Where Does Performance Come From?

On the one hand, I think that most people are way too snobby — they think that most people (except those like themselves) are idiots. (Why, I don’t know. I can’t see it from where I’m standing.)

But there are some cases where the distance between the superstars and everyone else is huge. Night and day. My first job out of college was at Activision, back in its glory days in the Eighties. I learned that there were two kinds of video game designers: the ones who could write games that were fun, and the ones who couldn’t. There was no known technique of turning someone who wrote boring games into one who wrote interesting ones.

For the last twenty years or so, I’ve been in the high-performance business — high-end semiconductors, network accelerators, stuff like that. And the same thing is true: A few people know how to make stuff that’s fast, while everyone else only knows how to make stuff that ought to be fast, but isn’t.

Sure, little changes like using memory with a faster cycle time can give you some incremental changes, but when you look for big improvements, like making it two times or ten times or a hundred times faster, all bets are off. You get multiple bottlenecks. Performance leaks that weren’t worth worrying about before now become must-fix issues. Life becomes strange.

So a performance project lives or dies based on a single factor: whether the project was shaped from start to finish by a performance engineer. Other considerations hardly matter at all.

When I was at WEITEK, we had a particularly sharp engineer named Bob Wallis, who looked at the problem of 3-D shading and recognized that it could be reduced into a series of very simple operations, all alike. The operations were so simple that it was easy to implement them in hardware, so we designed a chip with seven fixed-point adders on it, which pretty much did all the necessary calculations at the full speed of the video memory, which means that we were running as fast as it was possible to go. The chip was so simple that it only took six weeks to design, but it was way faster than anything else ever created. It cost only $22 to manufacture. Retail price: $750. We sold millions of dollars worth of products using that chip.

That’s what performance engineers can do.

We always had competitors, but they never did very well. They needed a group of performance engineers, or maybe just a single performance engineer, but they don’t have any.

Performance engineers are very rare, and most employers don’t even know that performance engineering is a distinct specialty, so they don’t even look for them. Their performance projects are doomed.

Since the hallmark of performance engineers is that they can make things that are impossibly fast, often without increasing their manufacturing cost, such people are a gold mine: well worth prospecting for. Better yet, unlike the knack of designing fun games, performance engineering can be taught. Probably not to just anyone, but the people around performance engineers tend to become performance engineers themselves.

This is a key concept, and it’s going to make someone billions of dollars someday. Many companies become rich and famous through the efforts of a single performance engineer (usually a founder). As the company grows, the founders get sucked out of the lab and become unavailable for new designs. Since no one else knows how to do the performance thing, the product line becomes stale. It runs on autopilot for a while and then crashes.

So there are two opportunities for big money, which can be done together if you want. The first is to have more performance engineers than your competition — two to their one, one to their zero — it doesn’t take many. You have to unleash them to work their magic, though. They have to be more or less in charge. Ordinary levels of management will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. (When I was at WEITEK, many of the best products started as conspiracies. The performance guys would work on an idea on the sly, and when they had it pretty much figured out, they’d demand that management fund it.)

The second opportunity it to train up legions of performance engineers so you can simply overwhelm all possible competition. Half a dozen in a single design group would be enough to make you world-class. That’s about the most I’ve ever seen in one place.

I Publish Books! Norton Creek Press

Thoughts? Questions? Comments?

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Robert Plamondon
Robert Plamondon has written three books, received over 30 U.S. patents, founded several businesses, and is an expert on free-range chickens. His publishing company, Norton Creek Press, is a treasure trove of the best poultry books of the last 100 years.

Author: Robert Plamondon

Robert Plamondon has written three books, received over 30 U.S. patents, founded several businesses, and is an expert on free-range chickens. His publishing company, Norton Creek Press, is a treasure trove of the best poultry books of the last 100 years.

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