The InfoWorld 2012 Technology Leadership Awards

Vision and execution are hallmarks of great leadership, as these 11 technologists proved in pushing their organizations in bold new directions

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Technology creation/enhancement

Nick Ganju, ZocDoc
Nick Ganju , CTO, ZocDoc

As the United States continues to wrestle with the fundamental approach to its health care system, a series of laws already are forcing providers to use electronic media records and to cover 32 million new patients in a strained, entrenched system. Worse, a severe doctor shortage is on the horizon.

For Nick Ganju, CTO at ZocDoc, that scary scenario was impetus to help empower patients by increasing access to information and removing inefficiencies from the marketplace that could level the playing field to work more in patients' favor.

Typically, U.S. patients wait an average of 20 days from the time they book an appointment from the time they see a doctor. Much of this delay can be attributed to an archaic appointment system that doesn't provide an accurate or transparent look at a doctor's current schedule. Plus, about 15 doctors' appointments are canceled at the last minute, and most canceled appointments go unused -- causing doctors to lose revenue and keeping patients who would have otherwise grabbed the opening to continue waiting weeks for their turn in the examining room.

Ganju took on a daunting project: Aggregating doctor data (including real-time availability) into a single location that would allow patients to quickly search for a local doctor who fits their needs and instantly book an appointment online. Accomplishing that task meant ZocDoc had to integrate thousands of medical practices -- all of which use a variety of disparate (often antiquated) practice management systems -- to allow patients to search and access these doctors' schedules. In many cases, to make the integration work, the team had to reverse-engineer binary storage formats from archaic software. Plus, it had to create algorithms that could generate results for complex, multivariable queries at a high enough speed to support millions of simultaneous user hits.

As a result, ZocDoc can facilitate thousands of exchanges per minute among its 1 million registered patients and the independent doctors and practices on the ZocDoc roster, with 7 million appointments managed at any given time.

Lincoln Wallen, DreamWorks Animation
Lincoln Wallen , head of R&D, DreamWorks Animation

A well-known axiom of the animated film world is that in each successive animated feature, the total number of rendering hours grows, regardless of the fact that processing power increases substantially with each hardware generation. Animated moviemakers quickly take advantage of that extra processing power to build more elaborate character interactions, richer textures, better special effects, more realistic lighting, and other creative improvements into each frame.

DreamWorks Animation has its own perspective on this phenomenon.  According to "Shrek's Law," for every "Shrek" film made, the amount of compute power required to render it has doubled. Moore's Law, originally forecast by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, reliably predicts that the transistor density of processors doubles approximately every two years. But for some time now, Moore's Law has resulted not in higher clock speeds but more cores on each chip. To make software codes run faster on so-called multicore chips requires re-engineering of the codes themselves -- a daunting task.

And that daunting task was one Lincoln Wallen decided to attack head-on while head of R&D at DreamWorks Animation. Wallen started a program called the NextGen Project to re-engineer key parts of the studio's proprietary software toolset, in partnership with Intel, to take advantage of the multicore capabilities in the latest processors. The engineers at DreamWorks invented an architecture that allows processes to scale to exploit the cores on a single machine and to scale processes from that machine out to the data center, pulling in many more cores. This new software architecture uses distributed scheduling at the platform and data center level to intelligently take advantage of available resources in the infrastructure.

When applied to animation, DreamWorks says the results have been nothing short of revolutionary, allowing animators to work with full-resolution, fully deforming characters in real time. Applied to lighting and rendering -- the process of painting the final frames of the movie and the most computationally complex process at DreamWorks -- it led to innovation in data orchestration and management, new interface techniques for controlling and directing the large amount of processing required to generate images, and faster render times.

For DreamWorks Animation, these developments mean huge improvements in quality and efficiency in forthcoming films like "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted." Plus, the use of NextGen has helped lower the costs per film by $6 million out of the usual $130 to $150 million budget.

The design principles led by Wallen have implications far beyond the animation industry. They could enable significant efficiency gains in the fields of digital design and digital manufacturing.

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