The Doctor Is Very In: Dr. James Truchard's Quest For Endless Innovation

Dr. T cofounded the technology giant that is National Instruments out of his garage more than 35 years with a $10,000 loan. NI's software and hardware is behind robotics and smart cameras to medical diagnostic equipment. Next stop, commercial space flight.

What do robotics, portable airborne wind energy systems that save lives in disaster areas, intelligent infrastructure with smart grids, and early detection systems that identify America’s crumbling bridges and roads have in common? Dr. James Truchard, that's what. Dr. T, as he’s known in the industry, is the CEO of National Instruments (NI), the $900 million company that produces software and hardware test and measurement equipment that brings almost every technology you know about (and some you don’t yet) to market faster, cheaper, and better.

dr james truchard

Dr. T cofounded the technology giant out of his garage more than 35 years with a $10,000 loan. From there he helmed the development of one of the company’s crowning achievements, LabVIEW. The programming environment is currently used by millions of engineers and scientists to develop measurement, test, and control systems using graphic icons and wires that resemble a flowchart. But it’s intuitive enough for a kid to use it, says Dr. T.

NI joined with The Lego Group in 1998 to collaborate on the programming software for the original Lego Mindstorms product. This collaboration has allowed an estimated 200,000 students to get hands-on robotics software experience with same technology used by professional engineers.

Though LabVIEW just celebrated its 25th birthday, Dr. T’s innovations aren’t facing a quarter-life crisis. In fact he tells Fast Company, they are all part of his vision and the company’s 100-year plan.

The way Dr. T. sees it, NI is growing the old-fashioned way: organically. "We try to create a work environment that is fun for employees and really work hard at that long-term stability." It is vision-based planning that Dr. T says began during the bootstrapping years with NI’s first simple products.

The basic concept is that a good work environment creates a quality framework to foster innovation. So far, that thinking has allowed the company to be profitable for 32 years. As the economy took a nosedive, Dr. T continued to support the idea of investing in staff and research. No one was laid off and the company spends about $200 million a year in R&D. 

We use a 10-year timeline,” he explains, "So we have a clear path to proceed. That allows folks to think about vision and what technology is applied to accomplish it." The secret sauce is in the simplicity, Dr. T maintains. "What NI does is take complex problems and reduce them to the size of the team. It simplifies process and delivery with one person functioning as many."

Though he started the company simply to create the job he wanted and to have autonomy, Dr. T confesses he’s a sneaker manager, always walking around. "I’m hands on in innovation side and heavily involved in products and closing the gaps on vision," but notes that he still sits in a cubicle to encourage a collaborative environment.

That combined with working on green engineering projects such as wind turbines, nuclear fusion, solar energy, and more efficient lighting--"all things that people can feel good about doing," according to Dr. T-- has landed NI on the Great Place to Work Institute’s list of best companies to work for 12 years in a row.

But long-view innovation continues to bubble up as a driver for Dr. T. As an example, he points to tweaking LabVIEW’s open program to make commercial space flight viable. "In 2009 we added a feature to LabVIEW that we expected in 1986."

Currently, SpaceX, the U.S.-based space technology company founded by Elon Musk, a cofounder of PayPal, has already launched the first commercial rocket to orbit the earth. SpaceX uses LabVIEW systems that control launchpad equipment and command and monitor Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles and its Dragon spacecraft.

SpaceX is planning to launch the next Dragon Spacecraft atop one of the company's Falcon 9 rockets on November 30 in hopes of docking on the International Space Station. Dr. T says it’s very possible that regular commercial space flights will be happening in the next 10 years.

Until then, he’s quite prepared to wait--and work. "Hard work, patience, and persistence are key factors in success. It’s okay to fail fast if you understand the context of failure. You can try risky ideas but you have to have staying power to go past those that don’t work."

[Read more from our Innovation Agents series here]

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