Halfway through dinner at Evvia, a bustling Greek restaurant in downtown Palo Alto that Apple cofounder Steve Jobs used to frequent, Jen-Hsun “Jensen” Huang rolls up his shirtsleeve to show me his tattoo. It’s tribal in style, with thick curves extending across his shoulder cap. The black ink gleams in the warm glow of the restaurant’s low lights.
“So, I really want to extend it,” he says with a glint in his eye, gesturing along the length of his arm. “I actually kinda do. I would love to. But getting it really, really hurt. I was crying like a baby. My kids were with me, and they’re like, ‘Dad, you’ve gotta control yourself.’”
Huang’s two adult children, speakeasy proprietor Spencer and hospitality professional Madison, also have tattoos. But at 54, their father, cofounder and CEO of the red-hot Silicon Valley semiconductor and software company Nvidia (NVDA, +1.20%), so far has only this one, an abstract version of the company’s logo. He got it about a decade ago.
“Every six months we have an off-site,” Huang says, leaning back in his chair to tell the story. “And at one, someone said, ‘What are we gonna do when the stock price hits $100?’ That was two splits ago. One person said they’d shave their head, or paint their hair blue, or get a mohawk, or something. And another said they’d get a nipple ring. And then by the time they come around to me, it was already at tattoo level. So I said, ‘Yeah all right, I’ll get a tattoo.’ And then the stock price hit $100.” He pauses and grimaces a little, remembering. “And it hurt so bad.”
Most Fortune 500 CEOs over 50 don’t have tattoos, let alone of the logos of the companies they run. But Huang, who was born in Taiwan, isn’t most Fortune 500 CEOs. For starters, he’s the rare cofounder still running his company 24 years later. He is both a trained electrical engineer (Oregon State; Stanford), and a formidable executive who leads employees with encouragement, inquiry, and often flurries of vacation emails. (Sent during his, not theirs.) And he is, according to many people in the industry, a visionary who foresaw a blossoming market for a new kind of computing early enough to reposition his company years in advance.
That vision and his company’s incredible financial performance make Huang the clear choice as Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year for 2017.
“Jensen is one of those rare individuals who combines incredible vision with ruthless focus on execution,” says Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen. “Now with Nvidia’s focus on artificial intelligence, the opportunities for leadership are endless.”
“Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk—I put Jensen in that group,” says Todd Mostak, CEO of MapD, a San Francisco database company in which Nvidia has thrice invested.
If you haven’t heard of Nvidia, you can be forgiven. It doesn’t make a chat app or a search service or another kind of technology meant to appeal to the average smartphone-toting consumer. No, Nvidia makes the muscular mystery stuff that powers all of it. Its GPUs, or “graphics processing units,” crunch the complex calculations necessary for cryptocurrency markets, so-called deep neural networks, and the visual fireworks you see on the big screen. The same technology that makes brutally realistic shooter games come alive helps self-driving cars take an “S” curve without assistance—enabling computers to see, hear, understand, and learn.
Booming demand for its products has supercharged growth at Nvidia. Over the past three full fiscal years, it has increased sales by an average of 19% and profits by an astonishing 56% annually. In early November the company reported results that once again blew past Wall Street’s estimates, with earnings per share 24% higher than expected. In its past four quarters, it has generated total sales of $9 billion and profits of $2.6 billion.
Such results have made Huang’s company a darling of investors. Nvidia’s share price, just two years ago hovering around $30, was recently over $200. Its market capitalization, at about $130 billion, is approaching that of IBM (IBM, +1.37%) and McDonald’s (MCD, +0.32%).
