Electronic Design
Q&A: After 40 Years, NI’s “One Thing” Still Going Strong(er)

Q&A: After 40 Years, NI’s “One Thing” Still Going Strong(er)

Forty years after its founding, National Instruments’ virtual instrumentation approach to test and measurement is only hitting its stride as we enter the software and Internet of Things era.

National Instruments co-founders Dr. T. and Jeff Kodosky amidst NI’s 40th anniversary celebrations. It’s not often a city (Austin) names a day after your company.

It was 40 years ago that Dr. James Truchard, Jeff Kodosky, and Bill Nowlin teamed up to co-found National Instruments around one core tenet: a software-based approach to test and measurement.

In the four decades since its founding, the company has grown in value to over $3.5 billion and its technology has become part of the history of physics and electronics research & development, as well as test and measurement. In the meantime, it has also become part of the fabric of Austin, Texas, employing over 2,500 people locally. So entrenched is it that the City of Austin declared May 14 to be NI Day.

Over the years, using what seems a simple premise—combine analog-to-digital conversion and digital processing with easy-to-use software (LabView)—the company has stuck to its “one thing,” while enabling innovators the world over to do many things, driving innovation in particle physics, healthcare, automotive, and consumer electronics. Most recently it added the Higgs boson particle and the detection of gravitational waves to its list of breakthoughs to which it has contributed.

Now the company is leading the charge to 5G, and in the run-up to his keynote at the IMS2016 conference in San Francisco this week, Dr. Truchard—or Dr. T., as he is affectionately known—spent some time with Electronic Design to discuss how NI got started, how it has maintained its focus, where it temporarily faltered, what engineers should be looking at, careers wise, and what excites him about the future, including some highlight points from his IMS2016 keynote.

Can you tell us how it all started?

Dr. T: I had a PhD and I worked in acoustics in the area where we had to make measurements that couldn’t be made by traditional test and measurement equipment.

The last thing I did while I worked at the university [of Texas, at Austin] was build what we would now call a virtual instrumentation system using analog-to-digital (A/D) converters and computers, and that really would set a vision that we have lived with ever since.

What did that initial system comprise?

Dr. T.: A PDP-11. Actually, three of them, running four A/D converters to digitize sharp acoustic pulses that had to be done with pulse measurements instead of CW [continuous wave] measurements. It required specialized equipment to do that. 

It’s still to this day basically the way we make measures. It’s software, computers, and digitizers.

Did you and Jeff found NI right after you left college? 

Dr. T.: We did. We stepped back and recognized that people were going to hook traditional instruments to computers and with a new standard interface called GPIB, the General Purpose Interface Bus. We saw a market need and something we could design and sell with the finite resources we had. So we picked that as a starting point.

You haven’t deviated too far from your home base over the years.

Dr. T.: No, I haven’t. Actually, I was working at the research lab right across the street while I was getting my PhD. I didn’t move very far. I always say that I started a company so that I could create a job for myself because I wanted to stay in Austin, so that’s what I did.

How have you modified or changed your technology over the years to get to where you are now?

Dr. T.: For us, the real starting point, beyond interfacing to the instruments, was to recognize that scientists and engineers needed the higher level of productivity. So what we set out to do was to do for test and measurement what the spreadsheet had done for financial analysis. And with our LabView [April 1986] product we did that.

Looking back on those early years, what were really some of the things that really stand out as being successes?

Dr. T.: As wins, certainly the track of following the instrumentation market with instrument interfaces, then software, then A/D converters boards, and on into modular instrumentation, all built around a common theme of this new way of building instrumentation [virtual instrumentation].

Very few companies have been able to maintain that singular focus over 40 years: NI is one of the few that’s maintained its basic premise and it hasn’t changed that much. Is that a fair statement?

Dr. T.: That’s right. As a matter of fact, there’s a book called The One Thing, and basically it talks about what is the one thing that you need to align with.

For us, that one thing was about this virtual instrumentation, this software-based approach to making measurements. The analysis data—what we sometimes talk about as big analog data—is part of that “one thing.”

The original NI co-founders: Dr. James Truchard, Jeff Kodosky, and Bill Nowlin.

Looking back, if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Dr. T.: Not that much. I would’ve probably been a little more diligent by sticking to the main strategy that we created. We have diversions from time to time. In the mid-’90s we got more involved in the industrial automation space without coming up with a truly differentiated software or hardware position.

If I were doing it over again, I would just be a little bit more diligent with sticking with the strategy. Fortunately, as you mentioned, we managed to do sufficiently well that we’re still doing pretty much the same thing.

Then looking at today’s technology and what’s required, what do you see as driving changes for test now versus five, 10, 15, 20 years ago? What changed for you?

Dr. T.: I sometimes describe it in terms of the core technology. If you look at the early 1900s, back then, tubes were center stage. General Radio [now GenRad] was really the leading instrumentation supplier in that time frame. Then it moved to transistors and integrated circuits, and Hewlett-Packard took over in the mid-’60s with technology.

We would claim now, in this time frame, it’s moved to software. We look at our smart mobile devices like the iPhone; it’s software-based. The PC, it’s software-based. The cloud: it’s all about the software. Software is center stage.

Has hardware actually diminished as a value proposition?

