John Walker, tech executive who popularized AutoCAD, dies at 74

John Walker, a revolutionary, if reclusive, technology entrepreneur and mathematician who was a founder and chief executive of Autodesk, the company that introduced the ubiquitous AutoCAD software to the design and architectural masses, has died on February 2 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He was 74 years old.

His death, which occurred at the hospital, was caused by complications related to head injuries he suffered in a fall at home, said his wife, Roxie Walker. His death was not widely reported at the time.

Mr. Walker was well known in technology circles, not only for his business triumphs, but also for his unusual skills as a programmer (he is credited with developing an early prototype of the computer virus) and as a as a talkative writer who filled his personal site. , Fourmilabwith free-form reflections on topics as diverse as cryptography, nanotechnology, and consciousness studies.

Although he had little taste for publicity, he became a prominent technology mogul in the 1980s and early ’90s as the founder of Autodesk Inc., once described as ” a hacker theocracy,” which became the sixth largest personal computer software. company in the world.

In 1982, he brought together 15 other maverick programmers to form Autodesk. The company’s original product was an office program of the same name, but it was a different software product that the company introduced that same year that would propel Autodesk into the technological 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 enabling design professionals to leave their pencils and paper behind. and render their creations on a screen using an inexpensive personal computer.

“It is to him that the merit of the Second design revolution“wrote California software executive Roopinder Tara in a tribute to Mr. Walker on Engineering.com. The “first design revolution,” as Mr. Tara called it, was the creation of earlier CAD programs that ran on expensive mainframes or minicomputers. But, he writes, it was with AutoCAD, which “made its appearance in 1982, after the advent of the IBM PC, that the computer really began to deliver on its promise “.

Despite AutoCAD’s technological advances, Mr. Walker was initially uncertain about the product’s commercial potential due to its seemingly limited user base. “I mean, just compare the number of architects with the number of people who write documents,” he said in a 2008 interview published by the Through the Interface website.

“We agreed with the rest of the industry,” Mr. Walker said, “that this is a niche product.”

His skepticism quickly dissipated when the company presented the program at the Comdex technology show in Las Vegas in 1982, drawing an enthusiastic response. “From the day this show opened to the day it closed,” Mr. Walker said, “the booth was absolutely packed; you couldn’t get in there. There were lines of people waiting to see him.

John Wallace Walker was born May 16, 1949, in Baltimore, the eldest of two sons 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 first studied astronomy.

But once he started working at the university’s computer center, his direction became clear. Shortly after earning 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 was offered a job with a computer services company, and settled in Foster City, south of San Francisco. .

A first-generation hacker, Mr. Walker made waves in 1975 by creating a self-replicating version of a 20 Questions-style computer game called Animal, designed for the giant Univac mainframe computers, with a companion program, Pervade, for the broadcast.

As programmers across the country circulated magnetic tape copies of his game, the only way possible in the pre-Internet era, it quickly “spread into increasingly protected directories in this which today we call a “Classic Trojan horse attack” Mr. Walker wrote in a 1996 remembrance on his site. “In 1975, when I thought about it, I just called it a ‘good idea.’ »

A year later, he tasted entrepreneurship by founding a company called Marinchip Systemsbuilt around a circuit board he designed and based on the Texas Instruments TMS9900 microprocessor.

But it is with Autodesk that he will climb the upper echelons of the industry. Originally based in Sausalito, California, in the Bay Area, it has grown into a multi-billion dollar company with thousands of employees.

The idiosyncratic Mr. Walker left his mark on a company that was anything but entrepreneurial. A 1992 New York Times article described Autodesk under Mr. Walker as “a cabal of counterculture senior programmers” who “took their dogs to work and tried to build consensus on strategy through endless memos sent by email.” (At that time, email was still a novelty in the business world.)

The same year, the Wall Street Journal granted a rare interview to the head of Autodesk. “founding genius”. The resulting article noted his quirks, including not allowing the company to distribute his photography in any form. He became irritable during the interview, the reporter noted, and insisted that it take place in front of a video camera, debate every question and claim copyright over the conversation.

By then, Mr. Walker was no longer running the company. After leading the company from a plucky start-up to a Silicon Valley powerhouse, he grew tired of day-to-day management and resigned as chief executive in 1986, a year after listing in company stock exchange. He moved to Switzerland in 1991, where he continued to work for the company as a programmer in the advanced research and development division until 1994.

Besides his wife, he is survived by his brother, Bill Walker.

Outside of the corporate world, Mr. Walker has written about all things technology for Fourmilab, in addition to publishing original articles. Science fiction stories, recipes with names like “Hackeroni and cheese” and a book entitled “The hacker diet: How to lose weight and hair due to stress and poor diet.

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

“In 1977, this business was amusing“, Mr. Walker wrote in a historical Autodesk book that he published on his site. “The sellers and buyers were experienced technicians like us, everyone spoke the same language and knew what was going on.»

“Today,” he added, “the microcomputer industry is run by middle managers who know much more about income statements than they do about RAM organization.”