NIWeek keynote speaker issues a challenge to engineers

14th June 2018
Lanna Cooper


In the opening keynote of NIWeek in Austin, Eric Starkloff launched right in. The Executive Vice President, Global Sales and Marketing at National Instruments commenced with praise for his audience of engineers and then at the close challenged them.

It’s a systems world, and Starkloff made the point by asking how many delegates had flown to Austin, provoking a sea of hands.

“Consider all of systems required to get you here, what it took to design, build and test them, that aeroplane is a system of systems, all interconnected in real time, and to get you here safely it is supported by air traffic control systems, GPS, ground radar. No single person invented all of that technology, and all those different systems the design wasn’t even centrally coordinated, and yet it is the fastest and safest form of technology that has ever existed.”

By way of contrast Starkloff picked on the home or office printer (with a quick apology to any printer designers in his audience!)

“Mine works 50% of the time,” he remarked. “It is a closed product and it is brutal when it is exposed to the changing systems around it. When it becomes incompatible, you probably throw it away and get a new one.”

From contrast Starkloff turned to comparisons.

“The natural world is interconnected that’s why we call it an ecosystem but now it has a parallel world that we created, it’s an engineer world  and it is made up of software, electronics and networking and our modern lives depend on it. The engineering world is a technology ecosystem powered by software that is constantly changing and adapting.”

“As a community we have to embrace that systems thinking and how we engineer the world. That technology ecosystem requires a fundamentally different approach to how we design it, measure and improve it and test it,” Starkloff emphasised to his 1,500-strong audience

“Closed products like printers can’t adapt or scale to meet the needs of a changing world. It’s not just about the product alone, it’s about the system.”

He turned to that most common and, let’s be honest, sometimes most irritating of products, the mobile phone.

“It’s a great product, incredible technology,” Starkloff acknowledged. “But the value is not so much in the product, it’s in the system, the open software, the millions of applications and cloud-based services.”

Turning to his audience Starkloff showered praise on them.

“Now this community has been at the leading edge of systems thinking. It’s about how you approached your automated test and automated measurement applications with a software based systems platform, and in doing so created all sorts of solutions to long standing problems.”

“From day one, NI has had a systems perspective, connecting a system if instruments through software and GPIB,” he continued. “We chose to create an open platform because we believe that you as a community can create the best solutions, and you know we were right and you did.”

“And as you did we learnt from you and we iterated on our platform year after year often learning about applications we did not even imagine. You showed us how to use LabVIEW and a data acquisition board could be used to measure and prevent head trauma. You showed us how PXI and TestStand could be used to build a high performance ATE system, and as we learned from you we invested our time, passion and literally billions of dollars to continue to build the most powerful systems platform on the planet”

It’s an open platform to remove constraints,” Starkloff explained. To prevent you getting stuck or boxed in, and enabling you to use your creativity to build exactly what you need.”

And yet, as Starkloff pointed out there is more than one way to get boxed in. Sometimes it’s just a lack of imagination, or maybe not having the inspiration or courage to tackle tough problems that make the world a better place.

He used his epiphany to ask delegates what inspired them to follow engineering. For Starkloff it was the early personal computers, OpenNet, and the Space Shuttle.

It conjured a compelling future based on technology, and one which maybe we have not fulfilled as well as we might - yet.

“Along the way we have traded in our flying cars for new emojis, instead of gazing up at the stars, we now stare down at our phones.”

“Some of the smartest people in the world are working on technologies for algorithmic trading or social media platforms or better ways to deliver online advertising, instead of figuring out how to get to Mars, or how to cure cancer or develop autonomous cars.” said Starkloff, more in sorrow than anger. “The engineered world has things that both improve our lives and things that distract from them.”

“We have an awesome opportunity in front of us,” he encouraged and challenged delegates. “I believe in that future we imagined and know this community does too, and we can solve those tough problems.”

“You do the real engineering that the world so badly needs, taking a different approach, challenging the status quo, and coming up with new solutions to really hard problems.”

“Like testing electric parts of cars with machine learning, or using real time measurements to prove out new types of transportation like Hyperloop, or lowering cost of semiconductor test using advanced analytics.”

“The work that you do not is not always understood, not necessarily completely appreciated, but it is significant, the work you do enables the best parts of our engineering world and the work you and the problems you solve inspire the next generation of engineers.

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