Monday, October 06, 2008

Giving Back To Our Communities

On Friday night, I went to the opening night performance of a local non-profit choral group, Conspirare. They are an amazing, world-class group, and they put on a wonderful show that will soon be recorded by PBS. I even recognized in the audience Dr. Anton Armstrong, conductor of the renowned St. Olaf Choir.

Sitting in the audience, watching and listening to Conspirare, I could not help but think that this is an organization worth supporting. How fortunate we are to have them in Austin.

Today marks the beginning of our three-week employee fall giving campaign, of which I am the chair.

A few weeks ago, I received a mysterious meeting invitation in my inbox... "Quick chat with community relations". I had been warned that I was on the list of candidates to chair this year's campaign, so I knew what the meeting was going to be about. This gave me time to think about it.

At first, it was a "why me?" kind of experience. What was I signing up for? It's overwhelming and intimidating—we've got thousands of employees in the US, and I would be the voice of the campaign.

We've got a pretty good track record of employee giving. High standards, yet the economy is tough this year.

Sigh. I'm not sure I'm the guy for the job. It would be so easy to say no; to push this off on someone else.

But I don't. I won't.

I care about the community in which I live. I care about NI, and feel privileged to work here. I care about the arts. I care about education. I care about animals and the environment. I care about social needs, health needs, literacy needs.

With the consummate support of the National Instruments Community Relations team, especially Yvette Ruiz and Amanda Webster, here I am.

We hire a lot of our employees right out of school. This is great; keeps us young. It also means that some of our employees may not yet feel strong connections to their communities. And this is one of my challenges.

I asked for a field trip. I asked our community relations people if we could organize a field trip for our campaign volunteers.

I wanted our volunteers to see a need firsthand. We have dozens of volunteers, without whom we couldn't run this giving campaign. They go to every group meeting and explain the reasons for the campaign, the goals, and the mechanics.

I wanted our volunteers to see where the money goes, and what it buys, and to be able to talk about it to our employees.

We went to SafePlace, which fights domestic violence and sexual abuse.

A few days later, a different group of NI employees went to Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.

And in the past few weeks, I've been to events for Communities in Schools, and the Austin Lyric Opera.

We've got thousands of non-profits in central Texas, thousands more nationwide, and our employees can choose to whom they donate. I want all of our employees to know that they can make a difference in their communities.

Another theme I want to stress is that any amount helps.

I am truly proud that NI has the largest number of employees who are able to donate $1000 or more to be a part of the United Way Capitol Area Young Leaders Society.

But many of our employees aren't in a position to donate that much. I want them to know that they can still make a difference, even with a small donation.

Among other things going on in my life right now, I'm raising money for cancer research and survivorship through the Lance Armstrong Foundation. I'll be doing the Livestrong Challenge bike ride at the end of October. (Plug: Support my ride here... One of my friends came up to me the other day and handed me a dollar bill in support of my ride. It's all he had to give. He promised another dollar in a week. That meant so much to me, as it also reminded me of a parable that I am sure many of you know.

My challenge to all of you readers, wherever you are, whoever you are, is to go out and make a difference in your community. Find your passion. Give your time. Give your money. Find someone who needs your support, and support them.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

AutoTestCon 2008

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was at AutoTestCon in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago. This was my first visit to this MIL/AERO conference and tradeshow.

I was greeted to the Salt Palace Convention Center by banners with images of fighter jets and bombers over Monument Valley and Delicate Arch.

I was there to give a presentation on IVI, be part of a panel discussion on LXI, and to support a demo for the LXI Consortium...

Here's a photo of the demo I built for the consortium, using a Rohde & Schwarz FSL Spectrum Analyzer, a Keithley 2910 RF Signal Generator, two Agilent E5818A Trigger Boxes, an NI 8353 quad-core 1U PXI Controller, and NI LabVIEW 8.6.

The other demo in the booth consisted of Matlab and image processing software from The Mathworks, Agilent E5818A Trigger Boxes, and 1394 cameras from Point Grey Research. Colloquially called "the bouncing ball demo", it used a military grade Playskool Busy Basics Busy Popper for projectile measurements.

Okay, the part about "military grade" was a joke. The demo was there to make noise and entice people into the booth. Shown in the photo are Conrad Proft, from Agilent, and Rob Purser, from The Mathworks.

Both demos showed LXI features such as IEEE 1588 timing and distributing triggers across a network.

On Monday, I gave a presentation about IVI instrument driver technology at one of the seminars. This was just a basic introduction into what IVI drivers are, and an update on the status of current work in the IVI Foundation.

The tone was set for this presentation a few seconds into my talk. One attendee raised his hand and said, "IVI drivers don't work."

"I see it's going to be a tough crowd", I replied.

In this particular case, the user had obtained several IVI-COM drivers from his instrument vendor, and all but one failed to communicate correctly with his instruments. He had also received an IVI-C driver for an instrument from a different vendor, and he was unable to make it work until he got National Instruments involved to fix it for him.

This is a good point for me to point out that you don't have to depend on your instrument vendor for your instrument drivers. The National Instruments Instrument Driver Network (IDNet) contains instrument drivers for thousands of instruments from hundreds of different vendors, including IVI drivers, LabVIEW Plug and Play drivers, and VXIplug&play drivers.

Many of the drivers on IDNet are marked as "NI Certified", which means...

Certified instrument drivers comply with instrument driver standards including programming style, error handling, documentation, and functional testing. Certified drivers ensure consistency among instrument drivers and, therefore, improve ease of use. They also provide source code so that you can modify, customize, optimize, debug, and add functionality to the instrument driver. All National Instruments certified instrument drivers receive NI support.

I was also on a panel discussion about LXI. We presented to about fifteen people.

A week later, we recorded a webcast for T&M World Magazine with the same material. You can view a replay of the webcast by registering on the T&M World website.

We had time for questions and answers during both versions of the presentation. Additional questions from the webcast will eventually be posted with answers on the LXI website.

Interestingly, most of the questions at AutoTestCon related to GPIB. Conrad Proft, from Agilent, had slides that showed examples where LXI works better than GPIB (over long distances) and RS-485 (cabling).

One question was whether companies are going to continue to support GPIB. Conrad from Agilent voiced his company's continued commitment to GPIB. I added that I believe that many people are still building GPIB-based test systems, and that NI will continue to support our GPIB users. (Later that week, NI announced our new PCI Express GPIB controllers that support a nearly 8 megabyte/second transfer rate, are RoHS compliant, and use only 1.1W of power.)

Another audience member, perhaps a little caught up in the excitement of LAN-based instrumentation, asked, "Why would anyone still use GPIB? It's slow. The cables are so inflexible."

My jaw dropped at this. I bet if you polled all the AutoTestCon attendees, just about every one of them is using GPIB, and is going to continue to use GPIB. So my answer began with, "Because it just works!".

"The GPIB cables are shielded and have rugged connectors that screw in and don't have plastic tabs that break off."

[Bringing it back to LXI] "...the message of the LXI Consortium is that it's important to ensure that LXI works well with other buses."

The reality is that our users are going to develop "hybrid" systems, using a mix of bus technologies. Every bus has pros and cons. GPIB has low communications latency and is rugged. LXI has cheaper cabling and works well over extraordinarily long distances. PXI and PXI Express have high communications bandwidth and low latency.

And that's why it's my job at National Instruments to help ensure that all forms of I/O work well in LabVIEW.

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