Seymour Cray, who died after a road accident last September at a still very active 70, was a genius who deserves the very highest accolades. His technical and engineering prowess was legendary, as was his protectiveness to his employees. Here was a man who built Control Data Corp’s first computer from a reject-load of 37-cent transistors, made Control Data spin-off Cray Research into a Fortune 500 company, which at one time in the late 1970s showed the highest sales per employee of any computer manufacturer and the highest net income as a percentage of sales of any computer company, and who was recognized as the world’s pre-eminent designer of high-speed computers by the time he was only 35. But a recent biography of the man – Charles J Murray’s The Supermen: The Story Of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards behind the Supercomputer – shows the flaws that all too often seem to go with having a brain the size of a planet. In many ways, Seymour Cray was the Ur-geek, the geek of all geeks, the Maximum Geek. There is something of the bizarre in envisioning him designing the Cray-2 in his lakeside lab in northern Wisconsin, a three-bedroom cottage, which housed a six- foot high working Data General mainframe Plus numerous PCs, an industrial strength air conditioner to cool the big iron, and a backup generator to handle the occasional power surges out in the boonies. Given that the guy had a mainframe in his back bedroom, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that he sat down without the slightest degree of hesitation to rewrite thousands of lines of the Data General machine’s system operating code to make it more suitable for computer aided design, CAD.
By Gary Flood
Then there’s a just as bizarre true story of Cray digging himself a 20-foot deep tunnel in the hillside beneath the cottage, as a way of escaping a technical dilemma and letting his subconscious work while he engaged in mindless activity. Cray was also an early pioneer of computer engineers who arrive at 11am, don’t talk to any humans all day, never wear anything other than the most supercasual of clothes, literally despise and feel revolted by everything to do with corporate culture, and who at the same time produce the goods without which all the offended and frustrated suits could not make the sales that pay their salaries. Cray treated his managers and fellow executives with caustic rudeness. At his second to last company, Cray Computer Corporation, the turnover of senior managers was about as high as the attrition rate for British officers on the Western Front. Cray suffered fools not at all well, even the ones he was hiring to keep his struggling company going. A lunch ritual was for he and a group of top staffers to drive to a nearby restaurant to eat a dish not on the menu, corned beef hash, which Seymour liked, so everyone else ordered it too. One day Cray approached a vice president of engineering who was regarded as popular and easy to work with, but whom Cray worried did not know his stuff well enough. Cray handed the wretch a computer simulation of a waveform with a big spike on the graph. Cray asked the man what he thought the spike could be, given that it looked like an inductor but there were none of that size on the die. Others nearby started to answer but Cray silenced them. I want to hear it from the vice president of engineering. Turning to the executive so nominated, he told him, You don’t have to tell me now, but by the time we get back from lunch, I’d like to know. No-one knows what the gentleman so quizzed said that afternoon, but he was history within a few weeks. The company died because it couldn’t find the money for pay for Cray and his fellow hardcore engineers to finish his last vision, the Cray-4. There’s something great – maybe – in a man humiliating his managers while protecting his engineers, as Cray typically did. But that Dilbert stuff doesn’t cut it when people’s lives, careers, and employment hang in the balance. He was basically wildly impatient with all aspects of conventional corporate culture. This
could be amusing. There are two legendary Cray memos. One was in response to a request for detailed one year and five year plans for his next machine. To which he laconically wrote two sentences: Five-year goal: Build the biggest computer in the world. One year goal: One-fifth of the above. Another classic: Activity is progressing satisfactorily as outlined under the June plan. There have been no significant changes or deviations from the June plan.
Pages of waffle
His counterparts all handed in 30 pages of waffle. So if there is a lesson, here, perhaps, that genius type behavior is cool in the comic books or the horror movies but not when what you do or communicate matters in a public company which has to meet budgets and sell product, there is also a lesson that even Maximum Geeks can’t do it all themselves. Cray was so hard to talk to that he needed a social interface, a partner, who he found with a colleague called Les Davis, whose gentle demeanor contrasted sharply with Cray’s more abrasive ways. Cray was so smart and logical that many of his own engineers were actually afraid to approach him, for having their ideas shot down by the modern-day Edison was more than they could take. Plus, Cray often left the last 10% of a project – often the hardest part – to others: When Seymour drops the design out the window, Les catches it. He liked to leave things unfinished because he loved starting all afresh – as in the summer he built himself a boat, then burnt the thing after he’d bought another. Neither was he some Godlike figure who invented it all himself – he often preferred to use ten year old proven technology, with his unique value-add being to put it together in innovative ways. The Cray Way was, The pioneer never wins; it’s always easier to go second. Silent, autocratic, disdainful, not a team player, all attributes that are surely applicable to the man; but he was also a man who possessed an almost unearthly genius for concentration, innovation, and mathematical precision. Truly, the idiot who drove their car into Cray’s black sport utility wagon last September had no idea what kind of genius Maximum Geek they were depriving the world of.