Featured Engineer

Interview with Ken Gracey

Ken Gracey

Ken Gracey - President of Parallax

How did you get into electronics/ engineering and when did you start?

My electronics experience is actually very informal. To better understand my background I should tell you about my brother, Chip Gracey (Director of R&D, the brains of our company) and the way we grew up. Without a doubt, our interests today are a result of the way our dad (Chuck) raised us, giving us the tools and parts we needed to create. We didn’t have any video games, but Chuck made sure we had a workbench loaded with Dremel tools, balsa wood, soldering irons and a drill press right in our bedroom, which he built above the garage. Our bedroom was one big workshop, and the kinds of things that we grew up doing included taking fireworks apart to make something else that burns and explodes, shooting BB guns through layers of material, and of course electronics. The types of computers we had included Timex Sinclair, Commodore 64, a Vic 20 and eventually an Apple 2. Our neighbors had the Atari 400 and 800. On weekends we’d go to RadioShack, the R/C hobby store, maybe a computer show and build or dismantle most anything we could. 


Can you tell us about your work experience/ history before becoming the President of Parallax?



After graduating from UC Davis, I worked for five years as an environmental consultant for land development projects in the San Francisco Bay Area and Lake Tahoe, focusing on noise and air pollution analysis. I was happy and productive in this career, but kept an eye on Parallax the whole time, wondering and watching Chip’s product evolution. When Chip and Parallax co-founder Lance Walley parted ways in 1997 I began to help Parallax with the marketing efforts remotely, ultimately leaving my environmental career behind. 

At the time we had about ten employees. I was interested in classroom use of our core product at the time (the BASIC Stamp) and started an educational program called Stamps in Class. We developed the Board of Education and almost by accident it was mounted on a robot chassis and it became a robot, selling over 250,000 units. Customers had a very important role in this evolution. 

Like most small companies Parallax had little or no structure. I had the opportunity to work in every department and grow the business distribution in Europe, Asia and North America.

Today we have a staff of 45 and around $10M of revenue annually. Chip and I have grown separately in our roles so that they are complimentary to one another. It turns out that we’re quite different from one another, and that each of us has skills not easily developed by the other one. This has become an important part of working together. My most important responsibility is to see that he has the freedom to do the R&D around our Propeller multicore processors, which represent the future of our company. Engineers like Chip and his team can’t be saddled with daily operation of a business, so I take care of that part with a truly skilled set of leaders within Parallax.

What have been some of your influences that have helped you get to where you are today?



I have plenty of influences to pay thanks to. They’re not famous people, but colleagues I’ve come to know who’ve shared their skills and experience. They include positive friends who see only opportunities where some might say none exist, my peers at Parallax who I also enjoy as friends, my dad and mom who are nothing but supportive, my first boss who told me that my writing skills were very poor, and a number of close colleagues like Phil Pilgrim, Jon Williams, and John Olson. From an electronics and programming standpoint, I’ve actually learned from our own microcontroller education programs. Chip is always available to answer my questions, gladly answering even the most mundane inquiries. 


What are your favorite hardware tools that you use?



I don’t do much hands-on engineering, but I still have my favorite tools to build physical demonstrations of our products. These include our Haas CNC milling machines, Epilog laser cutter, a Hakko soldering station, Wilton band saw, Servo drill press, Agilent bench-top power supply, and a MacBook Air computer. 


What are your favorite software tools that you use?



OneCNC CAD/CAM, Parallax’s Propeller Tool software, a simple terminal program (Parallax Serial Terminal), and lately just some general cloud computing applications. 


Do you have any tricks up your sleeve? 



I’d have to answer this from a management perspective since I’m not much of an engineer. Either many basic principles apply or I’m just not that creative. 

Surround a business with smart people. Don’t pretend to know what they do because you don’t need to – just give them the environment to do what they do best. Abolish office politics quickly and encourage people to get to know their peers. Try to identify what interests your team and give them more of it, whether it’s free time, a flexible schedule, recognition or anything else. 

I think that certain professions are more enjoyable if you also enjoy them as a hobby, and likely more productive as a result. I also believe it’s important not to engineer in a vacuum – seek the help of those who’ve solved the problem and be open to different ways of achieving the goal. A business like Parallax is only productive if there’s a partnership with our customers. 


What has been your favorite project?



Several years back I built what I called a “hybrid robot” – a 4-stroke engine coupled directly to an automotive alternator and battery system. A friend in Oregon named John Olson helped design a current and voltage-limited regulator for a smaller sealed lead-acid battery. I thought it would be useful to have 40A @ 12V continuous power on a robot, at least as long as the engine had gas. Google “Parallax Hybrid Robot” to see more about this project. 

Today, my favorite effort is helping the Parallax manufacturing capabilities increase. This year I hope to upgrade our entire SMT line to a brand new set of Juki Pick and Places so we can stop running two shifts and build prototypes more easily without disrupting regular production. We’ve got a solid manufacturing team like I’d never imagined. 


Do you have any note-worthy engineering experiences? 



Sure, I think so, but they’re couched in absolute simplicity instead of impressive engineering feats. The Parallax educational program brought embedded programming to students as young as ten years old, and we’re still reaching lower. Being able to share our multicore processors with students as young as 12 years old is a challenge, but we’re making the tools and programs to make this possible. I believe Parallax was among the first companies to truly succeed in teaching young students to program microcontrollers. 


