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The Inventivity Pod
The Video Revolution

In 1999, Chris Malachowsky was on the team at NVIDIA that invented the Graphics Processing Unit, an invention that transformed the consumer electronics industry. The GPU is now used by video games and virtually all social media platforms. The son of a doctor, Chris started out as pre-med but switched to engineering and got hired by Hewlett Packard. “I never felt we were at risk,” Chris says of his early start-up days.  But he cautions early entrepreneurs, “don’t do it for the money or the glory. It’s too hard.” (Mild profanity) *This episode was originally released on November 20, 2019.*




Intro (00:01): 

Inventors and their inventions, welcome to Radio Cade the podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace. 

James Di Virgilio (00:39): 

For Radio Cade, I’m James Di Virgilio. Our guest today is a 2019 Florida Inventors Hall of Fame, inductee, University of Florida alumnus, and co founder of NVIDIA. His name is Chris Malachowsky. Chris went on to found a fortune 1000 company that invented the Graphics Processing Unit, which for me was a large part of my life and had a big introduction to video games. But that unit did much larger things than that. It’s now used by Facebook, Twitter, Google, super computers, a whole host of other things. And in fact, Chris and his cofounders transformed the visual computing industry by creating a consumer oriented 3D graphics market. Chris, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m looking forward to hearing about your story. As we spoke off air, your story is like so many other inventors and entrepreneurs stories and that it does not move in a straight predictable line. Tell us how your story began. 

Chris Malachowsky (01:34): 

Well, I was a kid about to get in trouble in New Jersey and, uh, wanted to graduate early, before I succumb to the wildly ways with my friends and knew I wanted to get out of New Jersey. It was middle of winter it’s slushy, it’s cold, it’s dreary. And my father was a physician. My parents and their friends all assumed I was to be a doctor. I like carpentry and cabinet making and, and thought that was the path I wanted, but didn’t really think I needed to make up my mind. So what I did decide was warm and green was the criteria for school. If they had a medical school and a building construction school, I could decide later, let me just get on with my life, get out of New Jersey. And so I applied to Tulane, they had a really pretty lawn and sunny scene on the cover of their catalog thought that was attractive. They had a medical school on a building construction school done, I flied, and got in. My parents were a little gas that I wasn’t giving myself more options and that maybe I should at least see the school. So my older brother was given my parents’ car and him and I drove off to Tulane. And after being there for a couple of days, I really didn’t think that was going to work out for me. I was going to get myself in some serious trouble in the French Quarter. So on the way home I was dismayed because I did not give myself any options. I stopped, to see a cousin who was going to University of Florida. I spent a couple of days there and really did like it. And it also had the same characteristics of building construction school and a medical school. And I decided this is cool. So I picked up an application and on the way, driving home to New Jersey, I filled it out, mailed it in, got in. And I guess the rest is history that brought me to that Florida. 

James Di Virgilio (03:07): 

Now tell me about your experience in college and then how your life became what it became, because I’m going to love, I know before I even hear what you’re going to say, how life is so much more unplanned than we ever think. And I’m looking forward to hearing how those dots connect. 

Chris Malachowsky (03:22): 

