my fingers into a thumb was a success and all grafting was done by my second year. Really never felt different or that I had any limitations, that is something that others tried to make me believe though. I guess I knew I was different, just not how they thought. My mom always instilled in me a deep sense that I was capable of anything that I really wanted. Not that anything worth much would be easy but that I had some gifts others did not process that gave me a clear advantage. Raw willpower to succeed, as long as I really wanted something has always been one of those gifts.

When I entered kindergarten the principal told my mom "we don't think we can accommodate his needs, it will impact the other students", in Nashville TN in the 70s there wasn't alot of knowledge on mainstreaming students who may not look the same. There really never was any difference though it was their issue, I never needed any special arrangements, and there were tons of kids that were worse off than me in a ton a ways. From that day on, the day that I started dealing with others in social settings, I made sure that remained consistent.

As a pre teen I had a pretty normal school life lots of friends, great girlfriends. When I entered high school at Hillsboro High School things really started changing. In my freshman and sophomore year I mostly listened to Black Flag, Iggy Pop, skateboarded and built electronics. I guess I was a cyberpunk nerd, before anyone knew what that was, even me. I started working at the local computer store and really got into building computers from the ground up, that's when I learned about UARTs and 6502 assembly compilers. When I eventually got the work scholarship in Dallas TX with United Press International (UPI) designing satellite communications systems, I lied about my age at 16 to get an apartment and make it happen, and a college scholarship. I don't know exactly why my mom let me get away with it maybe she knew that I was determined.

Floundering in Electrical Engineering (EE), even with a full scholarship, I was without passion or direction. I was completely unmotivated to succeed, my grades were horrible and I just could not relate or identify with my peers, teachers and the completely outdated curriculum. No creativity, no vision, no place for me. I think its because I knew in my heart that this was not my future and on a subconscious level that I wanted to fail. When my father died of cancer, and I received a small cash insurance payment I took the opportunity to reboot. I knew he too would want me do what I was passionate about, something that balanced creativity with creation.

I soul searched. During this period to redefine myself I read a book called "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson and my life was changed. I was convinced that we would all be using three dimensional interfaces and virtual reality to interact with computer systems by the year 2000. That raw vision no matter how naive and flawed would fundamentally be a sea-change in my life. I enrolled immediately in the School of Architecture at The University of Tennessee to understand the use of space and place as a user interface metaphor.

My thesis was called "CyberSchema", a place where creators, designers, scientists and mathematicians would come together to solve really big problems in the virtual environment. They would collaborate remotely in the co sensual design space and the architectural project was the virtual archetypes that would allow them to share ideas and work on solutions together. "THIS IS NOT ARCHITECTURE!" my teacher screamed at me, and he protested my thesis to the Dean formally. The dean later told me that said "He should NOT be here!" If the thesis competition had not had external judges from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Zaha Hadid's office and Frank Ghery's office I probably would not have graduated. It was impossible to not allow me to graduate when I had a 4.0 average and took second place in the competition. The next year the school was investigated for not fostering innovation. I had already moved on.

Professional Career
When I started my job at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill my primary role was to innovate the CAD systems to provide visual feedback to the designer when engineering was impractical. As a first out of school job it was pretty amazing, working in Downtown Chicago at one of the largest architectural firms in the world designing visual software. 3D had been core to all my work in architecture, and although I loved my architectural life I still hungered to create experiences for people in the virtual world. Computer gaming had started going immersive, so I took on a new moniker with the hope of living my dream of being an architect for the virtual world. I moved to Silicon Valley and called myself a "Virtual Architect".

Twin Dolphin Games was creating a Virtual Reality game on the PC for EA Games. There was only one Oracle Tower down the street, and as a startup things were very different than the large glass covered offices of SOM. We were scrappy, and as the company's "Virtual Architect" I was responsible for building all the spaces and experiences for their 3D Dungeon Adventure. "Forgotten Castle" was very innovative visually, but the company made a bad choice in their game engine and it failed completely.

As an active advocate in the Valley for 3D technologies I was pretty well known in the very small (at that time) 3D community. 3D was mostly rendered, and real time 3D was a new field. I was asked to help a graphics company called Silicon Graphics (SGI) build some real time visualizations of a new innovative building they were presenting to the Mountain View City Counsel. That building later became Google building 1.

As Silicon Graphics' VRML Evangelist it was my role to create revolutionary examples of visualization on the internet. Now complex visual representations of information could be created "on the fly" and transmitted on the newly created "World Wide Web". I created complex 3D visualizations driven from databases, created some of the very first Java web applications that ever existed, I spoke all over the world, and my visualizations were on the cover of SIGGRAPH 1995. I was a 3D star. These were the glory days. Jim Clark had just left to start Netscape. Howard Look was my boss, (VP at Pixar and TIVO) John McCrea (VP Plaxo) was our "creative", and Rikk Carey invented VRML based on the OpenInventor platform. I am honored to say I worked directly with a bunch of the people who went on to create the Valley culture we know now.

Getting involved in startups is where my career transformed from being a core 3D contributor to more of a leader and mentor to others focused on very tough technical problems and products. BigBook Technical Director 3D Products, Director Engineering, Intervista supporting the vision of CEO Tony Parisi, we created the most widely used VRML platform in the world. UBUBU VP of Engineering an Accel Company took on a 5M B round under a technology gate I successfully delivered. 10 years later, a couple of payouts and I was ready for another re-evaluation. When the two towers fell I took a break again to redefine myself.

3D had become commodified, the dream was gone. I had lost my belief that 3D would be a transformative technology for the masses. We were still using 2D metaphors for %99 of what happened in computing. If I was going to make real changes I needed to know how to create again. I decided that understanding and managing technology, not people would allow me create new ideas with my own hands. For the last 9 years as an Software Architect I have been focused on Java as a platform for very large systems, and I have helped companies scale their systems and transform what they are capable of. I also know exactly how to apply these technologies to solve real problems leveraging map reduce clusters and elasticity using both public and private clouds. That's why I have started becoming interested in the problems themselves.

This is the beginning of a new journey, I have worked closely with many CEOs but wearing the big hat is new to me. It is a place I knew I would be and now I am here. I have much to do, and I look forward with curiosity of what is in store. See you in the future.

1 comment:

  1. being an entrepreneur seems like the logical next step for you.