2013-03-20

Box's 65-Year-Old Android Engineer Gives Your Startup Some Unsentimental Advice

There are precious few people who have seen and comprehended enough of the rise of computing, and then mobile computing, to have some perspective. "I have seen this curve over and over, and lots of startups fail in that gap because they don't keep at it long enough," says David Maynard. "I think we have lost the idea of the software artist."



David Maynard is a 65-year-old Android engineering manager at Box who still codes every day. ”It's not always easy," he says. "Sometimes I have to leave a company when I get promoted to the stage when I can't code anymore.”

The software industry tends to venerate precocity, which makes the genial, white-haired Maynard an interesting counterpoint to the company CEO Aaron Levie, who is 28. Maynard has worked his way through 28 programming languages at some of the Valley's most legendary companies like Lockheed, Xerox-PARC, SRI International, Electronic Arts, Google, and now Box. In a recent in-house presentation about his 40-year career, one slide charted “Nerd life satisfaction” as a quantity continuously increasing over time. “Because of Moore's law and the fact that nerds love gadgets, it's true I think," says Maynard.

There are precious few people who have seen and comprehended enough of the rise of computing (and now mobile computing) to have some perspective on the industry's mind-bending velocity. "The tools have just gotten so much better," he says. "When I was working on the game for Electronic Arts, I did the entire development on the Atari 800 and it took me 45 minutes to do one compile off of a floppy disk which held a grand total of 380 kilobytes. Today I have a device in my pocket with can give me access to the world's knowledge," he says. "That is unbelievable--but I think we have lost the idea of the software artist. When the machines were much smaller, I did my game essentially as a one-man team. I did all the art. I did all the programming. I had one other engineer help me with some of the music. I have a friend working with EA today and he is probably working in a team of 120 engineers.”

Maynard became part of the founding team at Electronic Arts after writing a game in his spare time in the late 1970s. Xerox-PARC was really the first place that provided personal computers, and like every programmer, Maynard had an Alto--about a $20,000 piece of hardware at the time. He says the engineers used the computers largely to write games. "Maze Wars was the first real 3-D shooter," he says. "As soon as that was released, work stopped. Management was powerless to do anything about it. All the programmers were playing. Then they started hacking the game to cheat. The people who built the game got sick of people hacking it so they actually encrypted the source code on the source control system. This was Xerox-PARC in the late 1970s with all the crown jewels of computer science--ethernet, laser printers, bitmap displays, WYSIWYG editors--and the only sources that were encrypted were Maze Wars."

He started to work on his own game for the Atari 800 and Commodore 64 in 1983, and dubbed it Worms?--not to be confused with the 1994 game by the same name. “It took me about six months to write, and then six months to convince Xerox-PARC that they didn't own it," he says. "I went looking for a publisher and found Electronic Arts. Another friend of mine from Xerox-PARC, Steve Hayes, and I were the first two engineers they hired.” You can actually spot Maynard in the launch advertising which depicts EA's black-clad engineering team as intellectual rock stars. “Electronic Arts treated the programmer as an artist," he says. "They were the first people to do that.”

Maynard is also a veteran of a failed startup, in his case, game console company 3DO, which launched in 1993. The idea was to create a high-end game machine and sell software for it, much like the Xbox and the Sony Playstation, which came later. "It was a visionary idea but the business model turned out to not quite work," says Maynard. "We invented the hardware and the development system and then we licensed the hardware to various manufacturers--but the manufacturers sold it at $699 retail, too high for a gaming machine.” Maynard says the current generation of startups should be more patient than he was. “Engelbart's law of technology prediction says that all technology predictions overpredict what technology will do for you in the short term and underpredict what technology will do for you in the long term," he explains. "I have seen this curve over and over, and lots of startups fail in that gap because they don't keep at it long enough. They think the technology will be there before it's really ready.”

Earlier in his career, Maynard was a systems programmer at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), where he worked on the implementation of NLS, Douglas Engelbart's oN-Line System. Engelbart, Maynard's boss at SRI, was the man responsible for the awe-inspiring 1968 “Mother of all demos,” which introduced the world to the mouse, the graphical user interface, word processing, hypertext, and even video-conferencing all at once. “He is one of the two true visionaries I think I have worked with in my life," says Maynard, "the other [being] Lockheed Corporation's Kelly Johnson, who was at least 30 years ahead of his time. He could envision the future and motivate people to try and make it work. He was the first person to conceive of using computers to augment the human intellect.”

As enthusiastic about software as he ever was, Maynard is currently learning HTML5 at home, since he doesn't use it at work. But he's not sentimental about software. "I've been very lucky in timing, surfing the wave since 1969," he says. "I got a degree in computer science the first year that Berkeley gave a degree in it. But if I had to do it over again today, I might choose bio-informatics or nanotechnology.”

[Image: Flickr user Marc Wathieu]