This is an extraordinary three hour conversation with Dave Cutler, grandmaster designer of computer operating systems, responsible for Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) RSX-11M timesharing system, VAX/VMS, and the VAXELN real-time system. He joined Microsoft in 1988 as the principal architect of Windows NT and led the project to create a 64 bit version of Windows, then Windows XP Pro 64 and Windows Server SP1 x64. Later, he was lead developer of the Azure Services Platform upon which Microsoft’s Azure cloud service is based, and after that worked on the host operating system of the Xbox One game console.
In this conversation with Dave Plummer of Dave’s Garage (and creator of Windows Task Manager), he discusses all of this and more, including Intel’s trying to hire him for their doomed iAPX 432 project, Microsoft’s deliberate decision to ship shoddy software in the consumer sector because “they don’t expect the quality of server customers”, and his adventures in open-wheel auto racing.
I did not know that Dave Cutler was, like me, an old Univac hand. The first operating system on which he worked was EXEC II [PDF] on the Univac 1107 [PDF] at DuPont, his first employer. He later used a Univac 1108 [PDF], where he was amazed by the quality of the code generated by the Fortran compiler [PDF] developed for Univac by Computer Sciences Corporation. Like me, it was Univac EXEC II that hooked him on operating systems, and set him on the path of his career.
This is a long video, but if you’re interested in operating system internals, the historic systems he designed, how DEC and Microsoft developed software, how to design and deliver reliable software and why some companies fail or do not even try to do so, fads in the hardware and software arenas which are now thankfully forgotten, and how software architecture is shaped by the constraints of available computer power, budget, and time to market, this interview will keep you on the edge of your seat. I believe he detests G. Pascal Zachary almost as much as I do.
Now 81, Dave Cutler is still programming.