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How I got here in the end, part four: the first startup death march

I did not take the job with the three-piece suits and the mainframe farm. Instead, I had a stroke of luck and found something much more interesting daaahn sarf, just outside the M25. As a side-effect, it launched me on a four to five year diversion into a career as a technical author and showed me what real programmers are capable of. Here's what I remember ...

Back in the late 1980s, the British monthly computer magazine scene was pretty vibrant. One of the more interesting mags — from the point of view of unregenerate nerds like myself — was Computer Shopper. As I understand things, back in the late 1980s Felix Dennis had seen a copy of the American Computer Shopper mag while on a business trip, and had been impressed by its ability to sell advertising column-inches. So he grabbed the name in the UK and bankrolled a bunch of old school computer journalists (notably Graeme Kidd and Jeremy Spencer, among others). They bolted together the editorial content for a magazine aimed at hardcore enthusiasts, in the tradition of Byte and Personal Computer World; this in turn got Dennis a solid ABC subscription circulation base on which to sell advertising. Shopper mushroomed, and by 1988 it was one of the highest circulation computer mags in the UK.

While I was an impecunious comp. sci. student in Bradford, I noticed that Shopper ran features and reviews by a whole bunch of people I'd never heard of. So I picked up the phone one day, and pitched myself at Jeremy. "Gissa review slot," or words to that effect; I mentioned writing for Interzone (I don't think Jeremy knew Interzone from a hole in the ground) and a computer science degree. As I recall it, my first attempt at writing for shopper was a review of Mark Williams Corporation's Coherent operating system. One thing led to another ... and by 1990 my CV listed "writing about computers for a general audience in the press".

Programming jobs were thin on the ground for fresh graduates, but I landed an interview for the technical author slot at an interesting start-up in Hertford — an outfit called Real World Graphics, run by a guy called Graham Rowan. And I got the job.

Today, with 20/20 hindsight, I recognize RWG for what it was; your typical British high-tech startup: over-ambitious, feisty, under-capitalized, and dogged by a variety of interesting personality disorders which would probably keep a clinical psychologist in M&Ms for a decade. But it was glorious while it lasted ...

RWG was not Graham's first start-up. Before that, he'd been the prime mover behind IO Research, and something of a legend in British personal computing circles. Graham's shtick was graphics hardware. Here's what Guy Kewney made of him in early 1983. Graham's Pluto boards were the first high resolution colour video cards on the market in the UK. He went on from there to design more graphics hardware, built around higher performance chipsets, including the Motorola 68K family and then various RISC processors; along the way his boards found their way into the Quantel Paintbox, the first digital video effects editor used by the BBC and other broadcasters.

I'm not clear on how, why, or when Graham split from IO Research, but by 1988 he was putting out press releases from the new company, Real World Graphics. RWG was dedicated to producing insanely powerful 3D rendering engines with insanely expensive price tags (for a 16-bit ISA-bus card designed to slot into a PC with a 286 or 386 processor). A dapper, nattily dressed guy with a well-cultivated moustache, he reminded me somewhat of a ferret; a ferret who was happiest when he was up to the elbows in an open equipment rack, debugging a graphics card with the aid of a soldering iron and a signal analyzer.

RWG's mission was to sell parallel-processor RISC based graphics systems that could rival the dedicated rendering hardware put out by the likes of Silicon Graphics or Evans and Sutherland. The big new product of 1990, which I got to re-write and then write new manuals for, was the Reality board; the aforementioned ISA-bus card. By 1990 standards it was a monster, with 4Mb of VRAM, 16Mb of DRAM (the RAM chips packed so densely they were stacked on edge), four beer-mat sized Intel i860 RISC processors, and a Ti 34020 just to do the 2-D head-up overlays. The ten-layer PCBs were so balky that each one had to be hand-finished, and the RISC CPUs selected carefully to fit together in their carriers; it didn't quite glow red hot, but having a well-ventilated case and a powerful fan was recommended. These things sold for £16,000 a pop; I didn't see their like again until 1998, in the shape of a Matrox G400 costing £250 or so and targeted at high-end gamers. Graham was, quite literally, right on the bleeding edge of graphics technology. At one point he bolted together a VME-based massively parallel system for a demo of his new "Super Reality" architecture. I suspect it may have been the most powerful supercomputer in England at the time — sitting on the desk next to me, with 96 RISC processors churning away to display a large 3D model in real time on seven monitors. (XGA spec, 24 bit colour, mist and fog and multiple light sources — in 1990!)

