“Thank you for understanding what I meant, and not what I said”. The words we use are important, but it is the ideas that we’re able to grasp and share that enable us at DSA to be a successful team.
My first trip to a customer was to a moth-balled steel mill in West Virginia, determined to bring back production after a 10-year hiatus. A systems architect and I met with some of the mill owners, to talk about the DSA system at the end of the process line. Walking through the cavernous, dark, and dust-laden mill, large steel rollers stood like massive statues; a landmark to the titan of American industry. Passing statue after statue, we walked to the end of the line, to the misters and slack pits that lay calmly in the darkness, eerily frozen and dust laden. There—at the end of the line—was our contribution: a laser thickness gauging system. The system once saw thousands of miles of steel pass smoothly through its gaze, taking careful note of variation between rolls of steel down to the thousandth of an inch. Twenty years old, inside the finishing line control room, the PC booted up and the monitor displayed what seemed an ancient operating system.
We ran the application. Surprisingly fast, the program snapped to life, and the steady eye of the laser thickness measurement system rode smoothly on the noise floor of the sensor. It was at this point that I realized how sure I was of this company. The dusty grotto of a forgotten steel mill could easily have been the crypt of a lesser system, but our application survived. Feeling impressed and appreciative of the DSA engineers who designed the original system, I closed the application. Twenty years after its installation, we headed up to the steel mill offices to talk about an upgrade.
DSA is a great place to work. People are approachable and very helpful. There is never any drama to deal with. The atmosphere makes it easy to concentrate on my work.
Growing up, like most engineers, I had a great interest in understanding how things work. There is great fulfillment in grasping new concepts and conducting experiments to either prove or disprove a hypothesis. Almost daily I get to toil about the solution to a project, generating new ideas and finding what works and what doesn’t. The satisfaction I get at DSA is like that of a puzzle game. It feels more like a brainiac playground than a place of work.
“I’m BenNI, do you know who I am?” seems like a strange question for someone to ask. I mean, you just told me you’re Ben. But this is a question I have heard dozens of times, and it still makes me smile every time.
Ben is one of our Senior Architects, our most experienced developer. He takes on only the most difficult tasks. He develops code that becomes the standard. Why does he introduce himself that way? He’s trying to see how familiar you are with NI and LabVIEW. If you know who he is, then you know his clout in the community of developers and architects.
It’s as if you asked him a football question and he said “I’m Bill Cowher, nice to meet you.” You are not going to tell Coach Cowher something every high school coach should know, and you are not going to explain how big the Super Bowl is.
That’s the point of Ben’s question. He wants to save you the trouble of telling him to reboot the system or to reinstall the software. He doesn’t need you to explain how feedback nodes work or how to use a queue. Instead he is asking you to work at his level, to challenge yourself to tackle the more abstract, the higher performing, or the more dynamic. He is telling you to pay attention because this is going to be a tough one, but not something he can’t handle.
Once upon a time there was a physicist
Who wanted to start his own business
He began the company on a shoestring
The collateral included his wife’s wedding ring
Now the company’s revenue is in the millions
Because of hard work, dedication, and resilience
Learn our Core Values and use them each day
Remember our Core Purpose and customers will stay
DSA is often wins “Best Places to Work”
They survey the employees for the test
And the scores place DSA among the best
Continue your education seminars, conferences, training galore
Achieve certifications to prove your worth
For payroll incentives; bonuses, commissions and more
Some electrical, some mechanical, and even biomedical
Working on a wide-variety of projects
Nothing at DSA it is typical
Finish your project within the PO
Satisfaction will increase
As you show them what you know
Keep your pipeline, bookings, and partners at goal
And make our culture part of your heart and soul
Profit sharing increases as DSA grows
The money abounds and the benefits flow
At the office we have a character named Ben. Ben is the most senior engineer on staff. He is like the grandfather of the office with advice and a story to share for every situation. Whether you pass him in the hall or approach him for technical expertise, his wisdom and sense of humor know no bounds. I am always on the lookout for other Bens when I visit customers or work with others. Bens are the best, and I’m glad DSA has one.
One of the great things about working at DSA is getting to know our customers. I can point to numerous trips over the last year where I have spent time talking to and getting to know customers over a meal or during the course of working on a project. One in particular comes to mind.
I had visited this customer a few times, and we talked about all sorts of things: likes and dislikes, favorite whiskeys and scotches, even Disney movies. However, on one trip this customer shared a personal story; a family member had cancer, and so we talked for a while. It was nice to be a sounding board for someone that just needed to talk. It might seem strange that a customer would share something so personal, but working at DSA you become invested in your customers. What is important to them becomes important to you, and they notice that.
