Electronic Design

National Instruments Goes Heavy On Training

National Instruments has already has been named to a few noteworthy lists of the best places to launch a career. Now, it can add itself to our Top 100 Employers In Electronic Design.

For most companies -- especially NI, whose founders still run the show -- being a top employer is primarily about the corporate culture.

"We understand the competitive advantage we have is a result of our culture," says Mark Finger, vice president of human resources. "We win if we have the best minds."

The company's emphasis on quality employees in large part accounts for why NI recruits so many entry-level engineers. Of the 131 new graduates hired in 2005, 85% were engineers. This process has been going on for years, which helps account for the fact that the average age of the company?s U.S.-based employees is 33.

Since the company was founded 30 years ago, recent graduates have constituted about 85% of new NI engineering hires. The company's three- and five-year retention rates are 85% and 77%, respectively -- statistics Finger says are better than the industry average by several percentage points.

"If we're bleeding people, we're bleeding value," says Finger, an NI employee for nearly 12 years.

Once they've joined the company, engineering graduates can take advantage of several career development opportunities through professional training sessions, which average 25 to 40 hours per year. The company has significantly increased its emphasis on employee training in the last three to five years on several fronts, ranging from technical hardware and software instruction to leadership and supervisory training. The supervisory development course covers 11 modules, each requiring three hours of training.

Additional in-house training opportunities include management development, project and time management, and the company's Engineering Leadership Program (ELP). About half of NI's new employees participate in ELP, allowing them to address challenges creatively, help shape the company's products, and choose the direction of their careers. Program engineers work extensively with every department in NI over a two-year development period. Most of their time is spent providing tech support for the company's customers, facilitating customer classes, and carrying out special projects. One program goal is to help new technical professional hires to learn the company's products. Another is to help them determine what direction they want to take in their careers.

"\[The program\] forces them to learn the product and do problem solving," says Finger. "We think it's healthy to be yelled at by a customer. It makes you a better design engineer down the road."

Upon completion of the program, participants are free to pursue technical sales, marketing, and research and development assignments. Many are encouraged to apply for leadership positions.

"We hired 125 engineers this year," says Finger, all of whom participate in the ELP program. "We'll know in two and a half years what they want to know."

In what has been described as a representative combination of NI's growth as well as an interest in retaining some of its best performing and most experienced people, NI recently named eight new vice presidents, almost doubling its executive ranks. The new vice presidents have, on average, almost 19 years of experience with the company.

The bottom line for NI, says Finger, is trust -- "trust in the organization and in its employees."

Much of the challenge is in the company's growth. "As you get bigger, it gets tougher," notes Finger. "We're fighting that all the time." But NI hasn't seemed to have a problem growing its operations. The company more than tripled its revenue over the past 10 years from a little over $200 million in 1996 to $660 million in 2006.

How concerned are Finger and other top executives that the corporate culture that helped make NI successful might change when the company's top executives eventually retire?

"Everybody asks us about life someday without Dr. T," Finger says, referring to NI president, cofounder, and CEO James Truchard. "We hope that's many years away, but we're planning for that now and know it will come someday. We cannot be successful if, the day he retires, everything goes to hell in a handbasket."

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