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Ron Wolfe: Evolution of NI Culture

What was the company was like when you first started working with NI and what are some of the changes you experienced as the company grew?

In my opinion Technology Blvd was the “most formative office” in company history. It was where the company actually became successful and transformed from a small consulting/product company “for hire” into a REAL product company that finally focused on dominating our market niche using standard products and became a growing force in our industry (GPIB control that connects instruments and computers together).  

That timeframe is also when the PC emerged and was transforming many parts of the technology world and we rode that wave successfully.  The 80s were a special time in technology history what with the PC and Mac and all – computers were affordable to almost everyone and it was an exciting special time for lots of folks including NI so it was exciting for us at NI not just because of NI but because of all the change and innovation happening everywhere.  

It’s where we hired many, many employees (hundreds), many of which have been lifelong friends (some even married each other, etc.), many of which started their own families with lots of weddings and babies that we would all watch grow into adults alongside our own children, and many of which enjoyed long 20-30+ year careers at NI.  We had a lot of social interaction – keg parties all the time, folks working late into the night and weekends all the time, lots of group lunches, lots of company parties and picnics, lots of movie nights, lots of fun and creative “contests”, lots of fun things like “ringing a big bell whenever we got an order over $1000, Halloween and Christmas parties, and lots of sports activities with brand new NI softball teams, soccer teams, running teams, tennis and racquetball, etc. 

Also the company was small enough that there were lots of “company meetings” – they were simply “all hands” meetings and they happened almost weekly (unlike later where a company meeting eventually required NI to rent a huge offsite facility such as a large church and was live cast all over the world) – where Dr T would either chew our asses out or praise some success, or heaven forbid give us his dreaded “triangle” presentation that he would practice on us for the 10,000th time explaining our values and culture and how all the pieces of the many triangles fit together. He would do this not only to beat it into our brains yet again but also to tweak it and make it a little better each time.  You may not know this but Dr T was not a very good speaker at the beginning – he had a sort of stuttering problem and/or slight speech impediment I think – it was fairly obvious and sometimes a bit uncomfortable – but by God the man never stopped practicing on us and he transformed over the years in front of all our eyes into one hell of a great inspirational speaker.

It’s where we changed from selling through reps/distributors to going direct and opening NI-owned sales offices all over the world to control our own channel.  This is very important because we started out selling through reps/distributors that were the guys that sold the box instruments that customers would use our GPIB interfaces to connect to with their computers.  As such, the majority of these distributor’s business was not our GPIB cards (we very a TINY part of their business), it was the expensive instruments – and on top of that ALL of the larger instrument companies at the time (like Hewlett-Packard, Tektronix, etc.) also had their own scientific software similar to ours that they sold to use with the PC and their instruments (but their software supported our GPIB cards – except for Hewlett-Packard they sold their own competitive GPIB card).  

So, when NI began to expand beyond GPIB interfaces into software and ultimately DAQ plug-in boards that “replaced” box instruments at a much lower price, the distributors weren’t really that interested in selling our new “other” stuff because it was in conflict with their other big revenue products they were selling from their “more important vendors” that accounted for the majority of the distributors’ revenue.  For us to realize our vision and strategy, those other companies all would eventually become our competitors – and this was a HUGE risk for our ability to grow.  

So, going direct with our own sales channel was very important in the NI story because we HAD to control our own destiny.  This issue became especially acute in the 1986-87 timeframe when we launched LabVIEW because it was on the Macintosh and the entire WORLD including our reps/distributors viewed the Mac as a toy and not a “real” scientific computer – so they did not want to waste their time and money trying to sell LabVIEW – that fact was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made it apparent that we had to go direct. It was especially important because we knew we also wanted to make DAQ boards to replace instruments and that would strike at the core revenue of distributors in a big way.  This was as existential threat to NI because here is what happens: as SOON as you tell one rep or distributor that you’re going to open your own office and not use them anymore, ALL the other reps and distributors hear about it – and what do they do?  They STOP investing any time or effort into NI because they know they will be next.  Taking control of our channel directly was perhaps one of the biggest risks in our history in my opinion – it was certainly not easy, but Don Nadon did a masterful job.

In addition to going direct with our own sales channel, Technology Blvd is where we built our own Marketing Organization and began the journey to build the NI Brand in a worldwide leader in Measurement and Automation (I was the first Product Marketing manager when Dr T asked me to work on Jeff’s project which would become LabVIEW).  Another key point, Technology Blvd is where we developed not only LabVIEW (the product that got us our first magazine front covers and caught the attention of the world including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Bill Joy (Sun) and many others – and really made NI known all over the world as a disruptive innovator), but also LabWindows and other software products and it’s where we expanded into building our own instrument products in the form of PC plug-in data acquisition boards that replaced box instruments.  It’s also where the NI culture was born and developed with many lasting friendships and memories and lots of company vision materials and “The NI Way” were shaped and documented and formalized.

One reply on “Ron Wolfe: Evolution of NI Culture”

A few memories from Technology Blvd:

Technology Blvd was the classic one story industrial office complex where you could have any combination of companies by just adjusting where the walls and doors were. When I started at NI in 1987, NI was primarily down on the one side of the building, During this time as NI was growing, many companies were struggling and other occupants of the building we were in would close down and/or move. As NI grew we would punch a hole in the adjoining wall, place a door and expand into the adjoining space. The spaces were all different as they were originally designed by the first companies to take that space. We didn’t bother redesigning the space, we just took it as it was. The focus was on growth, and punching through to an adjoining space was a great internal signal that we were growing. As we would expand into new spaces at Technology Blvd. there would be times that multiple people would have to work out of a larger office, and in many cases all the members of a team wouldn’t always be able to co-locate. (I had one instance as a Product Manager where I was moved into a space that clearly had been a closet for a prior company in that space.

Dr T was clearly MBWA – management by walking around. He would always be cruising around to see who he could find to discuss his ideas of the day. He continued that style throughout his leadership at NI, even as we became much larger.

Another funny memory from Technology Blvd was Nila, our front door receptionist. She would great vendors and take calls that came into the company, and then over the paging system announce who had a call or a guest waiting. At one point in the expansion at Technology Blvd we basically had two separate phone systems, and if you wanted to call someone on the other side of the building you would have to call the outside number that Nila would answer, and then ask her to connect you to the employee you wanted to speak with. She was effectively a switchboard operator.

Manufacturing was in the back of the Technology Blvd space, and often the shaded parking spots were behind the building, so walking in you would just walk right through the manufacturing benches, occasionally stopping to see what products they were building (and perhaps asking if you could grab one to use).

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