Dave Plummer BSc'93 has realized incredible success since he graduated from the University of Regina’s computer science program in 1993. He has had a long and distinguished career at Microsoft and is the man behind the Window’s Task Manager. Three years ago he was diagnosed with autism and his perspectives changed forever.
On the day Dave Plummer graduated from the University of Regina he packed his fiancé Nicole’s belongings into a moving van, and then married her the following day. Two days later they flew from Regina to Seattle, where he would begin working full-time at his dream job at Microsoft.
The story of those eventful few days – one of many Plummer relates in his book Secrets of the Autistic Millionaire - takes on greater significance because at that time he had no inkling that he was a person with autism. People on the autism spectrum are uncomfortable with change, he explains, and those action-packed few days had “big change” written all over them.
The Autism diagnosis
When he was first diagnosed with Autism three years ago, he didn’t want to be labeled or constrained, so in the past few years he has undertaken a number of things that were outside his comfort zone. Those included writing his book, hosting a catered party for 50 friends and launching a YouTube channel, Dave’s Garage, where he talks about software coding and programming, and projects that he worked on at Microsoft.
While he had dropped hints on the channel, in November 2021 Plummer revealed that he was a person with autism, describing his reaction and explaining that, for him, pushing into uncharted territory would lead to personal growth. He published the book with similar goals in mind, offering a more upbeat, optimistic approach than what he found online. Plummer says the subtitle - Everything I know about Autism, ASD and Asperger’s that I wish I’d known back then - more accurately describes his purpose in writing it.
"I find the online support groups to be full of angst and negativity and bitterness,” Plummer observes. “So, if nothing else I’m trying to bring a message of, ‘Life with some autism can be spectacular, and the more you know about it the better you’ll manage with it.’” Plummer has received “a lot of great feedback”, especially from parents with kids on the autism spectrum, encouraging him to set up a separate YouTube channel, The Autistic Millionaire, to explore topics related to it. One of his messages is that an early diagnosis is helpful, and that each child’s situation is different.
Reflecting back on his early life in Regina, Plummer notes that he liked talking to adults more than kids. After school he would walk over to his father’s hardware store on College Avenue East and hang out in the back of the store, which he describes as a combination workshop and informal coffee club. Within walking distance were the laundromat that his grandfather managed, the local confectionery, drug store or barber shop. “I think being around adults was highly useful in developing my ‘masking’ ability,” Plummer explains. “In other words, I was socializing and observing how to ‘fit in’, which for people with significant ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) requires effort and work.”
Some adults noticed that Plummer was different from other kids, and made accommodations for that. He still keeps in touch with his beloved fourth grade teacher at Arcola School, Mrs. Donna Harvey, who gave him special projects to work on - for example, a report on all Soviet and American space launches at that time - to help maintain his interest in school.
Plummer’s engagement with computer science began when he was about 12 and his mother enrolled him in a computer class at the University of Regina that enabled him to explore his interest in programming.
"I soon realized that I could come back pretty much any time the lab was open and work on whatever I wanted, so I came in on weekends,” Plummer says. “If there was no formal class going on, as long as you acted like you were supposed to be there, few took any notice of me.”
Plummer enrolled in the gifted student program at Miller High School, but after that folded he lost interest in school, skipping classes, creating video games for the Commodore 64, cruising in his car. After dropping out he worked different jobs until a friend hauled him down to the U of R campus and urged him to look into the Adult Entry program. When he saw the prerequisites he was missing it seemed logical to him to complete them at Miller, persuading the principal that he had reformed enough to graduate, which he did. “I then entered the U of R in 1989 and never looked back.”
Plummer describes the Computer Science program as close to ideal for someone on the spectrum, and “fairly elementary” for him until fourth year, where he experienced his favourite classes - advanced operating systems, graphics, languages and algorithms - and his favourite professors, Dr. Howard Hamilton and Dr. Xue Dong Yang (both of whom are still members of the Faculty). Both were very influential for him, he notes.
Dr. Hamilton recalls that Plummer was one of 21 students in the first class on introductory operating systems that he taught in 1991, and among the 12 in the first offering of a course about advanced operating systems. “It felt like 12 of the cleverest and keenest students from my four introductory classes were collected together, and Dave was one of them,” says Dr. Hamilton. “I could tell he would do well because of his hard work, meticulously done assignments and determination to master programming skills.”
Prior to his fourth year, Plummer acknowledges, he had no clear idea of what a job or career in computers might look like, but while working at SaskTel over a summer he read Hard Drive, a book about Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and the rapid growth of the company. With what he describes as hyper focus, Plummer decided he wanted to work for Microsoft. “I had no second choices or fallback plans.”
Microsoft comes calling
He was successful in landing an internship after his third year - as far as he knows the lone Canadian among thirty interns - before returning to the U of R, where he graduated in January 1993 with a BSc degree in Computer Science, with High Honours. By that time Plummer had received a full-time job offer from Microsoft, which he eagerly accepted. He recalls comparing notes with two other fellows who started the same week - one from MIT and the other from Harvard - who discovered they had received the same starting salary, to the penny. “As a result of that I’ve always worn my U of R alumni status as a badge of honour. I received a great education and entered a very competitive industry without the virtue of a name brand that allowed me to start the race on third base, so to speak.”
While working on Microsoft Windows-related projects, Plummer continued programming at home, creating a Task Manager application that he had planned to distribute as (try before you buy) shareware. However, a supervisor that he showed it to liked it, and it became part of the Windows operating system. Over the past 25 years 2.2 billion people have used TaskManager, a fact that Plummer finds rewarding. “I made it for myself because I wanted it, and that is often a great way to start,” he says.
Plummer left Microsoft in 2003, founding SoftwareOnline, which distributed software titles on disk and by download. The company at its peak employing 35 people as it evolved to provide more technical and security support to users. It was purchased by another support and security company in 2009.
Looking back on his experiences Plummer refers to the Japanese concept of Ikigai -- something that gives a person a sense of purpose, or that brings pleasure or fulfilment. He is fortunate, he says, to have that feeling in his life. “Working on my own gives me flexibility to chase things that interest me, and so I start and finish a lot of projects, which is always educational and keeps things fresh.”