in Carlos Icaza

The Warnock Algorithm or, rather, the Warnock Influence

John Warnock (co-founder of Adobe) is not just known for being the mind behind Adobe, PostScript, and Acrobat. Prior to Adobe, he worked for Xerox PARC and was one of the foremost scientists in leading the effort for JaM (“J” being John; “M” being Martin Newell, famous for the Utah Teapot), the precursor to PostScript. We all know the Xerox PARC story. This is not about Xerox. Read John’s first document on Acrobat, codenamed Camelot.

Even before Xerox, John Warnock was already famous. He was known for the Warnock Algorithm, a hidden surface removal algorithm published in most computer science graphics books. Imagine having an algorithm named after you. That’s impressive.

He comes from an elite group of distinguished graphics pioneers that studied at theUniversity of Utah. From Martin Newell, to PhongGouraudAlan KayEd Catmull (Pixar), Jim Clark (SGI, Netscape), Jim Blinn (NASA), Kajiya, and others. The advances we see today in movies like Toy Story and Avatar comes from the early research papers most of these folks wrote in the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s. Seriously, you have to check out Blinn’s bump mapping work and some early papers on fur rendering by Kajiya.

So, let’s party like it’s 1999. Here I was, a nobody, (heck, I still am a nobody!), a number at an office, a four-digit employee at Adobe. I had been working for them for almost three years and I’d just started working in the Illustrator group. Here I was sitting down, probably a week into the Illustrator group, staring at a 21” NEC CRT monitor full of windows of code and trying to find my way around it. I was facing the south side, and I had my back to the door when I heard footsteps and a knock on the door. It was Illustrator’s director of engineering. And what happened next, left me with an indelible mark.

It goes something like this:

Dave (Director of Engineering): Carlos what are you working on?
Me: Learning the code.
Dave: Well, I have a project for you that’s rather important.
Me: Uhh… Okay. *GULP*

[Butterflies and nervousness start to creep in. A project of importance — will I be able to deliver? What if I have no clue how this project works, and how it is put together???]

Dave: John Warnock wants to know why we don’t have a color picker in Illustrator.
Me: The John Warnock?
Dave: He just got off the phone with me and wants the Color Picker in Illustrator ASAP. I figured it would be a good way for you to break into the code.

[I s*** my pants]

Dave: Don’t worry. It’s just John.
Me: But, but, I don’t know how to …
Dave: Look, you’ve done this a thousand times. It should be relatively easy.
Me: Okay.
Dave: E-mail John and you two can figure it out. [Exits.]
Me: [I look and feel like I just saw a ghost, while continuing to s*** my pants.

That was it!

That was the moment that Warnock crystallized for me just how in-touch he was with his products and his engineers. It epitomized for me the “Warnock Influence.” He would roam the hallways at Adobe and chat with engineers. He would pop his head into an office and start talking with the engineer as if they had known each other for years. Chuck Geschke(Adobe co-founder) would do the same. A former co-worker during my Illustrator years came to my office one day and was in shock that Chuck had just called him after finding a bug in his SVG export code. It was not unusual to be sitting in the Adobe cafeteria, having lunch, and having John or Chuck come sit at your table and smack-talk.

I refer to the Color Picker story above often as an example of a founder who was passionate about his products as much as he was about his company and his employees. In another episode (not involving Warnock), I was at an event with that same Director of Engineering and, when introducing him, I said I work for him. He corrected me, simply saying “No, we work together.

Coincidentally, Dave Lazarony — that now-former Director of Engineering for Illustrator(who later became one of the individuals responsible for making the Adobe Creative Suite) — currently sits on our advisory board and has been my mentor for a number of years. We first met around 1990 at a puny little company in Miami called Deneba Software (nowACDSee), makers of Canvas, a former competing product against Illustrator. I credit him with quite a bit of stuff, as it was him who pushed me to submit my resume to Adobe and eventually get where I am today. :-)

Today, I don’t have people working for me — I work for my co-workers!  My job is to facilitate and do whatever it takes to allow them to execute on their job tasks to their fullest potential, and empower them to grow and make decisions independently. And, above all, I get my hands dirty. I build, debug, add features, and fix bugs on our code base.

All thanks to an industry giant for teaching me a life lesson.

* EDIT: Someone asked how did the Color Picker turned out? Here it is. *

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