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Ron Wolfe: My Work at NI

What were some of the things you worked on with NI?

When I started with NI in the summer of 1982, NI had a contract from the Navy from a guy named Larry Gray (I believe) that they had worked with for many years at ARL doing their submarine sonar work.  It was a consulting contract where NI was supposed to design, build, and deliver 6 units of a custom “arbitrary waveform generator” box instrument for the Navy to use in their towed array sonar testing – which is the same kind work the NI founders did when they worked at ARL.  This new ARB was state of the art for the time and had features and capabilities that they didn’t have before from existing products, so they had a contract to build an innovative new box instrument tailored for special features needed for the submarine sonar testing.  

When I started that summer, I learned NI had apparently been getting paid for some time under this contract but hadn’t yet done much work on it so there was an intense focus to get it done because we had to deliver the 6 units at the end of 1982 (six months away!).  Audrey Harvey had just started a few months before me, and she was working on the “digital board” design (with Bill) that created and generated the arbitrary waveforms encoded and stored in memory in digital format.   That digital waveform subsystem was then going to be connected to a digital-to-analog conversion subsystem such that the digital waveform data could be “streamed” out of memory to the D-to-A conversion subsystem so that the digital values were converted to analog signals to create the actual analog output waveforms.  Dr T was doing the analog design in his head, and he had some hand drawn chicken scratch schematics for pieces and parts of the analog boards that were needed but he hadn’t yet built anything. This was before PCs, so everything back then was hand drawn! Even the PCB layout was done by hand by Jim Bacon using a light table and razor exacto knives and colored tape on clear plastic sheets that represented the circuit board’s layers (usually 2, sometimes up to 3 or 4 for the complex boards!).

So, during that summer I built Dr T’s analog board designs and he and I debugged and tweaked and improved them to make it work as needed.  Back then everything was built on prototype boards with holes and sockets with pins that stick through to the bottom and you wired the connections by hand using a wire-wrap tool, a schematic, and a highlighter to mark the wires as you installed each one. In addition, there was another digital subsystem that provided the front panel user interface – it had lots of buttons and a display etc. that the user interacted with to make the unit work.  I also designed, built, and debugged that part of the product together with Bill Nowlin.  There was also a GPIB interface on the back that you use to control the thing from a computer – I think Bill designed that – anyway as I recall all the software to make it all work was done by Kyle, Kim, and perhaps some by Jeff but I’m not sure who did what.  The fun and amazing part is that I had a lot of fun and did a LOT in a short time, and we DID deliver the 6 units in January 1983.  We never productized it because it was a special project contracted just for the Navy.  This was SO much fun, and SO different from my IBM internships where I never saw anything that was product or customer related!

The ARB instrument we build for the Navy was called the Model 6100 (what a sexy name LOL!) I don’t know the details of who actually owned the IP in that product – whether since it was contract work for the Navy perhaps the IP was also owned by the Navy as part of the contract, or whether NI had an option to sell it to anyone else.  But I know it was fairly tailored for specific Navy work and we had our hands full just making 6 of them that worked reliably so I don’t think there was ever any desire to make it a standard product.  I don’t even know if the actual COGS (cost of goods sold – the cost to build) would even have been competitive as a standard product in the general instrument marketplace.  I know we were all just very relieved to be done with that commitment!

Now, as I understand and recall, the desire at that time was to eventually be a “standard product” company making standard products to sell to many customers, but the reality was cash flow is king so the actual working business strategy (like many companies) was to also to do “engineering for hire” anywhere they could find work.  

