Get the early history of National Instruments (NI) with emphasis on GPIB and LabVIEW, and how the founders created a winning culture.
Measuring History: How One Unsung Company Quietly Changed the World by Blake Snow. Paperback. Price $12.99.
Measuring History is neither a history of measurement nor a measurement of history, and yet it’s both. Blake Snow takes you through the early days of the company through the 2019 induction of founders Dr. James Truchard and Jeff Kodosky into the Inventors Hall of Fame. Throughout the book, Snow focuses on LabVIEW and how engineers and scientists use the graphic programming language to test and control systems that make many products we use function better.
As a technical editor who covered test and measurement for some 27 years, my first press presentation was for LabVIEW 2.5, the first version available for Microsoft Windows 3.1. That press tour took place in 1992. Over the years, LabVIEW has come to border on a religion.
Snow delves into the story of how the company spent ten years and $10 million developing LabVIEW through version 2.0 and how it was funded, first by GPIB cards and later by data-acquisition cards. Despite that, the company avoided the rivalry that often exists between hardware and software engineers. Indeed, Snow writes that this cooperation exists throughout NI, something the founders instilled in their now over 7,000 employees. In some ways, NI’s way mimics the HP Way of Hewlett and Packard — even the executives work in cubicles. Truchard stressed that employees should treat the company’s money as if it were their own. I can personally attest to that, having unexpectedly shared an airport shuttle with him in San Francisco.
Snow not only looks at NI’s history, he provides some background into how the company fits in with the Austin tech scene. He also provides some background on why we need test & measurement. Both of those topics needn’t need a full chapter each, but the book is a one-day read. To be fair, I provide some of the measurement justification on pages 64 to 69. Without measurements, we’d have chaos in trade.
In other ways, the book also could have been shorter. For example, we don’t need to know twice how NI has been profitable for all but two of its years since shipping products. Once LabVIEW for Windows launched, the company has enjoyed a steady rise in revenue and prestige. In 1993, Paul Schreier, then editor of Personal Instrumentation and Instrumentation News, could already see the NI “steamroller” moving in on its competitors. That would have made a nice addition to the story. Snow mentions how following its launch, LabVIEW for Windows appeared on some 57 magazine covers. Here’s one of them from the April 1993 issue of Test & Measurement World.
Of course, there’s much more to the NI story than Snow chronicles, as Kodosky notes in the book. Snow brushes over the many lawsuits that NI endured in protecting its graphical programming language patent from competitors. He skips the part about how NI either forced competitors out of the business or it acquired them: Intelligent Instrumentation, Keithley Instruments, Measurement Computing, Data Translation, and others. The last competitor, Keysight, not long ago threw in the towel in VEE development, a product that started at HP.
A few good stories did make it into the book. For example, an undo function in LabVIEW took 12 years to develop, finally arriving with LabVIEW 5 at NIWeek 1997. The LabVIEW faithful cheered upon seeing it. I can personally attest to that having seen the standing ovation firsthand. The back of an NIWEEK 95 t-shirt indicates just how much the LabVIEW community wanted undo.
Snow mentions on many occasions that the company overcame development hurdles in both software and hardware, though mostly software. As a technical editor and measurement geek, I kept hoping for some detail as to how the company overcame those technical issues. Of course, any non-engineers reading that would close the book with glassy-eyed.
I recommend Measuring History if you’re looking for a quick and easy read into how NI became what it is today.