If Graham's hardware was startling and impressive, the company that produced it was more a case of The Mouse That Roared. There were about twelve of us in a small office unit in Hertford, a sleepy rural town just north of London (for which it served as a dormitory). Half the company were programmers (plus one technical author). We sat in a large horseshoe-shaped ring of tables, pointing outwards from the centre of our room, with a LAN connecting PCs, a single Sun 3/60, and the pride and joy of the department — an SGI workstation. As I recall, the SGI was needed as a bridge to the VME bus frame containing test boards, while one of the PCs (sitting open-topped beneath a large fan) held the single Reality board we had for testing code. And our opposition? SGI and Evans and Sutherland, both of whom were billion dollar multinationals!

(This taught me lesson #1 of start up business plans: if you are a mouse, do not attempt to invade an ecosystem already occupied by elephants, unless the elephants are dying.)

The problem with developing graphics boards is that customers need software to run on them. If you're a huge vendor like NVidia, today, you just supply drivers with a standardized API and everyone knows that their OpenGL or DirectX code will run on your hardware. Back in 1990, such standards were embryonic at best. Real World Graphics supplied its own eccentric API to the Reality boards — a real-time superset of a subset of the PHIGS+ 3D graphics system. Mind you, the primary customers for Reality boards weren't game designers — it was aimed at the flight simulator market (and vehicle simulators, for that matter).

And therein lies a headache.

I learned pretty soon after I arrived at RWG that things were not going smoothly. There was a recession on; at one point we went three months without a single sale. The atmosphere was tense, if not poisonous. There was a pay freeze, naturally: and a purchasing freeze, taken to idiotic extremes. (One programmer was a specialist in TI 34020 DSP code. He had to code for and debug on the single Reality board shared between all the programmers. This wasn't a problem — until the DSP on the board blew out. At which point he carried on for as long as he could; but then, perforce, sat and twiddled his thumbs, because there was no money to replace a £50 chip on a £16,000 board that was preventing a £1000/month programmer from doing his job.)

That's not to say that RWG didn't have some superb talent. Take Carl, for example. Carl was a kid from Huddersfield in Yorkshire. He'd left school at 15, with crappy exam results because he'd been computer-obsessed. He got a job writing games in assembler on the Atari ST and Amiga. RWG was his first job, aged 18, for a real computer company; they were paying him thruppence ha'penny or thereabouts, to write hand-optimized RISC assembly language code for a parallel processing architecture. And he could do it. Boy, could he code! I watched him squeeze a 400% performance improvement out of the core rendering loop in the space of six weeks. During the same six week period, in his spare time — we were living in the same house — he wrote: a single-pass ARM macro assembler on his PC, cross targeted on his pride and joy (an Acorn Archimedes ARM machine). Then he wrote a 3D real-time rendering package for the ARM, with texture mapping support. And a demo, using the 3D package he'd written. And he did this while going to the pub three evenings a week and having a social life. (After RWG, Carl got a university place studying CS, graduated with the highest grade that department ever awarded, then went back to the games industry. Last time I met him, in the mid 90s, he was about to put down the deposit on his first Lambourghini. So sometimes the good guys do get their just rewards.)

The programming environment was ... tense, focussed, and a bit odd, even by startup standards. It was like working in a library staffed my methamphetamine addics. About twice a day, one of the programmers would kick back in his chair, spin to face the centre of the room, and produce a set of furry dice with which he would start juggling. This was the cue for everybody else to turn to face the cente — and begin whisting the theme to "The Magic Roundabout", until such time as he dropped the dice. No, I've got no idea where this ritual originated; all I can tell you is that it was the tech author's job to return the dice to their resting place, to await the next tension break.

Anyway: I'd been at RWG for about eight months when I came into work early one morning, to hear a blistering row coming from Graham's office. I listened for a moment, recognizing the voices — then tip-toed past, went to my PC (running MSDOS and Ventura Publisher under GEM on a Hercules green-screen monitor), and promptly loaded up my CV and began bringing it up to date. As I mentioned in the last installment, I was by this time able to recognize signs that the company was Not Doing Well. In this case, the sign I'd recognized was the CEO firing the Marketing Director. Such things do not bode well ...

