05 Nov 2012

Interview with Dr Truchard National Instruments Co-Founder & President

Our Editor, Ian Poole talks to Dr Truchard, of National instruments about its beginnings, the company philosophy, new products and the direction of future technology

Formed in 1976, National Instruments is now one of the major players in the wider electronics industry although it had its foundation in the test and measurement sector.

National Instruments is famous for its development of high performance PXI based instrumentation, and also for LabVIEW which was originally termed its graphical test environment. This has now been developed and its applications broadened to become what they now call a graphical system design tool.

LabVIEW is being used for everything from controlling small test equipment set-ups to very much larger systems such as the CERN Particle Accelerator i.e. the Large Hadron Collider.

When compared to other electronics giants, National Instruments is relatively young, being founded in 1976 in by Dr Truchard, Jeff Kodosky and Bill Nowlin in a garage. Their first product appeared just a year later and was a GPIB instrument.

Now the company is global, with its headquarters in Austin Texas and offices in more than 40 countries around the world. Growth in terms of its turnover has also been rapid, and 2011 saw its turnover exceed $1 billion for the first time. The company has around 6,300 employees and along with a customer base of 35,000+ companies that are served annually.

Coupled to this, National Instruments has an excellent employment record and is recognized as one of the top 25 multinational workplaces - a factor borne out by the cooperation and demeanour of the employees in all the dealings I have had with them.

National Instruments founders

Despite the success of the company, the co-founders still have a remarkably down to earth and hands-on approach. They are not aloof as many CEOs and executives – for example Dr Truchard still drives his pick-up truck into work and has his desk alongside others in the open-plan office. He is also affectionately known as “Dr T” by his employees.

As a result, we decided to find out what made National Instruments tick by interviewing Dr Truchard the Co-Founder President and CEO.

As Dr T walked towards me for the interview he had a smile on his face and appeared relaxed and amiable. We greeted each other and then sat down to chat.

Beginnings

I was interested to hear about how Dr T came to enter electronics and find out where his interest lay.

Explaining this Dr T started by saying: “It was a two point story. The first part is that growing up I built crystal radios originally to listen to broadcasts. That’s hobby stuff, but it kindled my first interest in electronics. Then I studied for two degrees in physics and I was working full time in the area of acoustics which is basically physics. With time I gravitated towards electronics in my job and got interested in building low noise amplifiers, power amplifiers and things like that.”

Dr Truchard, Co-Founder President and CEO of National Instruments

Dr Truchard, Co-Founder President and CEO of National Instruments

“In the meantime after getting my master’s degree I started working on my Ph.D. and I switched to electrical engineering for a variety of reasons. In physics there is a lot of speculation about concepts. In electrical engineering things were a lot more concrete so I switched to electrical engineering and I got my Ph D. In the meantime I was working on a lot of projects in electronics at the university, so that was kinda how it all started.”

Wondering where he studied, I asked where it was that he studied. I should have anticipated the reply: “In the University of Texas, here in Austin.”

National Instruments foundation

I was keen to find out more about the beginnings of National Instruments, so I asked Dr T how the company was founded.

“Well I finished my Ph.D and I was working in the University research lab - I wanted to stay in Austin. I also wanted to set up a company and after a couple of years I had a couple of ideas. Jeff Kodosky who I was working with and I voted on what product we could make. The idea that won was a GPIB interface that we could design and sell. We chose that because we had been working with computers so it was pretty natural that we should look at making an interface. So we founded the company in 1976.”

National Instruments' First Product - A GPIB Interface

National Instruments' First Product - A GPIB Interface

So can you expand a little more on your first product?

“There was a new standard for connecting instruments to computers and HP was making computers and the instruments but there were a lot of scientists and engineers that were using PDP11 computers from Digital Equipment Corporation. We offered an alternative of driver software to go with it so it proved to be a very good starting point because it was between computers and instruments. Even at this early stage we said that we were going to revolutionise instruments and instrumentation with computers.”

“So we were very fortunate that we were looking at the right product and we had the right customer and then we introduced it for the PC and it was really great. The personal computer was great because you did not need to go to the IT department to make it work and that was quite different to how computers worked before - this was right back in the first days of personal computers.”

I asked whether they did anything on the Apple 2?

Dr T replied: No we didn’t, I had to work to convince Jeff to work on the PC as these early ones were kinda wimpy in comparison to the big computers.”

LabVIEW born

Having developed the hardware products and interface how did you then go on to develop LabVIEW?

“Well I wanted to invent a programming language and Jeff wanted to do for test and measurement what the spread-sheet had done for the PC. So with LabVIEW we both got our wish. In 1983 Jeff started working on how to figure out what would be the application software that would meet that goal. Then he saw a [Apple] Macintosh and was inspired to use graphics. Scientists and engineers typically use data flow to describe their work. But Jeff saw a data flow diagram that had an error on it and this proved to be a real inspiration. Jeff thought that we could do better so we worked on that creating a dataflow diagram with structures that would describe the tests that were required. That was the real breakthrough in developing our programming language.”

Jeff Kodosky in 1988 with Early Version of LabVIEW

Jeff Kodosky in 1988 with Early Version of LabVIEW

So what were the challenges with getting the product accepted because it was a really new form of programming for this application?

“It turned out well because our new system was graphical and it was on the Macintosh which was graphical. Also the Mac was used by the revolutionaries, the ones that wanted something different. In fact the Mac never really had an end user programming language like BASIC, so graphics worked very well.”

“So we provided a good programming language for the Mac and it turned out to be really lucky that we were on the Mac. Also it takes some years to develop the system because many languages use an interpreter and many people built giant programmes and they would be way too slow. We aimed at a compiler and in 1990 we came out with it. We introduced LabVIEW 2 but it would not ship until January 1990, it was a painful time because we had to make sure it was right before we shipped any. Once we had the compiler it was very successful and met the speed requirements people needed.”

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About the author

Ian Poole is the editor of Radio-Electronics.com. Having studied at University College London to gain his degree he went on to undertake a career in electronic development working for companies including Racal. He became the hardware development manager at Racal Instruments where he was in charge of the hardware development activities within the company. Later moving in to freelance work as a consultant he also developed Radio-Electronics.com to become one of the leading publications for professional electronics engineers. He is also a Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology and is the author of over 20 books.

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