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John Walker, technology executive who popularized AutoCAD, dies at 74| GuyWhoKnowsThings


John Walker, an innovative but reclusive technology entrepreneur and polymath who was founder and CEO of Autodesk, the company that brought the ubiquitous AutoCAD software program to the design and architecture masses, died on February 2 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. . He was 74 years old.

His death, at a hospital, was due to complications from head injuries he suffered in a fall at his home, said his wife, Roxie Walker. His death was not widely reported at the time.

Walker was well known in technology circles, not only for his business triumphs but also for his tremendous skills as a programmer (he was credited with developing one of the first computer virus prototypes) and as a mercurial writer who filled his niche. staff. , Fourmilabwith free reflections on topics as diverse as cryptography, nanotechnology and consciousness studies.

Although he had little taste for advertising, he became a prominent technology mogul of the 1980s and early 1990s as founder of Autodesk Inc., once described as “a hacker theocracy”, which grew to become the sixth largest personal computer software company in the world.

In 1982, he brought together 15 other programming experts to form Autodesk. The company's original product was an office automation program of the same name, but it was a different software product that the company introduced that same year that would send Autodesk into the technology stratosphere.

AutoCAD (CAD stands for computer-aided design) was based on a program called Interact created by Michael Riddle, another founder of the company. With the contributions of Mr. Walker, as well as Greg Lutz, who was also one of the founders, and the rest of the team, AutoCAD would revolutionize industries such as architecture, graphic design, and engineering by allowing design professionals to get rid of of your pencils and paper. and render your creations on a screen using an inexpensive personal computer.

“To him belongs the credit of Second design revolution” wrote California software executive Roopinder Tara in a tribute to Mr. Walker on the Engineering.com site. The “First Design Revolution,” as Tara called it, was the creation of earlier CAD programs that ran on expensive mainframes or minicomputers. But, he wrote, it was with AutoCAD, which “burst onto the scene in 1982, after the arrival of the IBM PC, that the computer really began to fulfill its promise.”

Despite AutoCAD's technological advances, Walker was initially unsure of the product's commercial potential due to its apparently limited group of users. “I mean, just compare the number of architects with the number of people who write documents,” he said in an interview from 2008 published by the site Through the Interface.

“We were of the same opinion as the rest of the industry,” Walker said, “that it's a niche product.”

Their skepticism quickly dissolved when the company introduced the program at the Comdex technology show in Las Vegas in 1982, to an enthusiastic response. “From the day this exhibition opened to the day it closed,” said Mr. Walker, “the stand was absolutely packed; You couldn't get in there. There were lines of people waiting to see it.”

John Wallace Walker was born on May 16, 1949, in Baltimore, the eldest of two children of William Walker, a surgeon, and Bertha (Bailey) Walker, a surgical nurse.

Refusing to follow family tradition and pursue a career in medicine, he attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he initially studied astronomy.

However, once he began working in the university's computer center, his direction became clear. Shortly after graduating with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, he met his future wife, Roxie Smail. The couple married in 1973 and soon headed to California, where Mr. Walker had been offered a job at a computer services company, and he settled in Foster City, south of San Francisco.

Walker, a first-generation hacker, made a splash in 1975 by creating a self-replicating version of a 20 Questions-style computer game called Animal, designed for giant Univac mainframe computers, along with a companion program, Pervade, to disseminate it.

As programmers across the country distributed magnetic tape copies of their game, the only way possible in those pre-Internet days, it quickly “spread to increasingly protected directories in what today is called a 'classic Trojan horse attack'.” Walker wrote in a 1996 recollection on his site. “In 1975, when I thought about it, I just called it 'a good idea.'”

A year later, he tried his hand at entrepreneurship when he founded a company called Marinchip Systemsbuilt around a circuit board he designed and which was based on Texas Instruments TMS9900 microprocessor.

But it was with Autodesk that he would ascend to the upper echelons of the industry. Originally based in Sausalito, California, in the Bay Area, it grew into a multi-million dollar company with thousands of employees.

The idiosyncratic Mr. Walker left his mark on a company that had anything but corporate spirit. A 1992 article in The New York Times described Autodesk under Walker as “a cabal of senior counterculture programmers” who “brought their dogs to work and tried to reach consensus on strategy through endless email memos.” (In those days, email was still a novelty in the business world.)

That same year, The Wall Street Journal obtained a rare interview with Autodesk. “Founding genius.” The resulting article pointed out his quirks, including the fact that he did not allow the company to distribute his photography in any form. The journalist noted that he was touchy during the interview and insisted that it be conducted in front of a video camera, debated every question and claimed copyright for the conversation.

At that time, Mr. Walker was no longer running the company. Having guided the business from a plucky startup to a Silicon Valley powerhouse, he grew tired of day-to-day management and resigned as CEO in 1986, a year after the company went public. He moved to Switzerland in 1991, where he continued to work for the company as a programmer in its advanced research and development division, until 1994.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his brother, Bill Walker.

Outside of the business world, Walker produced articles on all things technology for Fourmilab, as well as publishing original articles. Science fiction stories, recipes with names like “Hackeroni and cheese” and a book called “The hacker diet: How to lose weight and hair through stress and poor nutrition.”

As for life in the upper echelons of the tech industry, he showed little nostalgia.

“In 1977, this the business was funMr. Walker wrote in a book about the history of Autodesk that he posted on his site. “The sellers and buyers were tech savvy like us, they all spoke the same language and knew what was going on.

“Today,” he added, “the microcomputer industry is run by middle management types who know a lot more about profit and loss statements than they do about RAM organization.”


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