NI founder Jeff Kodosky managed to co-found and grow a company without abandoning the technology he loves. He told E&T how he managed it and where he sees industrial systems and mechatronics going next.
One of the original founders of data collection and automated test specialist National Instruments, his many fans call him 'the father of LabVIEW' - NI's visual dataflow programming software. Now, nearly 35 years after co-founding NI, Jeff Kodosky is still helping to develop engineering software - and still enthusing his fellow engineers with new ideas and concepts.
Today, NI employs over 5,000 people, and LabVIEW is used in applications from industrial automation to Lego's Mindstorms robotics kits. As Kodosky said when E&T caught up with him at NI's annual developer conference in its home town of Austin, Texas: 'I marvel at the position we find ourselves in, able to do rocket science on one hand and kindergarten toys on the other.'
No longer the company's vice-president of R&D, since 2000 he has held the title of Business and Technology Fellow. He says this puts him in the immensely fortunate position for a senior staff member within an engineering company of being able to engineer, not manage.
'We have two tracks at NI - the top of the technical one is Fellow, and senior vice president is the top management rung,' he explains. 'I define being a Fellow as having the ability to hack LabVIEW, to brainstorm and strategise - all the fun things. Fellows are expected to not only be technical but to influence others - by that I mean to disseminate ideas, do mentoring. It's less management-intensive and more ideas-intensive.'
He adds, 'I got rid of all the admin stuff that I didn't enjoy and wasn't so good at. Something I learned rather late in life is there are other people who like that stuff and are good at it, and are also technically good.'
Indeed, he attributes a significant part of NI's success and steady growth to the way it has enabled its people to advance without having to abandon one skillset and start learning another - for example, by being required to move from engineering into management in order to accept a promotion.
'We have a culture at NI that's different from many others,' he says. 'We've done things that made sense to us, we've tried to be honest and have integrity. Maybe it was dumb luck, maybe it was the personalities, but it sort of came natural that if someone really doesn't want to do management, can't we figure out a better way they can contribute? It's figuring out how to make the organisation work to get the best out of everybody.
'The thing I am most proud of at NI is the corporate culture we've built. We realised later on that we needed to preserve that, so we put effort into training and explaining it to new hires. We also tend to recruit straight out of college, so there are no preconceptions.'
He adds: 'It is really rare in the US now to find people with 25-year careers, but it seems natural to me.'
According to Kodosky, the company's founders also had - and its current management still has - a natural antipathy to the short-term thinking that he sees as characterising Wall Street and the financial markets in general. NI's conservative approach seems to have brought it through the recent financial melt-down with cash in hand, able to recruit the engineering talent others were laying off.
'One thing Dr T [Dr James Truchard, who co-founded NI with Kodosky and Bill Nowlin, and who now serves as its president and CEO] instituted when we went public was our 100-year plan that talks about corporate culture and integrity and our way of doing things. It was our reaction to short-term planning,' he says, only half joking.
Rejecting the Wall Street game has not left the company short of funding, he claims: 'We are open about our game-plan and philosophy, and we look for long-term investors. It's being open and honest - when we say there's an opportunity for long-term growth here, investors believe us.'
So 10 years into his role as Fellow, what keeps Kodosky himself enthused, and what does he see as the most exciting technological challenges or opportunities for LabVIEW looking forward?
'The big one is trying to conceive what it would be like to step up to the next level of abstraction,' he says. 'Hardware, software and timing all has to be part of that. In embedded systems there is so much richer content that needs to be taken into account - the only way to do it is abstraction.'
As well as developing software, NI also manufactures the hardware to run it on, such as its data acquisition systems and CompactRIO real-time controllers. The bulk of this is manufactured in Hungary, but the company has a small production site in Texas and is also now developing manufacturing facilities in Malaysia with a view to shifting more work there.
Kodosky says that the company's ability to design and build both hardware and software will be essential when it comes to making possible those higher levels of abstraction. He adds that, as processors become ever more complex and multi-threaded, timing will play an ever more important role within programming.
He explains that in his view a key inflection point is the evolution from static systems and sequential programming towards dynamic systems where timing is a critical element of the program. And he argues that this is an area where the engineering community is moving ahead of the computing specialists in terms of making the technology useful in the real world.
'The computer science community comes up with object-oriented programming, dynamic despatch, just-in-time... It doesn't apply to dynamic systems because there's no account given to timing, and worse, they are all based on sequential programming with threads,' he exclaims.
'We have kids in third-grade today doing embedded real-time programming on toys, but we're still teaching undergrads sequential programming!
'Another feature that keeps me going with LabVIEW is connection to the Web. I think there is so much more that can be done with connection to the Web. I don't know where it will lead, but if we make it convenient and accessible, people will finds things to do and innovate with it.
'So we are making sure we can integrate the hardware and software and work at the next level of abstraction and build real-time systems. That level of integration needs system design thinking.
'The focus is on building broad-based products so that creative and innovative people in other domains can pull together products and build something in a fraction of the time. If you build things that enable others to put things together, you enable people to do things that none of us can envision.'
Kodosky adds that another of his big interests is education, not only within engineering and science, but also in the wider world in which engineers and scientists must operate, even - or perhaps especially - among those of the general population who claim that they don't 'do' technology.
'We need to innovate our way out of our global problems,' he says. 'We don't just need more engineers and scientists, but we also need the general public to understand science better so they can make informed decisions.'
'What determines how far people can go [in understanding science and engineering] is their interest level. You do also need some innate talent but everyone can learn a little. So we need more people to go after a career in engineering but we also need to raise the general level.'
The flipside is that engineers also need to engage with non-engineers and recognise their value, he says. After all, having a professional interest and involvement in technology doesn't necessarily mean you have to be a technologist: 'For example, in a robotics project you might have some people interested in the electronics, some in mechanical - and also some in documenting the project and videoing it.'