与此同时，尽管包括英特尔（Intel）和AMD在内的强大竞争对手希望借助新技术革命的势头增加芯片销售额的份额，但迄今为止，英伟达在图形处理器市场依旧维持了大约70%的市场占有率。Jefferies的股票分析师马克·里帕西斯在7月给客户的照会中写道：“凭借大型计算机，IBM统治了20世纪50年代；向微型电脑的转型，让数字设备公司（Digital Equipment Corp.）在20世纪60年代中期接过权杖；随着个人电脑的风靡，微软（Microsoft）和英特尔各领风骚；最后到手机开始普及的时代，苹果和谷歌独占鳌头。我们相信，下次结构性转变已经开始，而英伟达将从中受益。”
黄仁勋与朋友克里斯·马拉科夫斯基和柯蒂斯·普里姆在1993年创立英伟达时，他的脑海里还远远没有与全球最大的科技公司争夺人工智能领域主导权的想法。当时，克里斯·马拉科夫斯基和柯蒂斯·普里姆都是太阳微系统公司（Sun Microsystems）的工程师，而黄仁勋是圣何塞的芯片厂商LSI Logic的主管。马拉科夫斯基和普里姆在公司内部关于未来技术发展方向的政治斗争中失败，迫不及待想要离职。而年仅29岁的黄仁勋基础更为坚实。三人在黄仁勋附近的Denny’s餐厅会面，讨论下一代计算浪潮的正确方向：是更高速的计算，还是基于图形的计算。这顿饭吃完后，黄仁勋下定了决心，离开了LSI公司。
英伟达成立初期，员工搬进了位于加利福尼亚州森尼维耳市的一间办公室，就在劳伦斯高速公路（Lawrence Expressway）旁边。公司的第一位销售员、如今的执行副总裁杰夫·费舍尔回忆道：“那是一间小办公室。我们会围着一张乒乓球桌吃午饭，并和另一家公司共享浴室。和我们共享停车位的富国银行（Wells Fargo）被抢劫过两三次。”
Nvidia meanwhile has so far managed to retain its roughly 70% market share in GPUs despite competition from formidable rivals—among them Intel (INTC, +0.64%) and AMD (AMD, +1.26%)—who want their share of the billions in chip sales to come from this new tech revolution. “IBM dominated in the 1950s with the mainframe computer, Digital Equipment Corp. in the mid-1960s with the transition to mini-computers, Microsoftand Intel as PCs ramped, and finally Apple and Google as cellphones became ubiquitous,” wrote Jefferies equity analyst Mark Lipacis in a July note to clients. “We believe the next tectonic shift is happening now and Nvidia stands to benefit.”
Or as Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s Mad Money, put it on air in November: “Nvidia is one of the great companies of our time.”
Battling with the world’s biggest tech companies for A.I. supremacy was far from Jensen Huang’s mind when he cofounded Nvidia with friends Chris Malachowsky and Curtis Priem in 1993. At the time, Malachowsky and Priem were engineers at Sun Microsystems, and Huang was a director at San Jose chipmaker LSI Logic. Malachowsky and Priem had lost a political battle within Sun over the direction of its technological development and were itching to leave. Huang, just 29 years old, was on firmer ground. The three men met at a Denny’s restaurant near Huang’s home to discuss what they believed was the proper direction for the next wave of computing: accelerated, or graphics-based, computing. Huang walked away from the meal with enough conviction to leave his position at LSI.
“We believed this model of computing could solve problems that general-purpose computing fundamentally couldn’t,” Huang says. “We also observed that video games were simultaneously one of the most computationally challenging problems and would have incredibly high sales volume. Those two conditions don’t happen very often. Video games was our killer app—a flywheel to reach large markets funding huge R&D to solve massive computational problems.”
With $40,000 in the bank, Nvidia was born. The company initially had no name. “We couldn’t think of one, so we named all of our files NV, as in ‘next version,’” Huang says. A need to incorporate the company prompted the cofounders to review all words with those two letters, leading them to “invidia,” the Latin word for “envy.” It stuck.
Nvidia’s early employees moved into an office in Sunnyvale, Calif., by the Lawrence Expressway. “It was a small office. We had lunch around a Ping-Pong table. We shared a bathroom with another company,” recalls Jeff Fisher, the company’s first salesman and currently an executive vice president. “The Wells Fargo bank that shared our parking lot got robbed two or three times.”
Nvidia’s first product, a multimedia card for personal computers called NV1, arrived in 1995 at a time when three-dimensional games began to gain traction. The card didn’t sell well, but the company kept tinkering with its technology over four more releases, gaining sales—and traction vs. rivals 3dfx, ATi, and S3—each time.
“We knew that in order for us to scale as a company, we had to provide more value than just a replaceable component in a PC,” says Fisher. “We had so much more value to add than just a commodity.”
