Alex Davern speaks to Eureka! about his transition to chief executive of National Instruments

3 min read

National Instruments has carved itself out as a forerunner in the test and measurement arena and boasts equipment applied inside Nasa and The National Grid with customers spanning start-ups to the biggest technology firms in the world. All utilise its products and expertise for data acquisition, instrument control and industrial automation. It’s also in the enviable position of having a genuine ‘community’ of cult-like followers that hold its flagship graphical language software product LabView in almost pious esteem.

Its massive headquarters in Austin, Texas, has been built up from humble beginnings over the past 40 years by a partnership between the ‘Father of LabVIEW’ Jeff Kodosky, and founder Dr James Truchard, affectionately known as ‘Dr T’ by colleagues. Today, it’s listed on the NASDAQ exchange, worth in excess of $1 billion and employs over 7000 staff. But, times they are a-changing.

This year the company has actioned two seismic shifts. The first is that founder and CEO Dr T has been replaced by NI veteran and former chief operating officer, Alex Davern. The second, is that LabView – as we know it – is to be gradually phased out and replaced with the ‘next generation’ LabView NXG.

At this year’s NI Week, the company’s flagship user event, Dr T was given a standing ovation from users, media, and staff lasting in excess of two minutes. There are few CEOs held in such regard.

“There’s no doubt, it’s an incredibly difficult act to follow,” says successor, and Irish expat, Alex Davern. Relaxed, articulate and open, Davern doesn’t seem to be phased by his move to the top, but is aware of the hole Dr T is leaving behind. “I don’t think you’ll find a more inspirational, motivational, sincere or credible technologist. So, the challenge for us is to emulate that inspiration and motivation to maintain that sense of mission and purpose.”

Davern is no stranger to the boardroom and since joining the company more than 20 years ago he has overseen many of the company’s biggest acquisitions and has played a key role in developing the company’s sustained growth and profitability. The challenge for Davern lies not in strategy, but leadership.

“Nobody can be anybody else but themselves,” he says. “That’s important. So he’s not me and I’m not him. But we must collectively be able to provide that inspiration and motivation. That requires me to take on part of that burden and the rest of the VP team to take on part of that burden. Jeff Kodosky, for example, has to take on a bit more of the burden than he did in the past, and all the way down through the company we all have to step up our game. But I know there’s such admiration for Dr T in the company that there is a desire for us as a group of individuals not to let him down.”

Managing transitions

Moving beyond a founding CEO is a delicate undertaking. Dr T has, after all, been at the helm for over 40 years, providing stability and vision. But moving forward, it’s a process that the senior team at National Instruments need to become adept at.

“The fact is, I won’t be the CEO 40 years from now,” says Davern. “So, these transitions are going to happen more frequently in the future. For us to deliver on a 100 year plan we’re going to have to get good at them. We’re going to have to be conscious of how we do them and when we do them.

“Many companies never get past the second CEO of a founder-led company. Frequently, the CEO transition happens in a crisis and that’s the reason it’s not successful.

“Dr T sees it as one of the most difficult things for him to achieve; a company that has a future beyond the founder.”

As you might expect, the handover has been engineered with the same precision as the instruments and systems NI produce for its customers. Davern has been groomed, arguably, for his entire time at NI but certainly since taking over as chief operating officer in 2010.

“The transition didn’t just happen when it got announced in August last year,” says Davern. “The foundation of our transition goes back to the concept of a company built to last. Dr T has been talking about this transition since I joined the company 23 years ago, the notion of wanting to build a company that would succeed after him.”

Out with old

Davern’s transition also oversees perhaps the biggest change to the company’s much-lauded LabView. National Instruments has become famous for its annual overhaul and updates of LabView but this year came the first of a series of next generation software offerings in LabView NXG.

“It’s a complete replatforming of LabVIEW,” says Davern. “It will have all the power and capability of LabVIEW, but it’ll also address ease of use, rapid time to measurement and interaction.”

NXG developments will be run in parallel for the time being but the hope is that it will eventually become so compelling that users will move over voluntarily.

“This will be a pull strategy by the product, not a push strategy with a deadline,” says Davern. “We’ll continue to release LabVIEW 2017, LabVIEW 2018, LabVIEW 2019, but we’ll also continue to build the value in NXG to pull users over.

“We’ll build the capability in our product to make it compelling enough that people choose to switch. At a point in time where the vast majority has moved, that’s when we’ll consider other options. But that’s well off in the future. And you buy LabVIEW, you get both.”

The message is that NXG will have none of the baggage or sometimes disjointed usability that has been apparent within LabView releases in the last few years. If LabView has been a consistent evolution, NXG is the revolution that will confidently take LabView forward. The same can be said for Davern.