Conquering Complexity: An Interview With Codeplay’s Andrew Richards

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After the news that Codeplay’s new Research & Development division was opening, we sat down with the company’s CEO and founder, Andrew Richards to find out more about the company, what they do and their plans to make the future of interactive graphics ever more impressive…

Scottish Games Network: Introduce yourself and give us a little background

Andrew Richards: I started my career in the 8-bit days writing games for the ZX Spectrum from home, progressing up to writing large console games on the Sega Megadrive and PlayStation. I then decided I was interested in producing new technology for game developers to enable them to do new things. It was becoming possible to do some interesting new things on the graphics hardware that was being introduced. So I started a company to develop technology to let programmers take software they had written for normal computers and run it on new graphics-capable computers. It seemed like an interesting revolution that was about to happen. That was more than a decade ago and to be honest, it took a bit longer than I expected to happen!

SGN: Can you explain in layman’s terms exactly what it is Codeplay does?

Andrew Richards: Programmers write software in a programming language. You will hear programmers talk about languages like C or Java. Those languages need to be translated into a language the machine understands: the ones and zeros of binary computer language. So, what we do is produce automatic translation software that translates from human-readable programming languages to machine-readable binary instructions. The technique has been around since Grace Hopper wrote the first compiler in the 50s. She had got bored of having to translate everything by hand. What is different about Codeplay is that we produce compilers for processors that were originally designed just to do graphics. Because our eyes can take in so much information, the processors for graphics have become much more powerful than the CPUs, or Central Processing Units that have been around since the early days of computers.

Andrew Richards - CodeplaySGN: Why is Codeplay’s work important to the games and interactive sectors?

Andrew Richards: Gamers are really excited by the latest graphics because it lets us go into richer, more interesting worlds. But what is also interesting is how many people play games on their phones. To be able to have interesting graphics on a phone without destroying the battery or burning a hole in your hand requires chips that are extremely power efficient. It is stunning what can be achieved with today’s low-power smartphone chips. But to get so much processing into very low power consumption puts even harder challenges on us as compiler developers. The machine language becomes more complex, so the translation from programming languages to machine language gets tougher.

SGN: Can you reveal any of the companies you’ve worked with in the recent past?

Andrew Richards: We can say that we are doing research into future graphics and games technologies with other small European R&D companies: Geomerics, AIGameDev.com and ThinkSilicon. That work is along with some universities as well: TU Berlin and Uppsala.

We can’t name recent customers. We have mostly been working on high-end mobile graphics. But we also work on various special projects as well.

SGN: How is the industry changing from Codeplay’s point of view?

Andrew Richards: Everything is being made smaller, lighter, lower power. The biggest business impact of this is that computers used to be built out of lots of specialist chips, of which the CPU was the most complex, and the GPU was second. Now, the GPU is the most complex but usually everything is being integrated into a single chip, which means that it must be manufactured by just one company. For one company to produce one massively complex chip to do everything is a stunningly complicated project, so often companies licence in designs (“Intellectual Property”, or “IP”) from specialist design companies like Arm or Imagination Technologies. This is changing the business dynamics of the industry very rapidly.

IOS camera iconSGN: What new technologies do you think will disrupt or change the interactive industry?

Andrew Richards: We now have very thin and light devices (phones or tablets) with incredible graphics power. They can do incredible games, but touchscreens are odd for complex games. I can’t see most people plugging normal game controllers into their phones, so I think we need a better way to control these games. A lot of interest right now is in using the cameras for interfaces based on the device being able to “see” you, but I’m not sure anyone has worked this out yet. How can you let people make gestures at their phones without feeling like lunatics?

SGN: What are your plans for the future of the company?

Andrew Richards: We are currently a very well-respected expert group in our area. As the technology we work on becomes more important, we are growing but only in a way where we can ensure new people can learn the skills and fit into our friendly close-knit team. Right now, this growth is working out very well for us. This lets us deliver what our customers need right now as well as research what they might need in the future.

SGN: What sort of people are you looking for?

Andrew Richards: You can’t hire experienced people in our field. We have been doing this longer than anyone else, so we need to train new people to work in our technology area. That means we’re looking for smart, motivated people who are willing to learn. We also need to work fast: these systems are designed very fast. And we need to work in teams: no-one can understand all the different technologies we work with, so we put different specialists in a room together. We like to be a nice, friendly place to work, without people micro-managing (you can’t manage closely in our field) so we need people who can thrive in that kind of environment.

SGN: What would you say to someone interested in joining Codeplay?

Andrew Richards: We are looking for people who really love building complex software and taking on new challenges. This means we are interested in the projects that people have done in the past, especially projects they have decided to do because they wanted to, not because they were told do. We love what we do and we’re looking for other people who will love this kind of environment and challenge as well.

investors in peopleSGN: Why would a tech company secure Investors In People accreditation?

Andrew Richards: We don’t have a traditional management structure. What we do is so complicated we can’t see how someone trained as a “manager” could manage one of our projects. So instead, we look to develop those kinds of skills in our staff. The same goes for sales: our customers have very complex demands and they like to speak to the person who will be responsible for delivering the solution. So we are training our developers to be able to take customers through a sales process, although not a hard-sell, but instead helping our customers to produce a plan that will get them the result they want. The Investors In People programme has helped us develop our ability to develop our staff skills.

 

 

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