数十人在门外静静等待着英伟达在加利福尼亚州圣克拉拉的新总部大楼Endeavor的开张。这栋建筑占地50万平方英尺，壮丽雄伟。其三角形的形状，取自计算机图形中的三角基础结构单元，整栋大楼与六英里外的苹果圆形新总部交相辉映。大楼的玻璃表面挺立于圣托马斯高速公路（San Tomas Expressway）之上，仿佛星际飞船的船首缓缓入港。
A successful IPO on the Nasdaq in 1999 set in motion a flurry of milestones for Nvidia. That year it released the GeForce 256, billed as the world’s first GPU. In 2006 it introduced CUDA, a parallel computing architecture that allowed researchers to run extremely complex exercises on thousands of GPUs, taking the chips out of the sole realm of video games and making them accessible for all types of computing. In 2014, the company revived a failing bid for the smartphone business by repositioning those chips, called Tegra, for automotive use. Over time, these moves proved prescient, unlocking new revenue streams for Nvidia in industries such as defense, energy, finance, health care, manufacturing, and security.
“There were some rough years there,” says Rev Lebaredian, a Hollywood veteran who serves as vice president of Nvidia’s GameWorks and LightSpeed Studios units. “Look at our stock price, say, 10 years ago. The world didn’t quite realize what we were building. What we’re doing is foundational to humanity. This form of computing is too important for it not to be valuable.”
Key to Nvidia’s ability to endure years of market doubt, Lebaredian adds, is Huang—a leader with deep conviction in the potential of graphics technology and an ability to think in 10-year time horizons.
While Huang says he didn’t anticipate how self-driving cars would evolve or when A.I. would arrive, he had utter conviction in the superiority of graphical computing. So he invested to make sure his company was ready to capitalize on the opportunities created by a major shift in tech. “I’ve been talking about the same story for 15 years,” Huang tells me. “I’ve barely had to change my slides.”
Dozens of people patiently stand outside awaiting the grand opening of Endeavor, Nvidia’s massive new headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif. The 500,000-square-foot structure is nothing less than imposing. A triangular foil to Apple’s circular new headquarters six miles away—its shape is drawn from the building block of computer graphics, the triangle—Endeavor’s glassy facade rises up over the San Tomas Expressway like the bow of a starship coming into port.
Unofficially, Endeavor has been open for a month, allowing more than 2,000 employees to acclimate to its tree-house-like structure. (Staffers enter from an underground parking garage and ascend at its center.) Today some 8,000 people are expected to stream through the doors for an open house for employees and their families. There are stations prepped with lines of finger food and beverages. Face painters await an inevitable onslaught of children. The smell of sawdust and paint lingers in the halls.
Inside, triangles abound. Floor tiles, privacy screens, lobby couches, window decals, skylights, cafeteria counters, even cross braces for the structure itself—all in shapes with three points. In a continuation of the theme set by Endeavor’s name, the building is bursting with rooms nodding to science fiction: Altair IV, Skaro, Skynet, Vogsphere, Hoth, Mordor.
Huang doesn’t keep an office, preferring to move around the building nomad-like, setting up shop in a variety of conference rooms. When Fortune visits, he’s taken up temporary residence in one called Metropolis, after the 1927 silent film—but the CEO is not present. A container stuffed with Clif Bars rests at the center of the table. Rolls of blueprints lie across a chair to the side.
我开始感到天旋地转，迷失在这种奇特的愿景之中，它仿佛综合了电影《上班一条虫》（Office Space）、《黑客帝国》（The Matrix）和《盗梦空间》（Inception）。
而黄仁勋还在说：“我们现在已经看到了它的早期迹象。”他补充道：“比如生成式对抗网络（Generative adversarial networks）。我认为接下来几年中，我们会看到许多能够开发神经网络的神经网络。接下来几十年里，人工智能的最大贡献将是编写人类无法编写的软件，解决人类无法解决的问题。”
When I finally locate Huang, he is wearing his signature leather moto jacket and nibbling on breaded chicken strips from a cup as he strides across the sprawling cafeteria with at least two dozen employees and their families in tow. At Huang’s side are his wife, Lori, as well as his son and daughter, who flew in from Taipei and Paris, respectively, to surprise their father. The CEO is apparently in a bind. He is trying, but failing, to complete a design review of Endeavor that was scheduled before the doors opened. But he’s already inundated with guests seeking handshakes and selfies, and he can’t resist a single one.
Daughter Madison plays photographer as Huang moves to take a photo with a family of four. He takes one knee to get on the same level as their two kids. “You built this,” he says to the parents after the photo is taken, gesturing to the space around them. “Have a good time today.”
