Talent Spotlight on Ned Konz, Senior Firmware Engineer

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Talent Spotlight is a regular feature profiling the employees of Product Creation Studio. See the Talent Spotlight archive for more interviews.

What led you to a career in product development?

My first paying job in electronics was when I was 12. I figured out how to fix radios by taking their tubes to the drugstore and testing them. During high school, I worked at a downtown San Antonio TV repair shop, then serviced pinball machines and video games. I started the first computer store in Daytona Beach Florida, but found myself with several computers that wouldn’t sell because there was no software, so I made them into hotel message board systems which I then sold. By the time I was 20, I’d designed and sold three add-on products for business telephone systems, as well as a device that would mute your stereo when the phone rang or was picked up; this was a hit among my friends who listened to loud music.

What excites you most about your job?

Being creative excites me, as does learning new techniques and figuring out the best way to meet and exceed client needs.

We get to work on a variety of products across many industries, which means that I've had to learn about everything from medical ultrasound therapy to the needs of people climbing 300 foot ladders inside wind turbines.

I have a great deal of respect for my colleagues at Product Creation Studio and love to brainstorm solutions with them because their experience is amazingly broad, and we can help each other when we get stuck trying to solve difficult problems.

Describe your most rewarding work experience to date.

(1) A manufacturer of high-end SONAR systems came to PCS with their newest design that was not manufacturable because the microprocessor and memory they'd designed in was no longer being produced.

They were also unhappy with the performance of that design, as it wasn't able to transmit the stream of SONAR data over its network cable at full speed.

I selected a microprocessor and memory whose production was guaranteed for 15 years, and got the system to transmit at the required speeds by re-designing the network interface and re-writing the Linux kernel driver that handled the data from their custom hardware.

I was later able to replace their expensive and nearly obsolete add-on box for transmitting data over very long distances with a built-in circuit that used power-line networking ICs.

(2) An existing client told us that they wanted to adapt their over-the-counter, FDA-regulated acne clearing device through Avon at high volumes. But they had to reduce their manufacturing cost drastically to do so.

In a brainstorming session with ID, EE, and FW people, I came up with the idea of using a power transistor as a heater instead of the existing resistor-based heater element. After I showed that it could work by doing a thermal simulation, we built a prototype and collected data. The thermal system response was so much faster than previous designs that a simpler user interaction was enabled. Meanwhile, the assembly process could now be automated, reducing costs to the point where the entire device became disposable.

We were able to reduce costs further by using capacitive sensing instead of a physical button and simplifying the electronic and mechanical construction. The client sold over 500,000 of these devices, and used that design for several later products. The successful team effort in the face of unrealistic demands made this project a lot of fun.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?

I am the bass player in an Americana ensemble and a rock and roll cover band. We perform in public several times a month. I've played over 400 gigs, from dive bars like the infamous Blue Moon in the U. District to several performances at festivals with attendance in the thousands.

What is something about you people would be surprised to know?

I ended up in Washington state at the end of a 4500 mile solo bike tour from Santa Cruz CA to the Pacific Northwest by way of Colorado.  Before that, I bicycled some 5200 miles from Florida to Oregon.

What is the most unusual or interesting job you’ve ever had?

I worked for Dr. Alan Kay (who coined the term "object oriented" and whose group at Xerox PARC invented many of the graphical user interface techniques we use today) for several years doing user-interface research and development of a programming system for education. I enhanced that system for the live demo he presented with his speech to the Association for Computing Machinery when he won their prestigious A. M. Turing Award in 2003.