Thoughts on John Carmack stepping down as CTO of Oculus

Published on November 14 2019

Hello fellow XR enthusiast! 

Yesterday I read the news that a principle Oculus founder and game industry legend John Carmack is stepping down as CTO of Oculus. I've read many comments on Reddit and on Discord from people who are concerned. Some even proclaiming that this is the end of Oculus! My first thought on hearing this news was-

 "Good for you John Carmack. I can't wait to see what's next!" 

Why am I not concerned with his transition? Because I believe Oculus is in good hands. One individual out of a talented team of dozens of brilliant Software and Hardware Engineers is changing roles. He's not parting ways with Oculus, just changing roles. One individual who we rightfully put up on a pedestal for his amazing past tech accomplishments, but also an individual who has largely delegated work for the past few years. 

The truth is that a team of talented people researched, designed and built the new flagship product, Oculus Quest. Carmack made contributions, but so did a lot of others! There persist this idea in some minds; this image of Carmack laboring away in isolation with lenses, wires, and circuit boards- The brilliant Mad-Scientist-Wizard forging new hardware while schematics for future Oculus devices cover the walls. This is just a grand delusion. While Carmack and Palmer Luckey played that role in the Startup days of Oculus. As CTO, post-Facebook acquisition, it's clear he's not remained as hands-on. I believe he's done what every good CTO does, provides technical direction and vetos bad technical decisions. As an executive in the company, CTOs days are often filled with meetings where they have to listen to presentations on performance, deal with strategy planning, etc... I could see that aspect of the CTO position boring Carmack to tears.

Oculus Founders (circa 2014)

While we don't know what his responsibilities will be in his new role of "Consulting CTO" the title implies to me that Oculus isn't likely to replace Carmack. After all, what CTO would want to fill his position only to be forced to take advice and direction from a Consulting CTO with Carmack's legacy? Frankly, it's unlikely anyone will fill that position. What I see more likely to happen is for Facebook's CTO, Mike Schroepfer to take on Carmack's more traditional CTO responsibilities and for Carmack to still weigh in heavily and contribute to major Oculus technical decisions in his new consulting role. This outcome makes sense to me and I don't see it as a determent at all to Oculus continuing to move forward and evolve VR and AR.

 Oculus began as a Startup. Being part of a Startup is a very unique work culture experience. Every day another journey in the long death march until the next round of funding comes through. The team is small, focused. Most on the teams are either a code ninja or rock star developer/engineer/etc... Everyone is dreaming big together, devoting their life to the high-risk high reward gamble. Everyone knows the horrible odds of success and everyone is working non-stop to be an outlier in an ocean of failed tech ventures. For those who thrive in small teams against difficult odds, being part of a Startup can be a rush like no other.

Most Silicon Valley Startups begin a journey that eventually leads down one of four paths: Acquisition, Merger, IPO or Bankruptcy. Technically an Acquisition is a merger, but it's a case where a much larger entity gains complete control of a smaller entity. This was the path Oculus went down when the founders of Oculus decided to allow Facebook to acquire Oculus in 2014

Working inside a Corporate owned subsidiary as Oculus has become is a very different culture than Startup culture. Even if the founders strive to keep part of that culture alive, the mad rush is gone. The teams grow a lot bigger and they grow fast. The physical office space becomes more spread out. As we're seeing play out on the final season of the HBO series Silicon Valley, things just dramatically change fast and much of what made the Startup so exciting are gone. If you think of the Startup journey to be like an MMORPG, you could think of post-Acquisition or post-IPO as the "end-game". That is to say, the game that comes after the long, hard-fought victory. There's plenty of challenges for decades to come, to grow the company under its new roof, but if you are the type of person who thrives inside a Startup culture, you're probably not going to be happy for long in a Corporate role. 

However, some personality type thrives in the corporate culture and with deep pockets and the right individuals in those roles, great innovation continues to happen. In Tech, we need pioneers to trailblaze and we need settlers to continue to build on the foundation that was laid. Carmack has always been a pioneer. Leaving Palmer Luckey's situation out of the discussion, this is why I have not been surprised by the changing of the guard at Oculus. Post-Startup days this sort of thing is normal and can be healthy. I really believe this is where Oculus is today. There have been a lot of leadership changes, but a lot of great things continue to happen at the same time. There are no warning flags here, at least not yet. 


The worst thing for a brilliant Engineer is boredom and once the major problems/puzzles are solved with technology sometimes the train slows and it's a bit of a waiting game for the tech innovations to play catchup to make that next big leap. Or sometimes the next big innovations are just more tedious work and not nearly as fun as the initial engineering problems were to solve. 

When you're at Carmack's level and status you can afford to do whatever work you are passionate about. You can afford to leave a project that's just no longer bringing you the same fulfillment it once did. As an enthusiast, it's easy to get our heads lost in that journey but we should not look at this and think that it has any bearing on where Oculus VR products are headed in terms of mass success with Consumers, Education, and Enterprise.

Sometimes for the Engineer, the excitement dwindles and its time to go do something else that's going to feel rewarding and make you happy. This is where I feel Carmack is with Oculus. I don't think Carmack feels VR has reached a peak or that his contribution to the field is done. They aren't, again he's not leaving Oculus altogether! He retains shares of Facebook, has a stake in the company and is not being pushed out like Palmer Luckey was. He's just transitioning into a more hands-off role so that he can devote most of his time to another area of Software Engineering where he feels he could bring something new to the world.  I'm happy for Carmack. I'm always looking forward to seeing what his next great accomplishment will be. 


Written by jdeats76

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