For many consumers, it’s easy to take for granted that the computers, smartphones, and tablets we carry around on a daily basis will continually become faster, more powerful, and more energy efficient with each new iteration.
Not so for 2010 DigiPen graduate Serge Metral.
As an embedded GPU software engineer for Apple, Metral helps develop the first layer of software that drives Apple’s popular iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch line of products. Simply put, he says, his team builds the interface between the base hardware and other software systems and applications — including video games — that take advantage of the devices’ graphics capabilities.
“In the case of drivers, everything is speed oriented, so really you have to understand two things,” Metral says. “You have to understand what the hardware can and cannot do, and you have to do what the hardware can do as fast as you can.”
On one level, Metral’s work is about finding technology solutions that can reconcile competing demands — such as robust, fast-processing graphics on the one hand with longer battery life on the other. More than that, he says, those solutions must be made to circumvent the hardware’s built-in shortcomings.
He uses a driving analogy to illustrate.
“It’s like the highway is closed. That’s the fastest way to get to work, but there are still the back roads,” he says. “It’s slower. It might be a little harder to drive on. But it will still get you there.”
Having joined his team at Apple just months before the release of the first iPad tablet, Metral has witnessed firsthand the groundbreaking success of his company’s products.
“Apple has such a huge impact in our culture, in terms of the devices they provide, the experiences they provide,” Metral says. “There are people who are just really into what Apple does.”
In Metral’s case, his own early interest in Apple products got him into a bit of trouble. As a teenager living in France, Metral remembers watching an internet broadcast revealing the third-generation iMac and becoming enamored with the computer’s sleek all-in-one design.
He had to have one.
When his parents went away on vacation, Metral drove across the Swiss border to Geneva — the nearest location to purchase an Apple computer — and returned home with the coveted machine.
“I came back and my parents were kind of surprised. They were wondering how I got the money to buy it, and I told them I had borrowed it from my grandfather.” Metral says. “And, of course, they were a little upset I hadn’t consulted them.”
After Metral finished high school, he went overseas to study game development at DigiPen, earning his BS in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation. And when it came time to send out job applications during his senior year, Apple was among the first companies to request an interview.
While his post-college job might at first glance have little to do with his game-centered education, Metral says that’s not the case. For starters, he programs in C/C++, a familiar language to any DigiPen computer science student. And DigiPen’s game projects, he says, introduce a group structure and iterative process for delivering a product, which is similar to what his team does at Apple.
On an even deeper level, Metral points to the culture of innovation and problem solving at DigiPen that comes in handy on a daily basis at Apple.
“When you’re a student, it’s really ingrained in you — thanks to the games you have to make on a yearly basis — that using what you know is not enough. At some point you’ve got to take a leap of faith. You’ve got to start digging into things where you have no idea how it works,” Metral says. “I would say the most important skill that you will get out of DigiPen is really your ability to push forward, even when you don’t know, even when you’re in uncharted territories. It’s really at that point that what you learn at DigiPen really starts to kick in.”