King’s Quest: The Tale of How an NVIDIA Engineer’s Cube Became His Castle

by Brian Caulfield

Every company has a CEO. Every department has its vice presidents. Every realm has its powers and principalities. But only one company has a potentate.

The tale of how NVIDIA’s Jonathon Evans got his crown, and had his modest cubicle transformed into a royal court begins — as stories like this often do at the company — with Saran Wrap.

It all began with Saran Wrap.
It all began with Saran Wrap.

Jonathon — who leads the team that designs the host interface and context scheduling unit for our GPUs — decided to play a prank on one of his colleagues, Alan Kaatz, while he was away. So, he wrapped Alan’s computer, keyboard and many of the objects in his cube in cellophane.

Alan, a quick-witted engineer with a keen sense of the absurd, decided to hit back. Hard.

“I wanted to do something so big that it would be impossible to retaliate,” Alan says. So Alan and a small group of other GPU designers — Eric Tyson, Steve Mueller and Rafal Zboinski — huddled around a whiteboard to sketch out what revenge might look like.

A Royal Pain

They would turn Jonathon’s cube into a castle. And to do that, they would need hundreds of square feet of cardboard and more than 100 hours. Then, they struck on Friday afternoon — just ahead of the three-day Labor Day weekend.

After spending Saturday on the project, the team regrouped Monday afternoon. No detail was too small for the semiconductor designers to lavish their attention on. Paper with the perfect pattern was selected for the castle walls — and when it hadn’t shown up on time, Alan went to the local UPS delivery hub Saturday night and banged on the doors until it was handed over.

No detail was too small for these GPU designers.
No detail was too small for these GPU designers.

Steve Muller spent two hours creating a stylized “J” — as in Jonath0n — for one of the many stained-glass windows the team created out of packing tape and tissue paper. Each of the castle’s four towers was crowned with a conical cap crafted out of shingles made from pink, heavy-duty construction paper.

Surveying His Realm

By midnight, they weren’t even close to done. Spouses called, first worried, then angry. Yet the work continued: the castle had to be equipped with hand-crafted battlements and crenelations. Motion-sensitive lights were installed that would be activated when visitors approached. An elaborate drawbridge was constructed and each plank hand-painted.

By Tuesday at 8am, the team was finished. And just in time.

Half an hour later Jonathon arrived.

Fit for a king: Jonathan's mighty castle stands complete.
Fit for a king: Jonathon’s mighty castle stands complete.

“I walked around the corner and just started laughing,” he says, recalling the moment he looked across a sea of cubicles and saw … a castle. “As I got closer I began to debate with myself ‘Should I go in that thing? Is it safe?’”

The cube was gone, and the only way to peer inside was through tiny slits cut into the castle walls, covered with bars. So, Jonathon pulled a rope to lower the drawbridge, bent over and crawled inside his now 5-foot by 5-foot cell, decorated with a portrait of “King Jonathon” and a skeleton guarding a wooden treasure chest. To access his filing cabinet, he had to crawl through a “secret passage.”

Holding Court

The castle became something of a tourist attraction. Hundreds of colleagues filed by to admire it — with dozens more showing up daily to take pictures. “We joked that it should be added to the National Register of Historic Places,” Alan says. There was no way Jonathon — now known as “the King” — could tear it down.

So he hunkered down and got to work. “Every time I crawled in and out it was an elaborate thing,” Jonathon says. “But it was incredibly quiet and peaceful inside, it was like having an office.”

At least until someone decided they had to see him. To do that the visitor had to pull on a rope attached to wind chimes that were built into the highest tier of the castle’s structure.

The King enters his castle.
The King enters his castle.

“It wasn’t the sound of the wind chime that bugged me, it was the creaking sound that got made every time someone pulled on that rope,” Jonathon says. “I thought the roof was about to collapse.”

All The King’s Men

The castle, meanwhile, became part of the rhythm of life at NVIDIA.

Phil Johnson, who sat nearby, was appointed “royal groundskeeper,” but neglected his duties. So Alan sent a recurring Outlook calendar meeting to the castle construction crew commanding them to “water the king’s ivy.” Steve, the perfectionist engineer, procured a special watering can so the ivy could be watered without soaking the cardboard.

Regular seasonal updates became part of the prank.
Regular seasonal updates became part of the prank.

In December, the castle was decorated with snow and sprigs of holly. “It was getting thematic updates with every season,” Jonathon says.

In January, a crew from the facilities team arrived to install a printer. Alan saw what happened next. “At first they didn’t know what to do because they couldn’t find the door,” Alan says, and when they finally got in “they were banging around in the dark.”

Finally the supervisor radioed in to report that there was a castle on the third floor and it was “driving his crew crazy.”

The Walls Come Tumbling Down

The castle at night.
The castle at night.

A few weeks later, Jonathon got word. The castle used too much paper. It was a fire hazard. It was impossible to get in and out of easily. “Totally legitimate complaints,” Jonathon adds.

So, the edifice was dismantled. Sections of it are still attached to Jonathon’s cube — like the remains of a Norman castle in an English pasture. Other pieces have been scattered near and far. “Peasants carried off pieces and built their own smaller castles,” Jonathon says.

But his royal dignity remains, along with a poster bearing an ominous message affixed to his cubicle wall “The King is watching you.”

Long live the King.

Photos courtesy of Steve Mueller.