Nick Baker

2007 Outstanding Technical Leadership
As director of Xbox Console Design Architecture, Baker’s leadership proved critical to the delivery of this revolutionary gaming console.

Nick Baker not only delivered the immensely successful Xbox 360 video game console two years ago, Microsoft's director of Xbox Console Design Architecture did so amid challenging circumstances that forced him to make dramatic and even counterintuitive decisions that ultimately paid off. The inaugural Microsoft Technical Recognition Award for Outstanding Technical Leadership testifies to his unswerving direction throughout the product's design, testing, and manufacture. "It probably took 10,000 people around the world in many different companies, including Microsoft, to actually make the thing," Baker notes.

In early 2002, a small team that included Baker, Jeff Andrews, and Mike Abrash began work on a new version of Xbox. The rest of the Xbox division, meanwhile, was preoccupied with title creation and cost reduction for the original console, released in November 2001. "It was real hard to get the time of day out of anyone," recalls Larry Yang, General Manager, Xbox Console Development. "Being a trailblazer can be pretty lonely." Their target was mid-2005, when Sony was expected to launch the PlayStation 3, which had been in development for more than a year.

KEEPING THINGS RELEVANT
The 360 needed to be powerful and interactive, and leverage as much innovative Microsoft intellectual property as possible. "We didn't want to invent something completely from scratch," says Baker, who led the project's architecture team. "When looking at something a few years down the line, the danger is it won't be relevant to when you're ready to launch it." The team's challenge was to discover state-of-the-art technologies not yet on the market and customize them into an optimum game console.

Their proposed solution combined an innovative IBM multicore processor (a partnership Baker suggested with some trepidation) with an ATI Technologies graphics chip. "Intel was still on the faster-is-better bandwagon, and we began to see early on that maybe more is better than faster," says Baker.

The real work began in spring 2003, and the team exploded in size. "There was a hard slog for everybody to get something together by the second half of 2004," says Baker, who became the project's cross-company coordinator for all lab-related activities. "That's when we really needed to have the silicon."

EMULATING SUCCESS
Larry Yang, who nominated Baker for this Technical Recognition Award, applauds Nick's "philosophy" of simulating what the console would do from the very beginning. "By doing that," Yang recalls after admitting to his own initial skepticism, "we got software input and thoughts on product performance before we had to commit ourselves to millions of dollars of actual hardware prototypes." Baker was feeling increasing pressure throughout 2004 to meet some high expectations and believes his insistence on emulation helped keep the project on schedule.

When manufacturing began in China, Baker hopped on a plane. "Even though he's more of a CPU architect kind of person," Yang says, "Nick can take on any technical challenge." Instead of the consoles he expected to find rolling off the assembly line and waiting to be debugged, however, he found only the testers themselves, who he helped to get up and running.

The Xbox 360 was unveiled on schedule in May 2005, and Nick Baker is still on top of every technical challenge it presents. More than 10.4 million consoles have been sold to date, and Baker expects to see some 300 high-definition titles by year's end. Halo and Halo 2 remain his favorite games.

Watch our Behind-the-Code broadcast to learn more about Baker.