28 years of LabView

Interview with Max Visins, by Dani Jobs

Max Vizins has been working with LabVIEW for 28 years and has worked at Novator Solutions since its inception. As he embarks on retirement, Dani Jobe sits down with him to discuss his career, lessons learned, and the history of LabVIEW, OOP, and Novator Solutions.
Dani: If you’re out at a cocktail party or with your wife’s friends, how would you explain your job to them?
Max: Usually I don’t (laughs). No, but if I do, I tell them that we make test systems for industry. I don’t usually say more than that.

Dani: How did you get into this field?
Max: Well, I just needed a job. My parents moved from Stockholm to 400 km from here and I didn’t want to go with them. So they set me up in an apartment and of course, I needed to have a job.

Dani: Had you gone to college?
Max: I was in high school at the time, specializing in a technical field. But I didn’t learn that much programming in school, because the programming then was, you sort of used a typewriter and got this paper strip and then you fed that into the computer and did some calculations. And then they would print out what you’ve done. So it was a big step when I got to Erikson and they had monitors to program with. That was where I learned how to program

Dani: What programming language was it?
Max: Plex
Dani: I’ve never heard of that
Max: No it was Erikson’s special programming language just for their exchanges. You know when you want to make a phone call on the old landlines – the exchange is how the machine knows where to connect you. It is all galvanic connections all the way. So it’s a lot of switches both ways, and these exchanges were semi-computerized – it was a bunch of relays that were controlled with the computer programs.

Dani: Did you always think you would do something along the lines of electronics, programming, that sort of thing?
Max: No it was broader than that. I think this is why I started off working on these sorting machines. It was more hands-on, there was no programming, it was mechanical and electrical. And it was before microcontrollers, so everything was TTL logic. So they had these panels that were 10 by 8 circuits, you know those TTL blocks and then there were wires on the back, and it was a mat of wires, and then when you had to make changes you had to move these tiny wires from one place to another and you had to use this special tool and move one little wire from one place to another, and it had to be the right wire.
Dani: Sounds really tedious
Max: Yeah. But it was very fast because it was hardware
Dani: Same reason an FPGA is fast
Max: It was sort of like an FPGA but it was wired

Dani: Yeah a bunch of logic gates wired together. How did you start programming in LabVIEW?
Max: oh let’s see… I have a friend who when he talks to younger people he says “oh I started programming in 1978, when were you born?”
Dani: haha 12 years later
Max: haha right. Well I suppose it was around 1995. I was working for a company called Frontec, which was a consulting company. I heard a small group of people talking about it at a conference, maybe 3 people, and I thought well that sounds different, let’s try that! So that’s where it started. And then I went to work for another consulting company after that, Endevo, because one of the guys who did LabVIEW was Jörgen Jehander who was one of the guys who founded Endevo, and also did the first GOOP version with Stepan Rhia. Of course, there was no LabVIEW Object Oriented programming back then, so they had a DLL that they wrote and then called from LabVIEW and it was the first way of doing objects in LabVIEW. So others of us wrote the framework and stuff around that, to implement the object-oriented paradigm.

Dani: So you were involved in creating the first Object Oriented toolkit in LabVIEW? That’s really cool, what a great claim to fame, that’s pretty important, and a lot of people still use that today – wasn’t that the basis for how LabVIEW brought objects into LabVIEW natively?
Max: I don’t actually know much about that. It was a while later. There was an issue with the licensing that they wanted to use GOOP but NI didn’t have the rights to use it.

Dani: So you started working at Endevo then and really dove into LabVIEW. How did you end up coming to Novator Solutions?
Max: Yeah I worked at Endevo for thirteen years. And then it got bought by a Finnish company and was divided into three parts – a Stockholm part, a Gothenburg part, and a Malmö part. But everyone in the Gothenburg office decided they didn’t want to work like that, so they all resigned.

Dani: Were they in a union together to decide to resign together or did everyone just decide to leave individually?
Max: I think they decided together. They joined another small company that someone who had worked at Endevo previously had started, AddQ.

So that was that, and that worked for a while, but then the Finish company sold the company to a Chinese company, and that went badly. I don’t know what was going on in that company’s organization but they started keeping secrets and not communicating about the decisions they were making. So within a year of this acquisition, everyone who had been working in the LabVIEW department had gone somewhere else.  And a lot of us ended up coming to Novator Solutions.

