Engineering alum talks about Xbox 360, PS3 work
In 2001, UK alum David Shippy was asked by IBM to head of a team of engineers developing a new microchip to power Sony’s planned PlayStation 3 game console. “I built a world-class design team,” he said, and for the next two years Shippy and the team “worked together, played together, ate dinner together, and went to parties together.” The team worked on a version IBM’s PowerPC chip design, adapting it to their needs. They were building one of the most powerful computer processors around, and he loved every minute of it.
Then in 2003, things changed: Microsoft approached IBM about creating a chip for its planned Xbox 360 console, and Shippy was asked to head that team as well. “I felt like I was betraying the partners at Sony I’d been working with,” he said. “I felt like a double agent, like a spy behind enemy territory.” After finishing work on both chips, Chippy went on to write The Race for a New Game Machine, a book about his experiences, which was published last year.
Shippy spoke the challenges he faced at a reading from the book, which he coauthored with Mickie Phipps, on Friday, Feb. 19 as part of preparations for the College of Engineering’s annual E-day event. A 1983 electrical engineering graduate of the College of Engineering, Shippy stressed the importance of good communication as a skill needed by any aspiring engineering professional.
It was certainly an asset to him while he attempted to navigate the dangerous waters of building two nearly-identical processors for rival companies. “I had all the knowledge of the inner workings of the PlayStation 3, but when Microsoft came in I couldn’t mention any that intellectual property,” he said. Likewise, when dealing with Sony engineers Shippy was bound by nondisclosure agreements not to reveal any of Microsoft’s secrets.
Shippy also stressed the importance of passion and drive, especially in a business context, noting that despite a Sony’s two-year head start Microsoft was able to beat them to market with the Xbox 360 in 2005. Entrepreneurs need to envision their goals and have a positive attitude, Shippy said, in order to attract positive results.
In The Race for a New Game Machine, which has been favorably reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek and video game web site GamaSutra, Shippy writes of the stress of walking the tightrope between the two corporations and the challenges he faced united a multinational team of Japanese, German and American engineers.
When both company’s engineers realized they were working alongside their rival’s, there were some tense feelings. “There were a lot of secret meetings and knowing stares,” Shippy said. “Eventually, though, everyone put on their engineer hat and started trying to find the best solution and forgot about who they worked for.”
Shippy said he wrote the book for two reasons. “Simply because it was a cool story that had to be told,” he said. Second, because he wanted to inspire future students to go into a technical field. “Engineering is exciting. It’s fun work. I want to encourage people to follow the path I followed,” he said.
Shippy encouraged the engineering students present to take writing and communication courses in order to make themselves more well-rounded. “Communication is everything,” he said. “Being able to write and being about to communicate well is very important in your engineering career.” In addition to the book, Shippy has written documentation, patents and technical papers over his career. “I also process over 100 e-mails a day,” he said. “And e-mail is all about clarifying your ideas and passing them on to others.”
Today, Shippy works for AMD, another processor maker. In addition to the PowerPC-based processors in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, he also had a hand in designing the chips in Nintendo’s Wii console. He also spent time with Intrinsity, a microprocessor development company that helped Samsung create highly efficient chips to power the company’s media-rich smartphones. His work in designing high-performance computer chip technology also encompasses microprocessor designs for notebook computers, desktop computers, high-end servers and mainframes that have helped change the way people play, work and live.
Shippy’s talk and reading is the second annual lecture to focus on writing by an engineer leading up the College of Engineering’s E-day event. E-day, short for “Engineers Day,” is a daylong celebration of everything engineering has to offer, hosted by the University of Kentucky. College groups host contests for high, middle and elementary school students and representatives from nearly 40 companies and government agencies provide activities for students of all ages. E-day comes at the end of Engineers Week, a national event dedicated to promoting math and science literacy and ensuring a diverse and well-educated future engineering workforce.
Shippy closed his talk by encouraging students to join outside organizations to build their communication skills while still in school. “Find people who can mentor you and organizations where you can work with teams,” he said. “It’s not just the bullet points on your resume that matter, but your ability to communicate well with others.”