Interview: Dr. James Truchard, Microwaves & RF Living Legend

July 14, 2015
The founder of National Instruments looks back on his long and storied career.
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LF: First things first, how does it feel to be a Living Legend?

JT: That’s a great question. I think when you graduate from high school, the number of “gold stars” you receive starts to dwindle, so it’s a real honor and pleasure to be recognized by Microwaves & RF. I truly appreciate receiving this award and it‘s certainly something that makes you feel like you’re doing the right thing with your career.

Dr. James Truchard

JT: National Instruments serves the science and engineering community and I view that as a highly leveraged position because if NI can make these very important people in society more successful, we provide tremendous value to society as well. You’ll see NI solutions in a wide variety of industries such as wireless communications, energy, and transportation, and I feel like NI can be more impactful by providing flexible solutions that make those scientists and engineers more productive than if we worked on each of those applications directly. So that is a big fundamental motivation of mine. At NI, we work on all of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges through our customers, so having the ability to help these scientists and engineers solve complex problems is very rewarding. In starting the company, my goal was to be aligned with technology and be able to work with the forefront of technology and we have certainly been able to do that.

Now I also recognized that we had to be a good business. Because to have autonomy to do the things you want to do, you have to be a good business so that you can get that profit that allows you to have autonomy, instead of somebody else telling you what to do. So that was very much a motivation as well. I saw starting NI as an opportunity to provide good career paths for the very talented engineers and computer scientists that we have, so providing a career path with growth opportunities for both the company and the careers of my employees is very important to me.

LF: When was the company actually founded?

JT: The company was founded in 1976 and we actually moonlighted for three years until we went full time. Then we were able to effectively self-finance the company through that process.

LF: What is the one product that highlights your achievement?

JT: Our software platform with LabVIEW at the core has really been the most important thing that we have done, and this reaches out and enables our success in many areas. For example, one of our recent product launches, the LabVIEW Communications Systems Design Suite has extended our software platform into the research and prototyping of next-generation wireless communications space. As we saw at recent events like GLOBECOM and the Brooklyn 5G Wireless Summit, NI has enabled engineers to demonstrate algorithms in a fraction of the time that they used to take. In other words, show real working product designs more quickly and efficiently than ever before.

LF: What is the current focus of National Instruments? What are some of the current trends?

JT: So, at several levels—first off, a big focus for us is in the RF and communications space. Both in the design with the tools like LabVIEW Communications System Design Suite and our AWR suite of software for RF hardware design, and also with support from scientists and engineers for data acquisition. Another focus for NI has been embedded systems design, again using LabVIEW extensions in the industrial space. We have been very active in the development work of industrial applications where we have embedded solutions like CompactRIO. We did some very early work in defining what is meant in the industrial space with CompactRIO leading the way over the last decade.

LF: Your focus does seem to be in the RF and communications space. What percentage of the business is that?

JT: Well, it is growing. We don’t break it out specifically, but it is one of the fastest-growing areas of opportunities for us. We have introduced breakthrough technology with the vector signal transceiver that is really redefining how measurements are made. It also can be used to prototype new algorithms. It can be used to build radar. The VST is very flexible, yet it primarily serves the test and measurement space. LabVIEW Communications System Design Suite is another major development on the software side that creates a highly differentiated tool that helps engineers design new systems, demonstrate algorithms, and the like.

LF: Have you done anything in the field of Internet of Things?

JT: Yes. When consumers think of the Internet of Things, they often think about their consumer technologies like wearable devices, home automation, their mobile devices. At NI, we’re more involved with the Industrial Internet of Things—developing complex, intelligent engineering systems that impact large-scale infrastructure with our hardware and software platform. NI’s involvement in the Industrial Internet of Things spans from smart-grid applications to smart factories in a manufacturing setting.

LF: Somebody told me that you are still selling GPIB (General Purpose Interface Bus).

JT: That’s right.

LF: It is still out there, isn’t it?

JT: Well, the thing is, if you have a group of instruments, until the last one goes away, you still need that interface. And also, GPIB was a very good standard. It was parallel, it was fast, and in the early days, we actually built GPIB extenders so that we could talk to each other. So GPIB was pioneering in terms of performance and you had to go to 100M Ethernet before you got performance that rivaled GPIB. Now, with a large install base and by continuing to support GPIB, we make sure that all those instruments that are out in the field can be used. Can you imagine if nobody was doing that? How many instruments would not be useful because they couldn’t be automated because they didn’t have the right interface?

LF: Instruments tend to have a long life.

JT: That is exactly right. When I was in university, I was using equipment that was 40 years old. So I tell the story that there was General Radio, then there was Hewlett Packard. And now there is National Instruments. General Radio had vacuum tubes, Hewlett-Packard had transistors, and NI has software.

LF: What advice about the future can you give readers of Microwaves & RF ?

JT: I think that there is still a lot left to be discovered and invented, so I’d advise today’s engineers to keep that positive view and remember that there is much more to come. As engineers, we will continue to make innovative technological breakthroughs that impact society and improve our quality of life. For example, over the past decade we’ve seen how communications has dramatically changed how people work together, how they interact with each other, and has made us more connected than ever.

LF: And if test equipment companies such as yours don’t make the test instruments, we will never be able to design the new products. So keep at it.

JT: Exactly. Thank you.

Download this article in .PDF format
This file type includes high resolution graphics and schematics when applicable.

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