Dani: So that’s been quite a long time then. In this time, has there been a favorite project or projects that you worked on?
Max: That’s a hard one. I think it depends a lot on the people you’re working with, more than the actual project. You know I think some of those small projects where the team was just really good, and everyone was interesting and fun to work with, were the best projects. There was this one project that I enjoyed – they had this research station out in the Stockholm Archipelago. You’d drive two hours and then they would pick you up in a boat and go out to the island where they have the station. Of course, you had to bring your lunch because there was nowhere to buy food around there. The station was collecting data like how much sunlight and salinity of the water and the wind direction, things like that, and logging it. That was nice because it was a totally different environment.
Dani: Like fieldwork
Max: Yeah we don’t get a lot of fieldwork in this line of work, it’s nice when you get to be outside. I mean even in the middle of winter that can be fun too. I remember another project I did on a remote measurement system that was in Kiruna: And that was cool. Sometimes it was winter there.
Dani: Do you go up to the station in cross-country skis.
Max: Not quite but it was close. It was usually not in the dead of winter so there was some sunlight, but there was definitely lots of snow.
map Kiruna
Dani: So your favorite stuff you’ve worked on has been when you’ve had a chance to go somewhere interesting or work with great people.
Max: I think so, yeah. Sometimes the application itself is particularly interesting – I think I like it the best when it has moving parts. You know when you program it and you see something moving – when there is a mechanical component as well. That’s the most satisfying and fun.

Dani: So you’ve been in the industry for quite some time, since 1978. Have you noticed cultural changes in the time since you started working?
Max: Probably, but it’s been gradual, and I think society and us in it adapt along with it, so you don’t really notice it. I think the biggest step was the change from Frontec, the big consulting company, to working at Endevo, which was sort of employee-owned. There were owners, but everyone got shares that you could buy into at a reduced price.

Dani: So sort of like a worker-owned collective
Max: Yeah. There was a modified system of wages. Instead of a fixed salary you would get a percentage of the money that was invoiced. They made this system because a lot of the people who were working at the big consulting company Frontec were wondering where the money went. They saw the company would invoice a lot of money and earn a lot, but where did it go? You know you invoice the customer for this much per hour, but you are only getting this much per hour. So where does the rest go? And Frontec couldn’t really answer that question. They didn’t have much transparency on that. So some people who had been working there started Endevo and they said we aren’t going to do it that way, we’re doing it another way. So you had control over your income and over your expenses.

Dani: So it’s almost like a hybrid of being an independent consultant and working for a company. At Endevo when you had this structure, were decisions also made collectively by the worker-owners, or was there still a management board that made high-level decisions?
Max: There was still a high-level board that made the larger-scale decisions.
Dani: It was more just of a pay structure then. Do you feel like that went well? Max: As long as there were good times, yes. When there was a recession sometimes people hadn’t saved enough in their safety net savings. There was a company-wide safety net so you could have your basic needs met but it was quite low so it wasn’t fun. But that’s part of why you don’t get all of the profits from your invoicing, there is a percentage of everyone’s profits that has to go to make sure that the company can keep running for a while even without as much billable work.

Dani: So then there was quite an even pay structure – were the people who were managing and owning the company making a lot more than the engineers?
Max: Probably still to some degree. Because they didn’t do any consulting so that model didn’t apply to them. So I think they still had more than everyone else, but there was still a philosophy of a more equal structure and transparency.

Dani: That’s interesting. If you could talk to yourself when you were starting your career in 1978 what advice would you tell yourself, or what would you tell yourself?
Max: That’s a hard question. I don’t know. I mean you don’t know the future. So you have to do things that you think are fun. And of course profitable at the same time. There has to be a kind of balance between making money and doing things you enjoy. Because you shouldn’t do work that bores you if you can avoid it, not for too long, anyway. But you need enough money from work to enjoy the things you like outside of work. If you only pursue the money and work, you’re missing out on what else life has outside of work. There’s sort of a balance of money and time. If you have too much money you probably don’t have enough time. And the other way around if you have too much free time you probably don’t have as much money to enjoy the time with. And of course, everyone has a different point of that balance. You have to see how much money you need for the things you enjoy doing.

Dani: That’s good advice. So what has been the thing you hated about your job or what was the worst thing about your job?
Max: Mostly when you had to work with people who were not nice.
Dani: Did that happen much?
Max: Not a lot, but it did happen. And I also got annoyed with unnecessary regulations when working with medical testing. There was one project where they were making this pacemaker tool that was making these laser markings and a bug was found, but instead of fixing the bug, because then they would have to do all their testing again which would take a long time, they just wrote in the manual don’t do XYZ that creates this bug. So I think it was just excessive ways that these regulations relate to the need to release on a tight schedule so it makes it so that instead of actually fixing the bugs and getting a better product we release things where it has bugs just that they are documented. And of course, we should be testing the code and documenting it, but it can’t defeat the purpose of having quality code.

Dani: And what was your favorite thing about your job?
Max: Just the creativity of it, you know. Creating something from nothing. And debugging is also nice to do. And LabVIEW is really easy to debug in, you just run it and probe and see what happens.

Dani: That’s all my questions, thanks so much for your time! From everyone at Novator, thanks for always being such a delight to work with, we’re all going to miss working with you and we hope you enjoy your retirement to the fullest.

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