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Oral History of Dave Cutler Part 1

Computer History Museum · Youtube · 84 HN points · 3 HN comments
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Youtube Summary
Interviewed by Grant Saviers on 2016-02-25 in Medina, WA X7733.2016
© Computer History Museum

Dave Cutler (Microsoft Senior Technical Fellow) reviews his youth and never having touched a computer even through college. He then joined Dupont as a technical writer and became interested in developing a GPSS application for a Dupont customer. That led to his volunteering to fix bugs in EXEC-II operating system on the Univac 1108 at Dupont Research Station and his first exposure to computer operating systems. Knowing that computer operating systems were what he wanted to do, he then joined Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and developed several versions of the PDP-11 RSX-11 operating system and a PL-1 compiler. He was a key member of the VAX architecture development group and led the development of VMS including doing much of the coding himself.

Frustrations with DEC management indecision about the future of processor architectures and operating systems led to his establishment of the DECwest Research Center in Seattle with support from Gordon Bell. Dave assembled a large team to develop a VAX successor to RISC machine and VMS successor operating system (Mica and Prism).

Subsequent to DEC cancelling those projects and some efforts with his colleges towards starting his own company, Dave joined Microsoft at the urging of Steve Ballmer. There he developed the NT operating system, navigating multiple user interface additions, porting to several processor platforms and producing several releases. NT is currently the kernal of all Microsoft O/S.
Following NT Dave changed his focus and made significant contributions to the Azure cloud computing environment. Dave discusses his management style and philosophy of software development and some analogies to his career of racing high performance cars. He reflects on the state of processor development and the future of major operating systems.

Currently, he is contributing to the X-Box after developing the hypervisor for that product line. Dave is a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, a Fellow of the Computer History Museum and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Many consider Dave Cutler one of the computer industry’s most preeminent and prolific engineers.

* Note: Transcripts represent what was said in the interview. However, to enhance meaning or add clarification, interviewees have the opportunity to modify this text afterward. This may result in discrepancies between the transcript and the video. Please refer to the transcript for further information -

Visit for more information about the Computer History Museum's Oral History Collection.

Lot number: X7733.2016
Catalog number: 102717162
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Jun 24, 2022 · 64 points, 19 comments · submitted by localhost
The guy who was behind VMS (the OS for the VAX-11 series) and Windows NT-3.51 - Microsofts first native 32 bit operating system. Spent some of his money going Formula Atlantic racing when most people his age would be looking at bowling balls and golf carts. Absolutely amazing guy whose name almost no one knows.
The first version of Windows NT (which was, of course, native 32-bit) was 3.1 (to match the contemporary version of vanilla Windows).
Absolutely one of the best kernel developers to have ever existed on this planet. Working with him was terrifying (not only because of how good he is, but also because of him being a notorious grumpy asshole)
AFAIK after internally championing the amd64 port of Windows, he went on to azure where he's been one of main architects.
Funny story: Years ago I was one of the first recipients of an AMD64 box at Microsoft because I was working on a build system that cross-compiled for that and IA64. I asked the internal DL where to get a build of Windows for it, and (possibly ham-handedly) mentioned it was a doorstop until I could get one. Anyway, Cutler called me an asshole. Good times.
Cutler *hated* Intel (and probably still does) and pushed any alternative incredibly hard, he is the reason that Windows calls this architecture "amd64".
well, it's AMD's architecture, and Intel licenses it.
This is entirely wrong. Microsoft calls it "amd64" for the same reason that everyone calls amd64: AMD developed it at a time (~1999) that Intel had convinced itself that its 64-bit future was with Itanium, not x86. It was not until Intel's Yamhill project (~2003) that Intel ceded to AMD's ISA lead (and Itanium's relative failure in the market) and... implemented amd64. But by then, every operating system had support for AMD's architecture -- and the ISA's name was not up for renegotiation.
Perhaps someone ex-Intel can comment, but there was a story within Microsoft that Intel proposed a different x86 derived 64-bit architecture after AMD64, but Microsoft didn't want to support two x86-64 ISAs and that put pay to Intel's proposal. There was also talk at Microsoft about having input into the AMD64 design, but no idea what the details were there exactly.
All of this is right, but I was more referring to Microsoft sticking with the name "amd64" when most other platforms have moved to the name x86_64. The reason, according to my former colleagues at Microsoft who worked with davec, was to be petty against Intel. In most of Intel's documentation at the time, they referred to this architecture as "EM64T" rather than admit it came from a competitor
To be completely accurate he wasn't really "the guy behind VMS". He worked on a version of VMS. I think he was on the wrong coast to be a key player in the original development of VMS.
It certainly seems like he was there from the beginning (and it was built to be compatible with RSX-11M which he was the lead for):

