An interview with James Truchard (Dr. T) and Jeff Kodosky, co-founders of NI, on our 40th birthday as a company.
When did you know you wanted to be an engineer? And how did you meet?
Dr. T: “I was one of the Sputnik kids. Sputnik had just been launched in 1958. I graduated from high school in ‘60. And Wernher von Braun, the big hero of the US program, was a physicist, and so that meant I wanted to be physicist, too, not really knowing what physics was or what it was about. So I got a bachelors and masters in physics. Working at the University of Texas, I realized that, you know, you have to really, really be smart to be a great physicist because it’s very hard. Plus they had all these mysterious particles that they talked about and I couldn’t always see them. So I gravitated towards more pragmatic things in engineering and started designing circuits. The last year of my masters, I was working full-time. Then I continued to work full-time at the lab and in seven years, one course at a time, I got my Ph.D. in electrical engineering.”
Jeff: "I didn’t! I thought I wanted to be a physicist, a theoretical physicist.”
Dr. T: “Jeff came to Texas when Texas was really the star because we were building the Super Collider and a lot of funding was coming to Texas, and everyone was excited about what physics could do. I distracted Jeff from his career as a physicist.”
Jeff: “I grew up in New York, but I had this professor who said, ‘Apply to UT Austin, they’ve got a great graduate school in physics,’ and so that’s what brought me down here. I started as a TA at and then discovered I didn’t like teaching, which should have been the first sign that I was in the wrong career. I’d heard about Applied Research Laboratories (ARL) because I knew they hired lots of students part-time there. Dr. T interviewed me and hired me, and so, basically, Dr. T is the only person I’ve ever worked for. When I started to work at ARL, that’s when I got exposed to the PDP8 and started thinking about software. Prior to that, programming was just Fortran or assembly language…it wasn’t very interesting. But when I got to play with the computer myself, that’s when I guess the engineering side started coming out. I realized it’s a lot more fun building things than theorizing about them. I would say I was probably more a computer programmer than anything else, and Jim came up with lots of ideas, and has always comes up with lots of ideas, and we would work on experiments together.”
Dr. T: “We started meeting early '76. We made a list of ten different projects we could do…and then we voted, which I view as a very random process for deciding. We said, ‘Okay which is the best idea?’ and we picked the instrument interface. I always say that was lucky because it was right between computers and instruments…what better place to be if you want to revolutionize instrumentation with computers? It gave us access to a customer base of scientists and engineers. You know, in the rearview mirror, it all looks very simple, like success just came to us without any effort, but there were 23 companies making GPIB controllers in that timeframe when we started the…Hewitt Packard had HP2000 computers with interfaces to them and we essentially saw how we could do the same thing for the PDP11, and that’s what we did.”
When did you get your big break?
Dr. T: "In November of 1979, I started full-time and I went on a sales call that first week with our rep up in New England. We visited Brown & Sharpe, had a very cordial visit, and it looked like they were going to use our product. When we got home, we had gotten a $90,000 order for this bus extender. And so we built it, we shipped it, and with the profit, we bought Jeff a PDP11 44 computer and a $20,000 copy of Unix operating system…”
Jeff: “..and we were off and running.”
Dr. T: “We were off and running. And then, two years later we get a call from the purchasing agent saying they had made a mistake. They were supposed to get a quote, not place an order….so, that’s where I came up with my saying, 'nothing beats dumb luck,’ and of course don’t exclude it. That really kick-started us, allowed Jeff to buy his computer, us to start full-time, and also for me to buy the reference books I wanted. I splurged at the end of that year to buy reference books. “
Jeff: "To clarify, When I started working for Jim it was '73. It was '76 when we began this big measurement system project at Applied Research Laboratories (APL), and that’s also when Jim mentioned someone could start a business building an interface that would connect HP instruments to popular computers. So, we were working full time at ARL on this massive measurement project for the navy, and then moonlighting on NI to get it going— designing and building GPIB boards. We started designing one board in the spring and shipped it that fall. That was design, development, debugging, manufacturing…all while we are moonlighting. It boggles the imagination to see what we were able to accomplish in that short time!”