The ultimate team player

Chippewa Falls, WI -Eighteen years ago, Lou Saye trekked from San Diego to the frigid north woods of Wisconsin to see the world's fastest computer. Saye, then a 31-year-old Convair engineer, arrived unannounced at Cray Research. His only wish was to see the little lab where the super-fast machines were built. Instead, he was greeted by a soft-spoken chief engineer who spent the next 90 minutes quietly expounding on the inner workings of supercomputers.

Saye came away so impressed that he uprooted his family and moved to Chippewa Falls without the promise of employment. "He was approachable, experienced, and enthusiastic in his own quiet way," Saye says of the engineer who talked with him that day. "After I'd met with Les Davis, I knew I wanted to work for Cray Research."

Saye isn't alone. Over the past 23 years, scores of supercomputer engineers have developed a fierce loyalty to Lester T. Davis. As a result, Davis has become the industry's ultimate team builder, an engineer who weaves talent together with the deft touch of an artist. "He's like the conductor of a symphony," says Jerry Brost, retired vice president of engineering for Cray Research. "He knows how to bring all the talent together to create beautiful music."

Davis' knack for team building, combined with his deep understanding of supercomputer technology, has indeed made music for Cray Research. During the past decade, Cray has dominated its industry to a degree matched by few firms in American business history. Last year, it accounted for 75% of supercomputer industry revenues, according to figures from International Data Corp. During that time, it emerged as the leader in massive parallel processing, a niche that it only just joined in 1993. And its grip on the parallel vector side of the business hasn't diminished: Around the world, Cray products accounted for more than 60% of the parallel vector machines sold last year.

Such dominance would have been impossible without Les Davis, say Cray executives. Since the company's founding in 1972, Davis has played a key role in every major machine it has built. He served as chief engineer on the stunningly successful Cray-1, introduced in 1976. He then guided the company's technical efforts on a string of even more successful machines-from the Cray X-MP to the recently introduced Triton-before retiring at the end of 1994.

"His technical contributions are so important, you can't focus on one or two things that he's done," notes former Cray CEO John Rollwagen. "To put it simply, there would be no Cray Research without Les Davis."

Behind the scenes. Davis dismisses such comments, attributing the company's success to intense efforts by its engineering teams. "Today, you can't be the circuit designer, logic designer, and master architect," he says. "It truly takes a team effort."

His assertion is hard to contradict. In the past decade, supercomputing technology has grown astonishingly complex. Operating speeds have climbed to more than 300 billion calculations per second. Integrated circuit (IC) technology has advanced exponentially: In 20 years, Cray Research has graduated from two-gate ICs to 800,000-gate ICs. Circuit


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