"In April 1975, Digital Equipment Corporation embarked on a project to design a 32-bit extension to its PDP-11 computer line. The hardware component was code named Star; the operating system was code named Starlet. Roger Gourd was the project lead for VMS. Software engineers Dave Cutler, Dick Hustvedt, and Peter Lipman acted as technical project leaders.[29] The Star and Starlet projects culminated in the VAX-11/780 computer and the VAX/VMS operating system. The Starlet project's code name survives in VMS in the name of several of the system libraries, including STARLET.OLB and STARLET.MLB.[30] VMS was mostly written in VAX MACRO with some components written in BLISS.[10]"

In 2000, Microsoft exec Chris Peters ‘went bowling’ by buying the PBA (Professional Bowlers Association) - which is probably not the idea you were trying to convey

Microsoft money was weird at the end of the 90s

He's 80, and as far as I know he's still checking in code at Microsoft.

And people think that software engineers are over the hill at 35, or 40. Feh.

"Show Stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows" is one of those books I got from the library and could barely do anything else until I finished the book. Highly recommended if you have not already read it. Maybe time for a re-read.

I do remember the story of one Microsoft programmer who spent weeks if not months struggling and working on the task of drawing a window on screen. Remember they did not have any Windows MFC APIs. They were writing the APIs.

I interviewed Larry Osterman on my podcast [1] and at 19:35 he talks about his time on the Windows NT team and hanging out with Greg Zachary, the author of Show Stopper, at his house in Berkeley. There's also Helen Custer who came along with Cutler to help document the creation of NT.

Lots of other fun stories from Larry's time on that team. I kind of regret not asking him about Cutler. Maybe next time!


Larry Osterman is one of the Jeopardy questions to “Who’s worked at Microsoft longer than Bill Gates”

I worked with him at what turns out to have been towards the start of his time at Microsoft. Lots of great stories even then

Agreed -- this book is mesmerizingly good. Last year, we had a discussion of "Show Stopper!" with G. Pascal Zachary that also featured Jessamyn West, daughter of Tom West (of "Soul of a New Machine" fame)[0]. It was a fascinating discussion (technical difficulties with Twitter Spaces aside!).


My favorite details from the book:

The project got slowed down because Microsoft management allowed the Presentation Manager to be written in C++. Nobody on the team was familiar with the language and being the early 90s it was still immature. The 'rewrite it in Rust' of its time.

It's a book old enough that the concept of email has to be explained to the reader, as well as why Gates would spend so much time checking his email.

Jun 06, 2022 · 6 points, 0 comments · submitted by tambourine_man
Jun 04, 2021 · 7 points, 1 comments · submitted by teh_klev
Part 2 is here:

Dec 28, 2020 · 2 points, 0 comments · submitted by mariuz
>It was really really stable.

Windows 2000 was the last version of the NT branch where Dave Cutler was in charge. He's a legend for a reason.

Computer History Museum long form interviews:

Part 1 Part 2

Official PDF transcript:

Three hours of interviews with Cutler for the Computer History Museum:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Nov 10, 2018 · 3 points, 0 comments · submitted by lacey
Oct 12, 2018 · 2 points, 0 comments · submitted by Supermighty
why don't you get you Chase Sapphire Master Card. It will help you alot
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