Meeting with one of the major contributors to the Université Côte d’Azur Foundation

Interview with Dr. Franck DIARD, Distinguished Computer Engineer

Can you describe yourself in a few words?

My full name is Franck DIARD. I have been working for 20 years for the American company NVIDIA, a company founded in 1993 in San Jose, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. I started as basic engineer working on visual computing techniques, graphics cards among others, and I became the first Distinguished Engineer in the company’s software department (the equivalent of a vice-president in the technical ladder) and I was also awarded the title of Master Inventor (a level of internal recognition within the company). This success is the result of my hard work, dedication and passion, but I also owe it to a few lucky breaks.

When I started at NVIDIA in California, there were a dozen companies specializing in graphics and PC components. Today, there are only three companies left and NVIDIA is one of them. The company has been steadily gaining market shares over the past 20 years (80%). NVIDIA now has 20,000 employees and boasts a market capitalization of US $350 billion. At NVIDIA, we still do PC graphics, video game graphics, and professional computing, but we have diversified our activities into Data Centers, which, as you know, make up the infrastructure of the computing centers: they are the lifeblood of everything that is happening online right now. It’s a sector that is all the more essential as remote working has becoming more widespread and their use is also widespread in supercomputers for A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), which is particularly hungry for such technologies.

In my opinion, NVIDIA is an important driver of innovation. In California, engineers are very well-paid and the budgets for applied R and D (Research and Development) are very large, which is highly motivating. In addition, there are very few barriers there for motivated employees who have the drive to move forward. Another factor that worked in my favor was my Ph.D., which is still highly prized in the U.S. to this day: it made it easier for the company to hire me. Also, U.S. companies know how to reward engineers who significantly contribute to their success by increasing their salaries substantially each year and by awarding them a stock package that increases with the company’s growth but whose yearly amount is always correlated to the employee’s performance. In such a working environment, there is no question of taking our foot off the gas! The value of the ingenuity of our work and the degree of engineer perseverance are clearly more taken into consideration. As a matter of fact, the engineer is the one who generates most of the technical innovation and makes it all work, even if it means sitting in front of his or her screen for forty hours in a row, eating cold pizza and drinking gallons of bad coffee! In a word, I managed to reach my financial situation and the recognition of my peers by working for the company without counting the cost of effort. NVIDIA is an organization that knows how to recognize what it owes to its engineering teams: I am today « Chief SW Architect », but also, above all and always, an unwearable and pragmatic Swiss Army knife.

I have to my credit 100 published patents and I must say that invention is still a very exciting field for me: solving problems, doing things better and faster, more cheaply and more easily are the engines of my motivation. In parallel, I also regularly conduct debugging missions: this is a real Sherlock Holmes job to solve several problems embedded in complex digital systems. I’m always ready to roll up my sleeves with our team, at all levels, to make things work: untangling technical knots for days on end is what keeps me grounded, what gives me the necessary clarity to the ideas and projects that naturally come next.

You are a Université Côte d’Azur (UCA) graduate. Could you tell us a bit about your academic career?

I am a Doctor of Science (Engineering Sciences) from UCA: I defended my thesis in 1998. I embraced my entire academic career, sometimes laboriously, at the university; a path highlighted by opportunities but also fraught with difficulties that have forged my character. Prior to the university, I modestly took and passed my French Baccalauréat in Champagne-Ardennes, then I completed a French DUT (Diplôme Universitaire de Technologie) in computer science while being the regular tenant of an inevitable university dorm room in Reims… What was a revelation for me as well as a great opportunity was that at the end of the curriculum of the French IUT (Institut Universitaire de Technologie), remarkable students and research professors of the LERI (Laboratoire d’Etude et de Recherches Informatiques, Reims) programmed software that generated spectacular computer graphics. I immediately fell in love with this kind of activity. My fellow students and myself spent many nights coding! At that time, there was no Internet and as a result, you had to do it all by yourself: we had to manage, search, experiment, investigate options relentlessly, solve problems ourselves and with others. Granted, we were not pure geniuses, but in the 90’s, we developed this spirit of analysis and investigation specific to computer science, sometimes by assembling very advanced systems ourselves. We had gumption, courage, an open mind as well as humility and a big memory, which allowed us to produce thousands of hours of work! We also learned to work under pressure with little means: it was an experience that served me well later in life.