Nothing else gives our customers more confidence than this. We describe a feature that we think might be useful. After a long pause on the phone, they tell us that this has been an internal discussion for months but that they assumed it couldn’t be done. After we make it work, we get “oohs” and “ahhs” as if a magician just pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
What is the culture of DSA, you might ask
It’s not any individual but a collaborative task
The process is many parts of a whole
Shared by everyone to achieve our goals
Accounting, Admin, Engineering, and Sales too
Automating your process is what we do
Delivering on company promises is what we bring
We use our PIES model to do just the thing
If you want to automate but are having doubts
Put your trust in DSA and give us a shout
We will travel the globe to answer your call
And our world class team will handle it all
DSA is where we all pull together to solve problems. It is the collaboration that really gets us there. At DSA, working together goes far beyond advice on the best way to initialize a Queue or document Object Oriented code. It is the support that exists beyond the technical that really makes a difference.
Once, I was preparing to go to a customer in the middle of the state. We had been working on the project for some time, and I was the lead developer. I was about to drive out and finalize some code changes on-site for them. I had their equipment, along with my DSA Laptop and code ready to go. Unfortunately, we received a phone call; my wife’s grandmother had a stroke, and the whole family was heading to the hospital. It may sound like a tenuous relation, but this was the woman who had welcomed me into the family first, back when my wife and I were first dating. I also wanted to support my wife in a tough time.
So I called Rich. In a larger company, I would have been shuttled to some HR representative who would determine if my relation to my wife’s grandmother rose to the level worthy of an approved absence. Not at DSA. All I heard was “Get the equipment together; we’ll be there in an hour.”
Rich and Greg came to my driveway, offered their condolences, and picked up the necessary equipment. A short knowledge transfer later, and they said they would take care of it. This allowed me to take the personal time I needed, and I was able to get out to the customer a few days later.
That is DSA “We’ll take care of it.”
A certain camera product lists numerous features to control the pan, zoom, tilt, start and stop recording, and even download files from the camera’s internal memory card. This was more than enough evidence for our client to buy the camera. Within a week it arrived, and I got to work toying with its many features.
The next few weeks flew by in a flurry of programming successes. Feature after feature was implemented, tested, and integrated into the software. All that was left was the file download feature. It was at this point that my pleasure turned to torment as attempt after attempt ended in failure. I checked my syntax, support forums, their website, and any other resource I could think of to resolve the issues I was seeing, but nothing worked. For days I was bounced around from support technician to support supervisor, each promising after their failed efforts that an engineer from their main office would call. That call never came. Our client would not be satisfied unless the software automatically saved the files to the right location.
After some pondering, I discovered there was another way to transfer files from the camera. If we could get an FTP server, the camera could download files directly to it. Initially I envisioned the FTP server as another costly piece of equipment, but after a little research I discovered that you could create one on any windows PC with Windows 10 or newer. I created one on my desktop, set up the FTP server connection from the camera, pressed record, and voila! Instant download of the camera files! From there it was just a trivial matter of telling LabVIEW where to expect the files, what to rename them, and where they needed to go.
It took a little extra research and effort (no help from the camera manufacturer which will not be named), but we managed to develop every aspect of the camera integration the client wanted. My instinct was to keep hammering at the problem until I figured out how to make my solution work, but sometimes you just have to admit one way of solving a problem can’t work (regardless of what customer service tells you) and look for another solution.
After days of troubleshooting, dozens of hours of experimentation, and confirming the setup many times, the real reason the 6-axis robotic arm was not working was because of misread notes by the customer during configuration of the device. Throughout the entire process there was no blame, no anger, and no derailing of the end goal. Working so closely with other teams demonstrates that it is not the clients versus DSA but the clients and DSA versus the problem.
“All work and no play makes Jack a Dull Boy,” as the phrase goes, and while we work very hard to get things done for the customer, we also have a lot of fun:
- I had a very long series of conversations with one of my work mates about the series LOST while it was on, exchanging conspiracy theories and examinations of the episodes after they each aired.
- After two quadcopter drones were unclaimed after a DSA Holiday party, we used the previously-empty space beside DSA to dogfight them.
- After we replaced the training room computers, we repurposed four of the old ones (still running XP), to play StarCraft across the network on a few successive Friday nights.
- A number of engineers would organize days to ride motorcycles together, even extending plans to go on weekend rides.
