I'm on my way to the stage at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference to buttonhole a chip designer who's just finished a presentation when someone taps my elbow. A tall, buff, 50-something man with a goatee and shaved head fixes me with crystal-blue eyes and, in fluent tech, answers a question I had posed to the speaker.
This is not your typical Redmond software jockey. He looks like someone more at home on a Harley than toting a keyboard and a latte. But there's something compelling in the assembly-language depth of his understanding of all things software. Later it becomes clear that Darryl Havens is a hard-core code architect who stands at the epicenter of some of Microsoft's hottest projects.
Havens came to Microsoft in 1988 with Dave Cutler and three other crack software engineers from Digital Equipment Corp. Together they helped define Windows NT in just five months. Havens coded NT's I/O file system, driver model and all, in three weeks.
For Havens, solving big problems at the edge of computing can be all-consuming. "You go to work in the morning, and then you look up and realize it's dark outside and you haven't eaten dinner. Then you realize you haven't eaten lunch either."
Havens met his current boss, Rob Short, who runs the core Windows OS team at Microsoft, back in their DEC days. One night at work at 3 a.m., Havens called the DEC main office with a question, and Short, also hard at work, picked up the phone.
"I was a total workaholic," Havens said. From the day in 1978 when he started his computer career on the production line at DEC, checking peripherals for hardware faults, he hardly took a vacation.
He taught himself software engineering by reading Cutler's manuals on the VMS operating system. "I was the teacher in the first software class I ever attended," Havens said.
He left DEC on a Friday in '88 and started at Microsoft the following Monday. Ten years later, Microsoft made him take a two-month sabbatical. "I had never even had two weeks of vacation before," he said.
But after a month "chateau shopping" in France and another on a resort island in the Caribbean, Havens "realized there is more to life than work."
So, with characteristic intensity, he trained a replacement and put in his notice at Microsoft, then spent the next few years racing cars and motorcycles and racking up a shelf of awards. "But I just couldn't find anything that turned my crank like this," Havens said, gesturing at the WinHEC crowd.
So he was ripe for the picking when he attended Short's 50th birthday party in 2004. Soon after, the job offers started rolling in, including one from Short. Havens rejoined Microsoft last year on June 11, the 28th anniversary of his first day at DEC.
Havens leaped at the opportunity to architect some of the first planks of Longhorn, the next big version of Windows. He helped define a secure kernel process at the heart of the copyright protection technology that may entice studios to release more of their digital content to the PC (see story, page 1). Havens also helped reset the direction for a program that aims to deliver "glitch-free audio and video" on Longhorn.
But perhaps his biggest assignment is as a member of an 18-month-old core architecture group that aims to set standards for Windows and the more than 280 design teams said to be working on some part of the 20-year-old OS.
"When you have that many people doing that many things, you can't keep track of it all. It's really, really hard and really, really challenging and that's why I came back," said Havens, obviously delighted by the work's extreme complexity.
Asked how he felt hearing presentations at WinHEC about some of his core work, Havens was momentarily and uncharacteristically tongue-tied.
"I'm not terribly excited by it," he said. "I have 25 problems sketched out on the whiteboard back in my office. That's what drives me."
But he is also thinking about his next big break a year off to get back on the motorcycle-racing circuit. "I need to get to a balance," Havens said before he disappeared into the WinHEC throng.