After this Master’s I – a first of 2 years in French academics – that I obtained in Reims, I succeeded in being selected in the Master’s II « Artificial Vision and Robotics » program in 1994, whose courses were given in the premises of Polytech Sophia-Antipolis, one of the campuses of the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis. While the top students of the class were leaving to carry out their mandatory French military service, I was injured in a basketball accident; I was as a result exempted from the military service. Here again, life gave me a nice helping hand: I managed to get a thesis grant, which is providential for a student of modest means such as myself. After three years of thesis devoted to parallel computing for image synthesis and to teaching at Polytech, I chose to go to the United States. I’ll skip a lot of the details, but life in Silicon Valley is not always the dream you might imagine. Being French doesn’t really help, especially since at the time, our proficiency level in English at the university was absolutely miserable. But, again thanks to Lady luck, I was recruited into the right company, NVIDIA, which was practically unknown at the time. After a few months of very difficult adaptation, I switched from working on the Unix system to the Windows PC, which was unknown to me at that time. I was able to develop technologies that contributed greatly to the company’s growth, such as SLI in 2005, OPTIMUS in 2009 and GeForceNOW in 2015.

What is your motivation for making a donation to the UCA Foundation?

In 2011, I came back to France because I wanted a better quality of life for my family. When growing up in the school of Jules Ferry with the values of « Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité », blending into American society can sometimes be difficult in the long run, even though it’s great to work and have a meteoric rise to professional success. I believe I maximized my education in France, and then for the ensuing twelve years, I valued my education in the United States, where everything moves fast there, by European standards while I had previously enjoyed a virtually free education until I was 28 in France, which for Americans is a dream. Even if I owe my success to NVIDIA, I must also acknowledge the importance the education that France funds through the scholarship system for French students from modest backgrounds. In the United States, successful Alumni make what they call a « donation » to their universities – a gift of money by French standards – even though these former students turned professionals paid for very costly studies and went deep into debt for them. In fact, it’s a very Anglo-Saxon form of philanthropy. With my donation, I hope to help import this practice in my country of origin. In France, private companies tend to predominantly contribute to grants with donations, but this is usually too little, and it is a pity because I am not the only former student who owes his professional success in part to the university. Through the initiative of my donation, I hope that other successful professionals will seize this opportunity to contribute to the development of academic patronage.

How easy is it to make a donation to the Foundation?

I called some former ESSI (Ecole Supérieure en Sciences Informatiques) colleagues who also graduated from UCA to brainstorm with them on the best way to proceed. I wanted everything to be simple on the administrative level, so that my donation would be really useful. The president of the foundation, Mr. Eric DUMETZ and the director of Polytech, Mr. Alexandre CAMINADA assured me that the steps leading to the distribution of the funds would be rigorously planned. They also gave me the certainty that I would retain the right to monitor and advise on the use of the 400,000 euros that I am making available to Polytech over four years, via the UCA Foundation, aimed at research and education. What matters to me is to actively contribute to the development of computer graphics, robotics and A.I., and that this donation be actively used to move faster with far fewer constraints than with general budgets. We came up with a list of actions to implement including: organizing conferences with quality speakers, organizing computer coding competitions, buying equipment for a virtual reality room, for an A.I. supercomputer and for funding theses dealing with A.I.. I must say in this respect that my thesis grant has helped me tremendously: if I had not benefited from this funding, my life would not have been what it is today; I would not have had this exciting position, the financial comfort and the intellectual happiness that I have experienced every day at NVIDIA for the past twenty years.

Photographie : (c) DR