- I’ve been Xbox friends with a few people from work, and played Halo, Call of Duty, or Overwatch online in the evenings together.
It is fun to work at DSA, and there are great people there.
Some of the most fun in DSA-related activities were not from things that happened at the office, or even at a customer.
During a speech from Dean Kamen at the NI Graphical Design Awards banquet, he tasked all of us with helping FIRST robotics teams across the country. Afterwards, I asked that DSA be more involved. I was thrilled to receive an immediate “yes” from Rich. Working with FIRST would allow us to train the engineers of tomorrow as well as engage in some really fun activities. With the program switching to cRIOs and LabVIEW, this was a big opportunity for us to share our knowledge.
It started out just with an Intro to LabVIEW for 30 minutes at the kickoff meeting, but it quickly developed into a number of instructional sessions with the programmers of the teams. Soon we were becoming the control systems assistant to the local competitions. Getting to wander the pits among the teams and help them through LabVIEW and controls challenges was extremely rewarding. I still have some of the pins and T-Shirts the teams gave me in thanks!
Rich even got involved as a judge, and I am sure it is not unrelated that a few years later his daughter joined the Girls of Steel robotics team at CMU.
I think one of the hardest things about working at DSA is keeping up. Sure, most tech jobs involve staying current with tools and techniques, and we certainly have to be constantly learning in order to keep up with LabVIEW, imaging technology, and databases. And when you work with scientific customers you need to be able to understand their science quickly whether it is microbiology or space travel. I have been surprised more than once when a project hit my desk, and I thought the idea was fantasy. It always turned out to be real. Still, the most challenging thing about DSA is not keeping up with our customers but keeping up with the others in the company.
Greg was the CTO for most of my time at DSA. Among the many, many hats he wore was the role of technical mentor. From programming to science, his experience and knowledge made him our own personal Wikipedia, but it did not stop there. He was able to take his vast store of information and share it effectively, not only with me and my team but with students and customers of very diverse backgrounds. Don’t know how a thermographic analyzer works? Ask Greg. Want to know the LabVIEW function to smooth a signal with varying interference? Ask Greg. In every class, he connected with each student. He used every minute to impart as much knowledge as he could. Greg was the embodiment of “raising the professional standard.”
Every time I teach a good class or have a very productive day or meet a technical challenge, I wonder how much better would Greg have done the job, and that makes me want to do better.
This is possibly the shortest story I could think of. I had been asked to describe my work by some in-laws, and after excitingly describing DSA to them at length I received the response:
“Tim, you’re not supposed to be excited about going to work on Mondays!” to which I replied “Actually, you are…and I am.”
Traveling to customers is a normal occurrence. Sometimes you need to rent a car to do this. Sometimes you get to drive a BMW on the interstate. I believe I arrived early that day, and those aren’t necessarily related pieces of information.
I have a secret. I mean, I have been let in on a secret. When our parents or neighbors watch the TV they see shows like “How It’s Made” or “Dirty Jobs,” and they think they understand the details of a complex job. You cannot state that a farmer “plants seeds” and “harvests crops,” and think you have captured the nature of the job. Like the Wizard in Oz, there is a lot going on behind the curtain.
One of the most interesting thing about working at DSA is the customer science that we come across each day. For instance, did you know there is a medical device you put up your nose to stimulate tear ducts from the inside? Did you know that to certify an artificial heart design it must beat in the lab for 3 years continuously? If I asked you to program a bird sized robot to land on swaying power wire, would you even know where to start? You can probably get your head around placing a foil lid on a drink properly, but to do that at eight times a second takes some figuring. Designing drilling equipment that predicts pressure spikes to protect the well workers requires lots of data and complex algorithms.
I have worked at Data Science Automation for over 14 years now. We face some of the most interesting challenges from our customers. You never know what someone will dream up, and what challenges you will face. One of our employees always says “The lead sled dog is the one that is most likely to run into the tree when running in the dark.” The first person to try something new will inevitably find things that no one was prepared for. This is where the advantage of having such a wonderful and diversely experienced staff can make a great impact to the total success of a project. At DSA we are truly working with a group of talented individuals that can help concur mighty mountains.
What it’s like to work among the nerds: Working at DSA places you in the middle of some unique conversations. If you want to spend your lunches having intense discussions about the timeline of the Star Wars universe or spend your happy hours diving into the chemistry of microbrews, then DSA is the place for you. You might just discover someone who is equally as passionate about Dungeons and Dragons as yourself or find yourself in the middle of a heated debate over the superior superhero comic book series. Trust that the nerd knowledge at DSA runs both vast and deep