- Chris Lattner, the former Apple engineer who created the iOS programming language Swift, joined the artificial intelligence chip startup SiFive in January to head platform engineering there.
- While Lattner is focusing on software for chips now, he says it's similar to what he's been doing throughout his career at Apple, Tesla, and Google because he's building tools.
- Lattner says the three tech giants he's worked at have "very distinct corporate cultures" because Apple is about the product, Tesla is about the vision, and Google is about the technology.
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Chris Lattner, most famously known as the creator of the iOS programming language Swift, says that throughout his entire career, he's been building tools.
At Apple where he worked for nearly 12 years, he built developer tools like Swift and the tools used to program in the language, like Xcode and Swift Playgrounds. In other words, he focused more on tools for iOS engineers, rather than iOS apps themselves. And at Google, he worked on TensorFlow, an artificial intelligence project that is a tool for data scientists.
In January, Lattner joined the AI chip startup SiFive as the senior vice president of platform engineering after stints at Tesla and Google. While Lattner is focusing more on chips now, he says in many ways, it's not that different from what he was doing before.
"We're understanding users and solving really hard problems so the people using the tools don't have to worry about it," Lattner told Business Insider. "We're making somebody else's life easier to reduce what they have to worry about."
Now at SiFive, Lattner is building software that makes it easier for people who build hardware.
"As I step into SiFive one of the things I love about the culture is a focus on innovation," Lattner said. "I've seen that in some places but not all places. Also a focus on engineering, a team that wants to change the world which unfortunately is too rare. Being ambitious and being willing to admit you want to change the world. The passion in the brilliance of people. These are all reasons I'm excited about joining Si-Five."
SiFive has already raised $129.56 million from investors like Sutter Hill Ventures, Spark Capital, and Samsung Venture Investment, and it's an upstart challenger to giants like Intel and AMD.
'We're applying new technology to old problems'
Lattner says he has actually been following SiFive for several years, and he even spoke with the team before joining Google, but at the time, it was still in its very early stages.
When he reconnected with the team again recently, he learned more about what the company is now doing. He says he was "super impressed" by the opportunity to create faster, more powerful chips.
Lattner is now running the platform engineering team at SiFive, writing the software and tools needed to design chips.
"Nobody really thinks of it as writing code," Lattner said. "Chip design is one of the most software intensive worlds you've seen. The verification of chips involves writing tons of test code. Designing the chip itself involves tools and languages."
Lattner says one of the biggest challenges he expects to face is how fast SiFive is scaling, but those are "good problems to have."
"Our mission is to make the hardware engineers and the people who design circuits be way more productive and be happier," Lattner said. "We're applying new technology to old problems."
'Very distinct corporate cultures'
Lattner brings to SiFive experience from working at Apple, Tesla, and Google. After working nearly 12 years at Apple where he built developer tools, he did a six-month stint at Tesla leading its autopilot software.
Most recently at Google, where he worked for two and a half years, Lattner helped lead the TensorFlow team, working on projects like the Swift for TensorFlow effort and launching Cloud tensor processing units, a chip that powers Google products like Translate, Photos, Search, Assistant, and Gmail.
Still, he says joining SiFive wasn't about leaving Google. He thought the opportunity at SiFive was exciting, and he "had to jump."
"The decision to leave Google was incredibly difficult," Lattner said. "I was leaving an amazing company with a lot of great things going on...I felt like they're in good shape and in good hands."
From working at three tech giants, Lattner says he learned from the cultures of Apple, Tesla, and Google, all of which have "very distinct corporate cultures."
"Apple is a very product driven company. It thinks a lot about users," Lattner said. "Tesla is a very mission driven one, like 'Let's fix global warming.' A lot of it was down to 'Let's help with this.' Google is a very technology driven company. That's really what drives Google."
SiFive brings all of these traits together Lattner says.
"SiFive is a very nice mix of all these things," Lattner said. "It has incredible vision. Let's get chip design to happen faster. When it does, new kinds of chips will be made ... It's also a product company. I feel like SiFive is a mix of all things. It's a smaller company and out to change the world."