The company wasn't insolvent yet. But the downsizing axe was clearly being sharpened. Graham had pinned his hopes on getting a big contract to deliver the graphics hardware for an American simulator manufacturer; there didn't seem to be anything else on the horizon that could keep the firm running, and the customer was clearly dicking us about. Indeed, as I learned later, RWG had just four months to run at that point.

With some regrets, I fired off my CV — and got a job interview at the British R&D wing of a successful UNIX OEM based in Watford ...

... A successful UNIX OEM called the Santa Cruz Operation.

(To be continued!)




Ah the nostalgia! Besides being a fascinating read over the last few days of How You Got To Where You Are Today(TM), it's great to read about these glorious British technological failures of that era again. I know I've worked for a few too! I'd completely forgotten about PHIGS, despite working for a different (failed) UK graphics equipment manufacturer in the late 80s, and suffering the delights of implementing the 3D viewing pipeline.

I remember harnessing the dream of being a science fiction author in those days too. Glad one of us got around to it (and did it so much better than I could)! Still I seem to have passed on that dream to my son, so hopefully will do it by proxy instead, and will do all I can to help that dream along.

Thanks for sharing these memories, it inspired me into posting a comment here for the first time (despite being a regular lurker).


Stross jokes and is accidentally taken seriously on his 1st day @ SCO: "Hey, you've got a halfway decent operating system here. Have you ever thought about off-loading it to some other company so they can level lawsuits against people who have absolutely nothing to do with it?"


@2: it gets a lot weirder than that. Hint: I haven't described how and why I left SCO yet, or even how I got the job ...


your typical British high-tech startup: over-ambitious, feisty, under-capitalized, and dogged by a variety of interesting personality disorders which would probably keep a clinical psychologist in M&Ms for a decade.

So, so true. This space is reserved for a story I can't tell...yet.


I don't know if you recall that Britsh failure called Inmos and its revolutionary parallel processing thingy called the transputer?

Some time in about 1988 (ish) a company used a boat load of those as a graphical display thing. Would that have been IO Media and/or RWG? I recall seeing a demo of one of those and being seriously impressed.


@4 - yep, I've got one of those too. Unfortunately it involved MS9 so I doubt I will ever tell it. The 80s & 90s in the British computer was an *interesting* time to be trying to make a living. Showing up was easy. Getting paid? That's a whole 'nother story...


SCO wasn't always evil -- it took a bunch of time and some slimy folk to basically sell off everything but (what they thought was) their IP to take them to the dark side. Today's SCO (kind of like today's SGI) has almost nothing but its name in common with the company Charlie worked for.


Nice to hear Quantel being mentioned, having worked for them in the late '90s.

@5 Quantel also used transputers in their gear I can't remember when they started using them though.


Oh, wow, hearing about British startups (since when have they ever been semi-household names? It's such a pity...) really makes me want to damn Silicon Valley to cold storage for a decade just to see what would've happened...


FrancisT: yup, that was one of RWG's boxes. One of my first jobs was knocking the engineering manual for said crate full of T800s into shape for a course the hardware guy was going to teach to the customers -- a Norwegian outfit who made supertanker simulators. (I may even have a hardcopy of the manual kicking around somewhere.)

Claire @7: the company that used to be SCO sold their name to the current owners, along with their stake in UNIX, some years after I left. It's like waking up to discover one of your dead relatives has risen as a brain-eating zombie ... more on that subject later in the week!

LittleDave: RWG went through a variety of ISA bus boards, including a T800 based one as I recall, some of which ended up in Quantel's gear.


@5 I spent a year in 1989/90 not doing a whole lot with an Atari Transputer workstation as part of a programme sponsored by the DTI to promote British technology to industry. Apart from the Transputers it also had a British OS called Helios. It could do Mandelbrot images quite quickly.


The fuzzy-dice juggling programmers became Pinky and the Brain's elder-god juggling antics in the Atrocity Archives, no?


I remember seeing Paintbox running at the ABC circa '83-84. They wouldn't let me play with it. Hell, they wouldn't let me touch anything.


"A successful UNIX OEM called the Santa Cruz Operation."



