Intel graphics driver for Linux, 2018-2020

I joined Intel's Graphics Software Center in April 2018 to manage a team developing the Linux graphics driver for Intel GPUs. The driver was fully open source and developed mostly in the open and up to that point was supporting Intel's line of integrated GPUs, with Chromebooks and Linux laptops as the main targets. However at that time Intel was getting back to the discrete GPU market and the Linux driver was very important for data center customers, so the priority of the project increased as well as attention from management.

It was impossible to say the words "Intel" and "Discrete Graphics" without someone reminding of Larrabee. Larrabee was a previous attempt by Intel to enter the discrete graphics market (which it had left after the xx) and was widely considered to be a great architecture, however it was canned shortly before launch and many people are still sore about it today.

The GPUs (Intel Arc Alchemist, Ponte Vecchio) are out in the market now and supported by the upstream Linux kernel, which is something I am very proud of although I left before any of those products were released.

What I did

I managed a team of 8 made of some very senior and some less senior engineers, all of them experienced and very smart. Aside from the usual people management tasks (1:1s, performance reviews, hiring, target setting, career development) I spent a considerable amount of time on project management tasks: communicating with other teams, reporting to management and keeping track of our commitments.

I think I was able to foster a good team spirit and integrating even the most stubborn open source devotees with the rest of the company. I'm particularly proud of the people I was able to promote, which took a lot of time not just during the performance review period, but also during the year in terms of highlighting people's achievements and ensuring that when the performance review did come, those who made the final approval knew what each individual had done and why they should be promoted.

After years of open source projects disconnected from Intel's core business, it was great to get close to the hardware and see "how the sausage is made". I learned a lot about the hardware and the architecture of the GPUs, whcih by now had become massively parallel general purpose processos.

Unfortunately with higher stakes also came a lot more politics and conflicts. Because the driver was open source, it was heavily influenced by outside forces like the Linux kernel and driver maintainers. The rest of Intel couldn't understand why we were not free to define our own techincal solutions and schedule, while the open source team refused to look at Intel's internal developement efforts that were considered technically inferior. And even within the open source team there were plenty of disagreements and conflicts that eventually wore me out.

What I learned

After many years of project management, this was my first stint as an engineering manager and I liked it a lot. I worked with the best engineers I have ever met, some of them truly 10 or 20x and I helped other members of the team grow and be promoted. I found true satisfaction in this, and the best memory I have taken from that time was when I left and one of my reports thanked me for "being an excellent manager, the best I've had, and I've had a few". As far as I know, they still use the name "teambale" for their IRC channel :)

Technically this was the most challenging job I've ever had. The Linux kernel is not something you get into easily, and neither is graphics (although at the kernel level there wasn't much graphics involved, mostly managing buffers and threads). I really tried to get hands-on, but it was too much. I learned to admit my shortcomings and rely on my colleagues who knew much more than me. I still tried to learn, and discovered great books like Mike Abrash's Graphics Black Book and Fabien Sanglaard Game Engine Black Book series.

One painful lesson was that I should have used the trial period better. I made the classic mistake of not setting clear goals for a new hire during the trial period, and ended up with an underperformer that it was very difficult to get rid of.

Another painful lesson was that I should never estimate tasks or agree plans without the team. I tried to shield the team from all the bureaucracy and meetings involved in planning, but the end result was that the plans were too optimistic and high-level. I should have been more transparent and involved the team in the planning process.