NI CEO Eric Starkloff’s first decision was what to do about COVID-19 the night before he took over on February 1, 2020. Since then, he’s seen the opportunities in communications resulting from the pandemic.
How would you like to take on a new leadership role just as a pandemic takes hold? That’s what Eric Starkloff faced on his first day as NI CEO. Starkloff’s tenure began on Saturday, February 1, 2020. His first decision came the night before as COVID-19 was ravaging China. “We had to close our facility in China,” Starkloff told EE World. Like so many others, NI has morphed into a work-from-home company while at the same time taking on a new look, new name (formerly National Instruments) and new slogan, “Engineer Ambitiously.”
Having covered test and measurement for various publications from 1992 to early 2020, I’ve seen NI grow into a dominant force. That growth was evident even in my early years. Throughout that time, the company kept its blue eagle logo and “The software is the instrument” slogan.
“The world has become software centric,” said Starkloff, implying that the long-used slogan is now outdated. He sees the new slogan as a “call to action,” describing it as “a celebration to think about how engineers can do things differently and to set their sights on how to make a bigger impact on the world.”
The shift to working at home meant embracing to communications technologies that we now use every day. In many ways, Starkloff sees COVID-19 as an opportunity because time zones matter little with people not traveling. In addition to internal meetings, NI has taken to using online communications tools to support customers by accelerating online learning, software demonstrations, remote management features in some products.
Engineers who use NI products work in just about every field where measurement and automation improve productivity. The company that started with GPIB controller boards for PDP-11 computers moved to the PC by adding plug-in measurement card, then expanding to external buses and then to developing its own platforms that connect modular measurement instruments. With those instruments needing software, brought graphical programming to the forefront with Labview. Indeed, the first product I ever covered was Labview 2.5, the version brought to company’s flagship product to Windows 3.1. Since then, Labview’s following has become the closest thing I’ve seen to an engineering religion.
NI was an early entrant into making measurements for 5G research. Today, Starkloff sees 5G as more than a communications technology. Though private networks, 5G could become the technology that brings factory automation and autonomy to the next level. The merging of sensors and control, which it’s been a signification player in automation, is driving NI’s customers’ efforts. Then there’s electrification, another trend in the markets that NI serves as electric vehicles gain in popularity. Add that to aerospace and energy industries, which are also moving to more sensing and automation. Starkloff see these as bringing lots of test and measurement challenges.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is another technology that Starkloff sees as infiltrating test and automation. He sees AI and machine learning as important technologies. “It’s about being at the forefront of technologies for measurement systems. AI and ML will help us deal with the incredible rise in complexity. Building an automated test system for 5G is rapidly getting to the point where it exceeds a person’s capacity to perform functional tests.”
Starkloff joined NI in 1997 as an applications engineer, fresh out of the University of Virginia. He rose through the marketing ranks, then became president and COO and now CEO. I’ve known Starkloff for most of that time as he’d visit my Boston office from time to time on press tours. Over his 23 years at NI, Starkloff has seen customers both change and stay the same. He’s seen NI’s customers shift from being almost exclusively front-line engineers to engineers plus higher-level managers. That is, instead of simply looking at how to automate a test, the conversation today covers how to use test automation to get a product to market earlier or how to lower the cost of manufacturing a product.