Dr. T.: Moore’s law has been very kind to hardware. We get higher performance for the processors, the A/D converters have been changing at a very rapid clip, and obviously software’s still the interface to the real world. However, the definition and complexity of what customers want to do has grown as software’s enabled them to do it. Basically, the software requires a much longer-term investment.

We also talk about platforms that you create. The [Apple] iOS, for example, as a platform which 1.25 million applications can be built on, and it’s those applications that interest the customers and give value to the customer. It’s the same for us where you can have a variety of different kinds of hardware, but the value is seen through the software.

Are there things that you’re looking to get into now that aren’t exactly on target for that one thing but you’re interested in?

Dr. T.: I would put it little differently. I’d say we’ve managed to expand what the “one thing” can do over time. The PXI hardware now is used in industrial applications where measurement and control are important, and the same is true of our Compact RIO and CompactDAQ. I’d say taking advantage of the adjacencies to the platform and position we’ve created in the marketplace.

With the understanding then that you’re really software-based and that’s your core strategy, are there any requirements of your hardware suppliers that you’d like?

Dr. T.: Basically we use Moore’s law. A/D converters that have become available in the RF and communication space are just incredible. That gives us, virtually on a continuous basis, new opportunities for our virtual instrumentation.

The RF components are getting better and better. Moore’s law is still very active for RF components, up/down converters, and things like that. It’s very active in terms of improvement and performance, so we’re just working to take advantage of them.

The basic building blocks are in place, so you just have to get better performance, lower cost, and lower power?

Dr. T.: That’s right. We work with FPGAs that continue to follow Moore’s law as well and give us more performance and more density and support.

What are some of the things that you’ll talk about in your IMS2016 keynote?

Dr. T.: I start out talking about convergence and how technologies have converged and you need a software-based platform that can test mechanical things of all different types—in the same system as the 5G wireless and all kinds of wireless communications and wireless devices. It’s a converged world.

That’s a key starting point. Then I talk a lot about 5G and how with our LabView communications design we’re working with many of the researchers on 5G across the spectrum, all the way up to above 150 gigahertz. Pretty much where everybody’s trying new things out there, we’re there doing it. 

Then I talk about test and how we’re able to go all the way from a design, through validation of chips, on into production tests, with essentially the same platform or the same hardware. We’re really are in the process of changing the rules of wireless communication tests. I also show a few examples of building radars, signal intelligence systems using the same platform that we’re doing our test and measurement with.

How do you define 5G?

Dr. T.: You’ve got obviously more bits, faster, higher data rates. The other dimension is latency. As we want to do real-time control, whether it’s a car radar, whether it’s with a smart machine, we want the ability to do things with low latency. That’s another vector.

Of all the technologies out there and the trends in the industry and technology, and even looking at industry as a whole, what is it about what’s happening that excites you most? Or maybe frustrates you most as well?

Dr. T.: From a test point of view, that’s pretty exciting to be able to take the same platform, actually prototype or demonstrate software algorithms in real-time in the real world, and then carry the devices that are created with these definitions all the way into production. That’s probably what we’re trying to do. It’s one of the more exciting areas.

What our customers do is truly incredible, whether it’s electric car manufacturing or a big physics experiment like CERN, where they discovered the Higgs boson, or most recently where Einstein’s gravitational waves were validated [LIGO]. These are all exciting things that we’re a part of. Pretty much where science and engineering is moving things forward with discovery and creating innovative products to make things better for society, National Instruments is there helping to do that.

Of the businesses that you got into originally percentage-wise, how has that changed over the years? 

Dr. T.: Take the car. The amount of electronic content has just skyrocketed over the years. Now that’s been a big factor, thanks to Moore’s Law. It’s really reliable, too, so the quality has gone up tremendously, thank God.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Dr. T.: Basically creating a company, creating products that really do make a difference. We talk about the 14 engineering Grand Challenges that the National Academy of Engineering put forward. We’ve been a big part of helping scientists and engineers make those things happen, so we can be really proud of that.

You play a big role in industries, universities and STEM, and all that. What is it that you do there and why?

Dr. T.: Fundamentally we see engineering and science as what makes change for the positive for society. I always say the tools we provide and things we do with our tools are the most-leveraged things we could possibly do to make life better for many people on the planet. That’s very rewarding, and of course engineers are playing a big role in that.

Do you think that engineering as a career, as a job, has changed over the years? How would you describe that change?

Dr. T.: Because Moore’s law has let you do more with the chips and a single chip can do more different things, the role of software has come up dramatically over the last number of years. Software interns are in very high demand, so that’s certainly a good place to be.

However, there are many areas, such as mechanical engineering, that connect closely to the real world, so it’s easy to see why somebody would enjoy doing that as well. It is an exciting career and I’ve been glad to be a big part of it.

On the convergence of physics, chemistry, and biology: Is that something you’ve seen as being interesting? The merging of what were once three different disciplines?

Dr. T.: One of the areas I’ve spoken on from time to time is cyber-physical systems, which cyber is the computer part, physical is the other things, physics and chemistry and all these things. As we go forward in the IoT, the “things” are things that we interact with, sense, and control elements of the real world.

So we’re going into an era of pervasive use of technology to interact with the world. And of course, for us, a key element of it is the big analog data that’s created in the process of this interaction of physical things and computers.

For Dr. T himself, what’s in your future? What is it that you want to do yourself?

Dr. T.: I keep very much tuned in to technology and I also continue to keep my garden up.

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