Huang will repeat a version of this exchange hundreds of times during the open house, sometimes with handshakes, sometimes with hugs. Indeed, over the course of four hours, the CEO sits only once, for a photo with a young girl who resists her mother’s calls for a smile. (In a fatherly feat, Huang manages to wring one out of her.) The line to greet him never subsides.
The spectacle is a vivid example of what many former and current Nvidia employees say is the company’s secret sauce: its culture. For a publicly traded technology company with more than 11,000 employees, Nvidia is surprisingly tight-knit. It’s a credit to the many long-serving staffers who remain at the company (badge numbers are issued in serial; the lower the number, the longer the tenure) and the business battles they’ve endured together. It’s also the product of a founder CEO who embraces community, strategic alignment, and a core value system that promotes the pursuit of excellence through intellectual honesty.
Rene Haas, a senior executive at British semiconductor design company ARM, recalls six-hour meetings where Nvidia’s general managers would offer the CEO status updates for their lines of business. If Huang didn’t like what he heard—a roadblock, a missed goal—he would move to solve the problem then and there. “A head of software, a mid-level engineer, it didn’t matter—he would call those people and bring them to the conference room and determine the root cause of the issue,” Haas says. “If something had to be reprioritized and rescheduled to get it back on track, he would do it in real time, and the rest of the meeting was aborted. It was incredibly liberating. And he would never do it in a way that was diminishing. It might feel like that at the beginning, but then you’d realize that he’s trying to expedite the process by getting the right people in the room.”
The scientific pursuit of truth resonates at all levels of the company, employees say, helping tamp down on the organizational politics that obstruct other companies’ progress.
Or as Huang explains it: “Nobody is the boss. The project is the boss.”
Nvidia’s CEO takes off his wire-rimmed glasses and rubs his bloodshot eyes, fatigued after hours of slapping backs and pumping palms. He plops down at a wooden table where his wife and two kids are seated as the last of the open house attendees exit the building. Staffers working the event begin to sweep up the area around him, picking up plastic cups, wiping surfaces, arranging chairs. His security guards stand alert.
Huang leans toward me and asks me to pose the questions I had intended to get to earlier, when he was still busy working the rope line. I ask him what he believes is the next major application of artificial intelligence technology—the next billion-dollar opportunity for Nvidia, category competitors like Intel and Qualcomm (QCOM, +0.76%), and players like Google (GOOGL, +1.13%), Facebook (FB, +0.92%), and Baidu.
“Nobody is the boss,” says Huang, explaining his egalitarian approach to problem-solving. “The project is the boss.”
“The thing that I believe is going to be really incredible that’s going to happen next is the ability for artificial intelligence to write artificial intelligence by itself,” he replies.
My eyes widen at the prospect as Huang continues. “In the future, companies will have an A.I. that is watching every single transaction—every business process—that is happening, all day long,” he says. “Certain transactions or patterns that are being repeated. The process could be very complicated. It could go through sales to engineering, supply chain, logistics, business operations, finance, customer service. And it could be observed that this pattern is happening all the time. As a result of this observation, the artificial intelligence software writes an artificial intelligence software to automate that business process. Because we won’t be able to do it. It’s too complicated.”
By now my head is spinning, lost in a bizarre vision that somehow combines the films Office Space, The Matrix, and Inception.
But Huang is still rolling. “We’re seeing early indications of it now,” he adds. “Generative adversarial networks, or GAN. I think over the next several years we’re going to see a lot of neural networks that develop neural networks. For the next couple of decades, the greatest contribution of A.I. is writing software that humans simply can’t write. Solving the unsolvable problems.”
Suddenly, a massive thud rips through the room, followed by the clatter of plastic cups. The space falls to a hush and Huang pauses, losing his train of thought. In one corner, two employees with overfilled arms had been precariously juggling the remnants of the wine and beer station. Gravity won.
“Lots and lots of perfectly good beer,” Huang says, breaking the silence. If only the humans in the room had detected the pattern; if only we were intelligent enough. “I felt that he was in an awkward position,” Huang says, hamming it up to giggles from the rest of his family. “My intelligence…I saw it coming. That’s why I was watching him. My eyes were getting bigger. It happened, exactly as I thought.”
It’s merely more evidence of Huang’s ability to see into the future.
A version of this article appears in the Dec. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune.