SGI was a great place to work, ex-NZ manager says

Its technology was brilliant, but the market moved on, says SGI veteran

Scott Houston, business development manager at the NZ Supercomputer Centre and CEO of cloud computing provider Intergrid, worked for SGI from 1999 to 2002, first as account manager then New Zealand regional manager.

He says back then SGI’s cutting edge animation and virtual reality technology was what attracted him to the company.

“I had the privilege of going to SGI’s headquarters at Mountain View and they had reality centres that were like the holodeck in Star Trek.”

Much of what SGI made then has now been commoditised, he says, “but in its day, it had leading-edge graphics technology. I worked for them because they were pioneers with virtual reality in the 1990s.”

However, virtual reality “wasn’t a killer app – it had the promise of being a new wave of computing technology, but it didn’t happen”.

A highlight for him while working for the company was a trip to Seoul that involved experiencing digitised 3D smell.

During his time there, “the company was going through changes. A lot of the history and culture was very high-end and proprietary, as opposed to a commodity.

“The key nail in the coffin for SGI was that the Maya software platform in the ‘80s and ‘90s only ran on Irix, SGI’s version of Unix.

“SGI spun Maya off in a management buyout and it was ported to Linux.

“That was the beginning of the end. Customers chose the app and not the platform.”

(Maya was also ported to Windows and Mac OS X).

The company had a huge presence in the media and film industries, “but it was also very strong in the defence sector – many flight simulators were based on SGI”, Houston says.

At the end of the day, “technology caught up and SGI hasn’t been profitable”.

Another New Zealander who held a senior management role at SGI during its better days is current HP NZ managing director Keith Watson.

He was executive vice president for worldwide sales and marketing at SGI from 1998 to 2000. He returned to New Zealand in 2000 and in 2004 took up the HP MD role.

Even during Watson’s time at SGI, the markets it served were beginning to move towards commoditised hardware and software, as can be seen in a 1998 article in Computerworld Singapore, for which Watson was interviewed.

The article reported on SGI’s initiative that year to move key products to the Windows/Intel platform.

In it, Watson is quoted as saying: “The Unix workstation market is not growing at this time… affecting gross margins and pricing pressures.

“The troubles at SGI are related to that,” he said at the time.

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