Pinky and the Brain's elder-god juggling antics

I have not gotten around to reading the Atrocity Archives yet. This sentence has kicked it up into the top 10 wishlist, lol.


I'm glad you're 'still grappling with The Fuller Memorandum' or I would never keep up with your current bloggering output!!.....lol


doe these stories have anything to do with boxing?
carl sounds like a cool guy to have a brew with.


And, of course Hertford had and has several VERY good pubs .......


Oooooooooooh, so that's what SCO stands for...


@12 & @13

I thought it was the developers in Halting State?

I need to read TAA again.




Liking the bio, the dusty days of huge chips you could actually solder and tiny wee glass monitors that cost a fortune. Nostalgia and a fun insight into the birth of the digital age... you should write a book on it ;D


Hertford? Blimey - I never knew that. I was still living there that summer. Perhaps I actually met you about 9 years before I thought I did. Blackbirds or White House?



Did you know a bloke called Julian Young? He was/is a good friend of mine and that sounds remarkably like what he was doing though I don't recall Atari coming into the picture.


Weeee - I remember Computer Shopper for its gargantuan size, it's few articles and it's enormous adverts packing page after page after page.
I had my ZX Spectrum in those days, and soon after a Commodore 128. I was more into Gaming 64 or some such mag.


to hear a blistering row coming from Graham's office. I listened for a moment, recognizing the voices — then tip-toed past

Guessing that inspired a scene in "Halting State"?

Whenever I read Brain's dialogue it came through as an Orson Welles impersonation, which I hope is at it should be.


This takes me back. I was at the PCW show when the Pluto graphics board was being demonstrated. I recall being very impressed at the time. They did some demo where you could zoom in to every increasing detail of drawing (light pen produced?).


@21 ditto
Was that a Fuller Memorandum spoiler?


@20: Lest anyone be confused, the SCO that went all evil and tried to sue Linux and everyone hates it now is not the same company as the Santa Cruz Operation. It's a different company that bought out the original SCO's Unix business, then changed their name to "The SCO Group" afterward.

You could say SCO doesn't stand for anything anymore, and you'd be right in more ways than one.

I worked for both companies (I remember exchanging emails with Charlie back in the day). The original SCO was a great place to work. Its successor, not so much.


@24 No - I was hired as part of an effort to promote Transputers to the offshore oil industry in Aberdeen with little success. A couple of years later I was working for a SCADA company in Aberdeen (now part of Fugro) that actually had ported its software to Transputers for a contract also involving the government. By the time I was working there the Transputer branch of the code tree was deprecated but it was still in the C headers and such. So that was odd.


#9: Nothing I would suspect. I have worked for both UK and US Tech startups (and currently work for a US startup). Whilst I have worked for some squirrely US startups I will never, never work for another UK startup. The executive pool is small, very poor and highly incestuous. There is a tiny amount of venture capital (the VC funding the company I work for have, by themselves, more funding than the whole of the UK venture industry).

For all the government talks about innovation they have no idea what it takes (unless it concerns innovation in expense claims :-)).

I have worked for one (and only one) well run software company in the UK but the lack of capital killed them.

I loved the series BTW and it resonated with my own experience (earlier computing at school, using an Oric computer, even Bradford University). In my first job (in the 80's), for the advanced research arm of a car company, I was one of the few people who could actually program. I had lots of fun with projects ranging from implementing finance databases to integrating vehicle analysis packages.


Ah, the Pluto. My mate Ronan was an expert at using it (he sold his solution to a crappy game show here in Ireland and it was the graphics engine for a whole slew of games shows in Ireland in the mid-eighties. Of course we used these cards on other venerable UK hardware, Nascom and 80bus computers (John Marshall, another UK pioneer).


"Graham was, quite literally, right on the bleeding edge of graphics technology."

What type blood?


I'm sure we've talked about this as I was old mates with IO Research. I had known them since 83. IO Research was doing very well with a large engineering staff, when they were made an offer for the business by Carlton. At the time they were a typical startup, started late then officially knocked off work at 5pm but still kept working till late. When Carlton moved in they insisted on 9.30 to 5.30. Everybody stayed to 5.30 and went home.

Fairly soon after that Graham walked away and the Nobels a little later. I lost touch with them after that what with one thing and another.

I can say more but not on open channel