Yeah. So at Florida, you didn’t really have to declare a major. So I started off doing all the normal general ed stuff with an idea that I was premed. And I remember going to see the premed advisor who was very clear. And I went with one of my roommates. This is maybe as a sophomore and the guy looks me square in the eye and says, so who have you helped lately? I said excuse me, it’s just, you want to be a doctor? I mean, come on, everybody wants to be a doctor, a lawyer what’s this about? He says, don’t even tell me your father was a doctor or a lawyer. And the other kid’s father was a lawyer. My father was a doctor. He says, you know, what discipline are you going to choose? And I said, well, I was thinking of engineering. And my roommate said, you’re not gonna make that. I mean, you just might as well go home. We walked out of that advisor’s office and I’m like crying. My roommate’s like he’s talking about me. And it turned out, it was really just a challenge. And fast forward, three years later, whatever I’m graduating, I’m getting ready to graduate. I’m going to take the medical school entrance exam, which was in like May and graduations like June or maybe was April, May something along those lines. And you’re supposed to study very hard and be very rested because after the morning sessions, that all day thing after the morning session, your grade is supposed to drop considerably in the second half. You’re exhausted. You’re tired. So I remember going to the Shands teaching hospital in Gainesville and I take the first part of the test and I’d stayed over one of the quarter breaks to study. And I had a lot to remember, cause I had electrical engineering as the way I was getting into a medical school. You had to pick something. And I got an A in that section of physics, it sounded like, why not? Didn’t really have any love for it, but apparently I was good at it. So I’m laying on the picnic table in the Florida sun, trying to relax between the morning session and the afternoon session. And I started thinking of my father the obstetrician who would work for five days straight, come home for an hour. Somebody would go into labor, he’d leave. And I’m thinking, is that really what I want for my, I never even thought about it. It was, doctor was just a thing you hero is like, if I finished this test, I actually might have to be one. And I was thinking, no, I think I’d rather figure out what all the engineering stuff was about. I’ve been introduced to computers and electronics, and I only took introduction to cause everything else was chemistries and things aimed at biology and stuff for the medical school. So I thought, no, I actually want to learn more about that. So I changed my mind, took the rest of the test. I thought it was easy. There was no pressure. It didn’t matter anymore. It didn’t count. I remember buying a six pack and driving home to the house we were living in and I called my parents and I said, mom, dad, I got good news and bad news. Well, what’s the good news son. Well, I thought the test was actually really easy. It was made out to be much harder than I actually experienced. That’s what I think I probably did pretty well. Well, what’s the news. Well, I don’t want to be a doctor anymore. And my mother without hesitation about half a second. Good. You never read directions anyway. We thought you were doing it just for your father. I said, well, okay then. So I ended up abandoning my medical school hopes or plans got a job with Hewlett Packard in a manufacturing role. Actually, I don’t even remember the role yet, but I went off to California to Hewlett Packard. I’d been transferred twice. What I ended up in was a manufacturing role. I don’t even remember what it was I accepted. And it turned out for a kid that had only introduction to, as a background. It gave me a chance to sort of figure out what engineering was about and to learn why things work and how you make more than one of something, which turns out to be a very valuable thing for an engineer, not just make the one offs, but build a product that could be produced reliably and tested and repaired and to solve somebody’s problem. So that manufacturing background, I excelled at it and did well and got invited to join the R&D lab at Hewlett Packard and worked on microprocessor design. And I leveraged that into well, as that was coming into a close talking about serendipity. In the meantime I had married my wife who was from Gainesville and we were living in California. We didn’t have any kids yet. While I was at Hewlett Packard, I got my masters at a local college there and we thought, well, maybe it’s time to move before we have kids and get settled down. I went and interviewed at HP labs in Bristol England and was thinking about moving there. And I didn’t want to be paid as a British citizen. I wanted to be paid as an American abroad. The only one at that lab being paid like that was the division manager. So they weren’t really interested in, in my negotiating a better package. And so then we thought, well, maybe we’ll move to North Carolina. My wife was from Florida, North Florida. I was from central Jersey, coastal New Jersey and Raleigh and North Carolina tech belt. There was halfway between maybe that’s what we should do. And looking at doing that. I practiced interviewing at a local company, which turned out to be sun Microsystems and they had an interest in building some computer graphics. And I realized one being in North Carolina, wasn’t going to help me. It was still a six hour drive to New Jersey or six hour drive to Florida. And it was a six hour flight from California. So in six hours I was going to get home, whichever home we wanted to go to. So I ended up joining sun to work on computer graphics with a gentleman Curtis Curtis. And I did that for six and a half years. We ended up building a graphics accelerator at graphics chips that accelerated the graphics of the sun workstation, which was aimed at professional users and people in the industry happened to be the first windowing system and windows three, one came out from Microsoft and created a consumer window in the system. So I was getting some experience with that. So at sun we learned, I learned the trade of computer graphics. Curtis was the graphics architect. I was the principle chip designer and we made use of a local firm in California that did our CIF manufacturing. And I met the third founder of NVIDIA. So Curtis and I, and this gentleman from a company called LSI logic, decided that we could take what we knew about this professional workstation and apply it to the consumer space because three D graphics was such a compelling medium for telling stories, for communicating, obviously for games, but there really wasn’t much gaming at the time, the Wolfenstein and the like were early games, but they didn’t make use of any acceleration. They just used the programers skill to get the most out of just a generic PC. We came in with a product aim to provide a level of acceleration that will allow the game writer to target something much more powerful. And we brought this workstation technology and style of acceleration to the consumer PC. And it was a great idea. Problem was that we didn’t sell to the game writers. We had to sell to Dell. We had to sell to micron and gateway and, and these other PC manufacturers. So why we created some really great technology. It was a really pretty shitty product and it didn’t help our customer win in their business. And before we ran out of money, we made that recognition and decided, what are we in business for it to succeed or to create cool technology? And we decided, no, we actually wanted to create something. So we went back modified what we did to be in line with how a Dell or micron would win. They had to win PC magazine editor’s choice award. And that means you had to be the facet. You had to be the best at whatever PC mag measured. We could do 3D graphics, but we couldn’t do it at the expense of what they measured, which was 2D graphics. So we ended up building world’s fastest, 2D graphics with 3D and that launched us out of the doldrums and started our ascension to a real company. And these days I know I’m proud to say, I think we’re one of the most important technology companies in the world we’re powering devices from your cell phone and laptops to the world’s fastest, super computers. And we’re at the heart of AI and autonomous vehicles. And it’s been quite a ride. 

James Di Virgilio (10:39): 

That’s an amazing thing. I think what’s really unique about your story is it sounds like if I would have asked your 21 year old self, would you see yourself as an entrepreneur or an inventor or even the word creative, maybe those were three things that you probably would not have applied to yourself. 

