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NI execs' enthusiasm undimmed

Posted: 04 Apr 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:National Instruments? Ace Awards?

Right after being honored with lifetime achievement awards at the UBM Electronics ACE Awards, National Instruments Corp. (NI) co-founders James Truchard and Jeff Kodosky sat down with EE Times to talk about the past 35 years since they formed NI.

From its humble beginnings, NI is now a company with billion-dollar revenues (as of 2011) and a workforce of 6,200. The first three years of the company's existence were not easy. Truchard and Kodosky were working at the University of Texas on a sonar test system while also working on their degrees and running their own company together with fellow co-founder Bill Nowlin.

Truchard recalled that the University of Texas Applied Research Laboratories had a contract with the U.S. Navy, which they worked on during the day. They were using mini-computers to process data from numerous instruments and they decided to create a product that would make that more efficient, a general purpose instrument bus (GPIB) interface for a PDP11 computer. GPIB was also known as HPIB and was invented by Hewlett-Packard Co. as a means of controlling lab instruments. It was selected because it offered the highest performance and the lowest latency available at the time.

During lunch they would cross the road to their newly acquired office to answer NI's customer service requests.

As a result of this moonlighting activity Truchard didn't join NI as a full-time employee until 1979 and Kodosky joined in 1980.

"It was 1983, when we ported GPIB to the PC, that volume took off," said Truchard. "It was also when I asked Jeff to come up with a way of automating the measurements. We wanted a programming language that would do for instrumentation what the spreadsheet had done for finance."

LabView was launched in 1986 as a programming language based on structured dataflow methods but with the unusual feature of having a graphical interface.

"We took the Macintosh computer, with its graphical interface as an inspiration," said Truchard. "We didn't launch LabView on the PC until 1992. So when we were doing I/O and data acquisition boards for the Mac we had no competition. When we released it on PC we took the world by storm. That was September 1992," Truchard noted.

LabView the solution for parallel processing?
The company went public in March 1995 having been private for 19 years. The company continues to provide a broad mix of software and modular hardware to help engineers design and deploy systems for measurement, automation, and embedded applications.

NI's involvement with Apple in the 1980s and 1990s was an inspiration, Truchard said and through those contacts NI absorbed a bit of their way of looking at the world. "We wanted to do for embedded what the PC did for the desktop," he added.

NI execs at the UBM's ACE Awards

From left: James Truchard, NI CEO; EE Time's Junko Yoshida; Jeff Kodosky, business and technology Fellow at NI; and EE Time's Patrick Mannion.
Photo credit: Trish Tunney

NI has become a global company during a period when large amounts of manufacturing have migrated to Southeast Asia. Is that a concern for Truchard. "How can we compete? One way is better tools," he said, referencing what his company provides but acknowledging that NI tools and methods are adopted in the east as well as in the west.

Kodosky pointed out that NI is involved in education programs that are necessary to raise the number of young people fluent in science, technology, engineering and math. "We work on Lego Mindstorm program," he said. LabView offers abstraction and flexibility which allows it go from kindergarten to beam-line control on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Europe.

What is next for NI and LabView? "RF measurements and software defined radio," said Truchard. "LabView is great for parallel processing on heterogeneous platforms. We've knocked that out the park," he added.

But don't the dataflow roots of LabView restrict its utility? Kodosky was quick to defend the graphical language. "It's more general than people think. It is a more fundamental model. We have something that is the programming paradigm of the future," he answered.

The over-riding impression is that Truchard and Kodosky are as energetic, enthusiastic and full of plans today as they were when they were launching the company 35 years ago, which promises yet more great things for the future.

- Peter Clarke
??EE Times

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