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U of R alumnus shares secrets of Windows Task Manager

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: December 11, 2020 4:00 p.m.

David Plummer went from the classroom to a barbeque at Bill Gates’ house
David Plummer went from the classroom to a barbeque at Bill Gates’ house Photo: courtesy David Plummer

Does this sound familiar – you’re staring frustratingly at a slow functioning PC or a non-responsive program, feeling you have no other recourse until you finally find relief by punching in ctrl, alt and delete to bring up Windows Task Manager. 

If you are one of the countless people who have found yourself in this scenario or have used Task Manager for any number of functions it offers, you have successful programmer and University of Regina alumnus David Plummer ('94 BSc High Honours) to thank. 

Plummer delivered, via Zoom, a public lecture The Secret History of Task Manager on the evening of Wednesday, December 9th. It was the inaugural lecture in a series by alumni and friends of the Department of Computer Science. 

More than 70 participants tuned in to hear Plummer deliver never-before-seen or heard secrets of Task Manager. 

In a 40-minute presentation, he enlightened listeners on how he went from a U of R computer science classroom to a barbeque at Bill Gates’ house in Edmonds, Washington while also giving a tour and analysis of source code for Task Manager and answering questions from the audience. 

“They say “you can’t go home again”, and with the current pandemic it might be literally true for me, but thanks to Zoom I was able to return to my hometown virtually, at least, for an hour’s discussion as part of CS Week,” Plummer said. “It was a pleasure to get to talk to those who tuned in about the history of Windows Task Manager, where it came from, how it works, and why it works that way. To do so made me a bit nostalgic for the 1990s Microsoft, and I hope everyone enjoyed the random stories from the trenches that I was able to include.”   

Plummer’s journey to Microsoft started with the book Hard Drive – Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire. He would read it on his lunch hour while he was working an internship at SaskTel. He admitted he wasn’t a big fan of Microsoft but after reading the book and encountering the stories of the people and projects they worked on, he realized Microsoft was the place he needed to be. 

He got a leg-up on the thousands of people applying to Microsoft for jobs by using contacts from Microsoft who had purchased software he had sold and cold-calling hiring managers. That led to a phone screening, which led to a phone interview, which led to a day of in-person interviews in Redmond, Washington. After the grueling interview process, he landed an internship at Microsoft while in his final year of University where he worked on MS-DOS and Microsoft 95, building the components that were developed and used in Microsoft software many people throughout the world still use today. 

After he graduated from the U of R, Plummer applied for full-time work at Microsoft and secured an offer of a modest salary plus stock options. But it was his curiosity of unanswered questions and how things work that led to the creation of Task Manager. 

Task Manager started as a hobby for Plummer. He would work on it from home until he got permission to add it to Windows NT, thus turning his hobby into a full-time job. 

The programming work that Plummer highlighted was grueling as he described having a sofa bed installed in his office to catch a few hours of sleep between finding and fixing bugs in the program. 

But, there was still some fun and games. 

One such game was space cadet pinball – another one of the programs Plummer worked on. It’s the one, he said, that gave him the most “street cred” with his kids’ classmates when he would stop by to help with their computer science lab. He said it was priceless seeing the look on their faces when he would type in a cheat code for infinite lives. 

There was also the barbeque he, along with other new hires, were invited to at Bill Gates’ home. He described it as having one person standing in the middle being surrounded by concentric circles of people wanting to say something smart. Plummer did get his time in with Gates and remembered him being friendly. 

Plummer retired in 2003, but he still looks on fondly at what Task Manager has become today. He sees it as a tool for inspection instead of control – for monitoring programs and not just shutting down frozen desktops. 

Because of his curiosity, Plummer was able to take something he was building for himself and turn it into something many people continue to find use for. 

“I find it particularly rewarding that something with more than a billion copies in use around the world traces it roots to a Regina native,” he said. “I look forward to every opportunity to speak at the U of R and hope the next time will be back in the flesh.”