Chris Malachowsky (10:55): 

No, and it’s, it’s kind of funny off the three founders of NVIDIA. Two of them had an aspiration to start something. I actually didn’t. But when the opportunity came, I felt like I had nothing to lose. Yeah. We went without salaries for, you know, six months. But, uh, it was a well paid well-respected engineer. And if it didn’t work out, I’d go get another job. We were in an environment where experienced talented engineers or were hireable. I never felt we were real risk. So for me it was like, well, why not? I should want this. Let me give it a try. And it ended up working out quite well. I’m glad I took the leap. 

James Di Virgilio (11:25): 

Yeah. And it’s great to hear you also echo something that I’ve heard countless other entrepreneurs say, which is, you’ll almost never hear someone say that risk was too great. I was worried or I was afraid. It’s something along the lines of what you just mentioned. I looked at the opportunity and I thought, well, whatever happens, this will work out. I’ll find a way to make something of it. 

Chris Malachowsky (11:41): 

I wasn’t worried my family wasn’t going to eat or the kids weren’t going to get shoes next week. But it seemed like something worth trying. I would say this to somebody contemplating, don’t do it for the money. Don’t do it for the glory. Don’t do it for the headlines. The press do it because it’s a passion because it’s too hard. It’s too consuming. It’s too all encompassing to make it work. You can imagine the way you said you’ll be tested. The ways you’ll be pulled and yanked. And the likelihood is it doesn’t work out. I mean, you just got to acknowledge that upfront and not be disappointed, but not let that deter you. If it’s something that’s important to you. And if it’s something that accomplishing will be satisfying in whatever way, then I think it’s worth doing and you’ve got to go into it. Head on. 

James Di Virgilio (12:20): 

Yeah. I think that’s really solid. And you echo another common theme. That’s there is. If you really believe in what you’re doing, if you’re creating something, if you’re crafting something, the failures are learning points and opportunities versus crushing blows. If success is your goal, failure then becomes this measuring stick. That you’re further from it. When you’re building something, it’s just, okay, now we know that’s not great. And in your story, you actually have that exactly moment. 

Chris Malachowsky (12:44): 

I can tell you every major juncture of improvement, profitability, stock, price, market share all was on the heels of some disastrous failure, easy to hang your head in shame and walk away from. And I’m proud of the folks that we have at NVIDIA. I mean, adversity brings out the best of people. If they’re the right people and you just say, Hey, what can we learn from here? How can we be better? How can we make this? Never reflect us again, and each one of them has been a big learning curve. And a matter of fact, when we introduced our first product, the one I described as good technology, but a shitty product. There were something like 35 companies competing with us because we would sell to a board manufacturer and they came and told us they selected us over 35 others. We ended up doing a corporate partnership, but it probably costs us $15 million to develop that first product. And it went into a non-market and if everybody else did this, there was a half a billion dollars being spent to keep us from succeeding in a non-market. And the reality is if we hadn’t failed because we were the first ones out the gate, we hadn’t failed. We had the advantage of being brought into and saying, we can’t buy your product because it doesn’t help us win. You can’t buy your product because it’s not the best at this. We had the wherewithal to say, Oh, well, we built the wrong product. We were full of ourselves looking to their customer that doesn’t help them. And so almost going out of business and internalizing the lessons, made us a better company. And each one of the junctures along our path to here 25 years later is based on some failure that the right people with the right mindset found a way to leverage into strength. 

James Di Virgilio (14:12): 

And when the idea is bigger than our pride than our current knowledge, so that you can make those pivots that you have done. And that’s such an essential, obviously I can tell a piece, not only in your professional life, but I can tell in your personal life that that’s something that you hang your hat on. And I think that’s a truism for not only the most successful creators and innovators, but also people to recognize that, Hey, I don’t know everything. And when something hits the wall here, I can adjust and learn and change, or I can just keep pushing ignorantly into something that’s not going to. 

Chris Malachowsky (14:40): 

It’s also, there’s another lesson here. Surround yourself with the smartest people, be the dumbest one in the room. That’ll help you. They may not be this comfortable because your ego isn’t being stroked and not everybody’s looking to you for every answer, but that makes you more adept and more nimble. And when the pieces fall to the right collection of people, we’ll find a way to reassemble them into something better. You’re not a lone wolf. Cog in the wheel, you got to build the right wheel. 

James Di Virgilio (15:04): 

He is Chris Malachowsky co founder of NVIDIA and a 2019 inductee into the Florida inventors hall of fame. Chris, thank you so much for joining us today. I certainly hope this is part one of a part, two series of conversations between you and I for Radio Cade. I’m, James Di Virgilio. 

Outro (15:22): 

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support Liz Gist of the Cade Museum for coordinating inventor interviews. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing and production of the podcast and music theme. Tracy Collins for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song, featuring violinist Jacob Lawson and special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida. 

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