I remember one time when my paycheck was delayed for a few, and at our weekly “all hands” meetings back them Dr T would chew our asses out saying everyone needed to “work harder” – and he would show us the numbers.  That’s another key point – the communication at NI was always very open and honest – didn’t hide things or sugar coat things. I know that before I got there some of the folks got paid partially in cash money and partially in stock equity if cash flow was an issue.  I know Dr T, Jeff, Bill and some others like Bill Lawson (technician) made a whole BUNCH of money because they paid themselves in stock when cash was tight, and that stock turned out to be worth a lot.  My sense is that Jim was always the first one to “sacrifice” (LOL) and pay himself in equity because he wanted to make sure that others could get their cash – which I believe is one of the reasons why Jim had so much more stock than anyone else.  I sometimes worried in the early days about the viability of NI long term, and whether it would make it (I remember thinking – “How many GPIB interfaces can the World need? This seems like a pretty narrow niche”), but I was having so much fun and really enjoyed the people and the work – plus I was young and single and lived in a mobile home so I just kept the faith and kept working.  My father was concerned when I took the job at NI because IBM had made me an offer too and he thought I should work for IBM.  But as I described, at IBM I never saw how anything I worked on or anything that people around me worked on bore any resemblance to IBM actually making a product that was sold to any customer.  Yet in one summer at NI we actually MADE A PRODUCT!  My mother’s advice was to “follow my heart” and that’s what I did, and it worked out well.

Another example I worked on for a while in 1983 was a “Credit Card Fuel Pump System” – exactly like the ones exist today all over the world.  It used the newly introduced IBM PC for the control system. Back then I believe Dr T got the idea from a guy at his church and we worked on that for about a year (I’m not sure what the financial arrangement was I think it was a co-investment project somehow not just a pure contract job because NI owned it).  The target customer was “fleets” of trucks (not general consumers in cars).  

Anyway at some point in 1983 Dr T read the famous article that convinced him the key to success was to “focus” and “dominate your market niche” – so he decided to spin that out by creating a separate company called National Business Control Systems (NBCS).  Jerry Olson (the VP and HR guy that actually signed my employment paperwork) went with it and was the President/CEO of that – Bill Lawson (technician) went with NBCS also for a while and then came back to NI – Dr T was a major shareholder and it survived for a least a decade but I don’t know how it ultimately ended up.  

When Dr T told me about the spin-off, he asked me what I wanted to do and I said, “If NI is going to do GPIB then I want to do GPIB – which is what I then did along with everyone else”.

The reason I say “along with everyone else” is that 1983 was quite an exciting time because the IBM PC had just emerged into the world.  IBM was looking for someone to do a GPIB interface for them to sell so they could sell it into scientific applications, and NI was one of about a half dozen or more companies that competed for that business.  In the end NI won the business and the main reason was that the software (Jeff K’s domain) we proposed was a more modern and better approach with more features than the others (I was told) but I also know it came down to price.  I didn’t work on that project directly – it was Audrey and Bill that did the hardware design (which was very simple) and Kyle, Kim, Jeff and another guy whose name I can’t remember and perhaps even another person or two – the software was the more difficult part and the timeframe was very tight.  

I remember IBM (or perhaps NI) had included some nice “bonus money” rewards if certain dates were met.  There was also a lot of work to write the documentation (user manuals, help files, etc.) and other materials that were included with the product.  We were very fortunate to win that business!  Why? Not because of the money for sure.  As I recall IBM paid us $95 per board, and the retail price they (and we) sold GPIB interfaces for the PC was $395.  So, NI didn’t make any profit at all I don’t believe on that business – but IBM bought and sold many thousands of boards and they were all branded as “National Instruments” – so the reason it was so important is because that made NI the “de facto” standard for GPIB interfaces.  

In the subsequent years we designed many many more GPIB boards – I personally, for example, designed the GPIB boards for the IBM PCjr, Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) Rainbow PC, Compaq’s PC, the IEEE-961P (STD bus) and IEEE-1014 (VME bus) used in industrial computers, as well as PCs and other minicomputers from Sun, Texas Instruments, etc.  I also designed GPIB “protocol analyzer” products, and we did GPIB extender products, we even had a GPIB “network product family” that some people (including NI) used to create their own computer networks to just connect computers together (this was before Ethernet) and even made our own GPIB cables. So having IBM brand NI as the “standard” for GPIB led to our focus and success in this critical niche (the intersection of computers and instruments) and our ability to realize our vision in our slogan as “The Leader in IEEE-488 Interfaces.”

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