From a childhood in Surrey to a trailblazing career in the US at the height of Microsoft’s heyday, Nicholas is the Head of Technology taking us forward in our HomeHero mission.
I grew up in Surrey in a family that loved the architecture of computers. My father, my brother and I ended up building our first machines together and I loved the software side from the start.
I later studied computer science at technical college and was faced with a decision to make: to either train as a classical musician or go into software. The path I picked has been a real adventure so far that took me from the UK to many US cities and a short stint on an island.
I set up my first company, selling software for the IBM PC, while doing my degree in Computer Science at Kingston, and simultaneously working for British Gas. The money I was making while studying gave me enough money to buy equipment and fully set up shop. AI and computer graphics have always been my interest and that adventure ultimately ended up taking me to Pixar and setting up a company with one of their founders further down the line.
From London to San Fran via New York
Working in London as software consultant on a pre-release of Windows 1 gradually connected me to people on the West Coast in California and got me interested in getting closer to the source. So I found a software consultancy over there and moved to the US, straight from my parent’s house.
I started off in New York. A few of us were put up in a shared house for a few months, then drove around to finally settle on a home in Northern Jersey. I was there for 3-4 years, working for Merrill Lynch and then Credit Suisse.
I quickly realised I would need to move to San Fran if I wanted to really get involved.
So I drove across the country in my Jeep, in three and a half days. All my worldly belongings were in the car and I had no locks, so I had to tie the doors with ropes to try and protect my stuff. I barely stopped and drove behind large 18 wheel lorries to slipstream behind them and they’d effectively pull you along (but saved on petrol).
The San Francisco Earthquake
It was summer when I arrived in San Fran, aged 26, and shortly after was the first of the earthquakes that year, followed by the biggie in October when the motorway collapsed. I drove across the Bay Bridge for work in the East Bay, so I was right there when it happened. The bridge broke behind me as I drove back to San Francisco and the car had been shaking so I got out to see if the tyres had blown and it turns out it was an earthquake. It’s actually how I met my wife (the earth literally moved). After the quake as my building was on landfill, it buckled and had no power. So I got in my Jeep and drove to somewhere with lights, ended up running into someone I knew at a bar and her best friend ended up becoming my wife, Tyler.
The Early Days of Tech
That was the early days of Windows. I was working in databases and looking for new roles, and ended up interviewing at Pixar, mostly for the graphics focus. I remember watching an episode of the show Horizon on computer graphics which included Dr. Alvy Ray Smith, one of the two co-founders of Pixar, talking about graphics. I was hooked. The day I went to the interview, the lead developer was off so Alvy took the interview and we pretty much hit it off from day one. He became a mentor figure. Steve Jobs then decided to change the focus of the company from graphic technology to making movies. Until then they had only made shorts to demonstrate their technology – like the Tin Man – so this was a big move to longer features. Pixar signed a deal with Disney to do the movies, then Steve split the company.
Setting Up Altamira
At that point Alvy and I broke off to set up a graphics start-up called Altamira, building an image composition app called Composer that introduced new possibilities of what you could do with graphics.
It caught the attention of people at SIGGRAPH (an annual conference on computer graphics). This was the time when Bill Gates was still at the stage of wandering around these sorts of shows. He came to our small demo stand and asked me to demo it on the spot and answer questions. He told someone to take a look and in the end, that company ended up buying us.
So we went from a 6 person company to driving the work of 110 people under the arm of Microsoft, going from a small number of professional users to millions – from a fun project to something quite serious! While at Microsoft I ended up creating the Advanced Authoring Format, a way of transferring media projects from one company to another which was a great achievement for me. We also got to do some work with the early pioneers of VR and the first headsets. In those days they really would make you sick if you used them for more than a minute or two!
Star Wars, Shark Tale and Venice
My next step was investing in and working with a company that was digitising cinema. One of our projects was doing the first digital release of Episode Two of Star Wars. We travelled around Europe and the US presenting the movie and got to stay at Skywalker ranch the day before meeting up with George Lucas to show him examples of the technology. He had thankfully become convinced by the technology and in the end did buy into showing it digitally.
We did some fascinating digital presentations in the testing phases, one example was at the Venice Film Festival, a digital presentation of Disney’s Shark Tale in St Mark’s Square on an 80-foot blow-up screen at the end of the square. There were close to 1000 people, watching in three languages on headsets, so, from the outside, it was a silent screening!
Family Life on the Island
After LA, and a small stint in London, we decided to up and move to Key West, the tiny island end of the Florida Keys. My wife and I had independently read a NY Times article about the magic of the place so we decided to go for it. We lived there for 2 years; it was something. Key West has a very much slower pace of life, effectively like living on a Caribbean Island, living in shorts and t-shirts and not worrying about time. We homeschooled our kids (I took the tech and maths bit) but ultimately moved back to New York for their schooling when we exceeded our abilities and those of online teaching.
I then started another company in New York, doing natural language processing, finding insights in large document archives. We got the attention of NASA, to help with the large number of documents that get published internally. The tech offered a way of exposing and procuring a better search engine for their vast knowledge. It was also used in the Unity game engine store which brought me full circle back to the graphics side of my career. During this time in New York I helped a few other tech startups, contributing my MI & graphics knowledge and experience.
And then HomeHero found me…
I heard what HomeHero was setting out to do and speaking to Kenny convinced me. The story was compelling and there was an opportunity to drive the technology and bring in all the elements I was wanting to explore further in the context of a startup. So here I am, on the brink of an exciting new product!
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