Do you have experiential stories you would like to share? 



I’ve had several close calls involving safety. Once, my hybrid robot caught fire on my desk after I dumped a hundred amps backward into the battery charging circuit, so I had to carry it outside and drop it. Debugging this system meant we’d either be running the engine at my desk or taking a laptop outside, and the former seemed more appropriate because of sun on the screen, never mind the exhaust in the office. I’ve really become a safety fanatic at this point, realizing how delicate our bodies are and how easily we can be hurt with lifetime consequences. 


What are you currently working on?



At this moment I’m on an airplane to Taiwan to make some arrangements for the Propeller 2 chip packaging and testing. I’m also stopping at Taiwan National University to introduce their faculty and students to the Propeller. 

My main effort right now is to put together our internal plan to bring the Propeller 2 chip to market. This is really exciting since Parallax only makes a major product release every 5-6 years, and this one is right around the corner. 


As the President, what are you main objective and goals at Parallax?



Every business leader has goals around products, revenue and timelines, but what’s more important are the objectives that are hard to write in a plan; like how our business is managed and how the team feels about where they work. Providing an environment we want to go to every day, being able to help our whole team be successful individually, supporting their families and children so that dreams are fulfilled, and recognizing the various currencies that each of us have that motivate us to do our jobs. 

Working with customers and suppliers you appreciate is key. So is creating an environment that promotes trust, respect and business integrity. I feel that if these soft objectives are in place the business goals fall into place as a result.

From a business perspective, our goals are developing a commercial customer base around Propeller 2, which all of our customers know is a challenge given our history in education and hobby markets. We will continue to grow with our educational and hobby customers so they succeed, and make huge improvements to our American manufacturing line in 2012. Our customers are willing to pay for our lifetime warranties, quality and support around everything we offer, and that’s how we differentiate ourselves from other companies. We’re not interested in producing lots and lots of products, only high-quality ones that sell in volume.

Do you continue to take an active role in product development, if so, how?



Not really, other than supporting the people who do these kinds of things. We have two product development teams: (a) R&D, run by Chip who designs our multicore processors and (b) internal engineering run by Jessica Uelmen to design our microcontroller boards (like the Propeller Board of Education), sensors and motor controllers. For R&D, my job is to supply them with the freedom, funds, and time they need to make our processors. 

The engineers really don’t need me getting in the way, to be honest. I respect each and every one of them for their specific skills. However, it’s important that our engineering efforts are well-placed in ways that serve the business. Beyond this, the only time I get involved is when I sense too much committee design is about to happen. Historically the best product designs we’ve done were by one person or a very small team. 
 

Can you tell us about the history / founding of Parallax? 



Chip Gracey and Lance Walley founded Parallax in 1987. These two guys were friends since middle school and shared technical interests. They established a California Corporation, assembled a Board of Directors with an engineer (Chuck Gracey), a CPA (John Krefting), and a lawyer (Bill Bassett). You’d think that this combination could have been cumbersome, but it helped – Chip and Lance didn’t have much real-world business experience to draw upon. Looking back, the contribution of the Board of Directors has been very important, even when they simply provide validation to our plans. 

Products created by Parallax included the PIC Programmer (1990), Mathias PIC Emulator (1992), the BASIC Stamp 1 and 2 (1992 and 1995), the 50-MIPS SX 8-bit controller in conjunction with Ubicom (1997), and now the Propeller multi-core processor (2006). Each of these product designs contributed to the next one, providing the experience we have today to do full custom ASIC designs. 

We’ve also had our failures. Several of them are kept in my office as reminders of the past. Thankfully, I can point to each as an experience that contributed to making a subsequent effort a success. 


How does Parallax continue to provide the electronics industry with products that are technically innovative, unique, and economical? 



Chip is a true visionary with the Propeller multicore design. He’s designed our own ASIC at the transistor level, something that can only be inspired by some internal motivation, religious beliefs, and design partners who also understand the goal. Chip is always 5-10 years ahead of the rest of us, looking ahead to what our customers will want when they’re just getting familiar with our current products.

At this point Chip will focus on growing our design team for future chip designs. We’ve partnered with a synthesis company to simulate the die and output the final mask files. We’ll keep our design team very small, probably with about 4-5 people for the next Propeller revision.

What is the work culture like at Parallax? How many employees are there?



Parallax is a somewhat structured company with departments (manufacturing, engineering, research and development, sales, marketing, information technology, technical support) but everybody works with whoever they need to. It’s a loose environment that values trust, respect, integrity, honesty, and personal freedom. People can work at home, use our manufacturing tools and systems for whatever they want, and take any inventory they desire simply by checking it out of stock. This informality is mostly great; only infrequently does it cause issues, like when somebody put a pumpkin in the laser cutter and damaged the optics. Even that wasn’t a problem and we didn’t make any rules.

We have a staff of 45 employees but could easily use a dozen more. We keep the staff level really tight because we don’t want added expenses burdening the R&D cycle. 
 

What direction do you see your business heading in the next few years?



The next few years will be the most exciting in Parallax’s 25-year history! I feel very honored to be part of a team who is making decisions at this time. With the planned release of Propeller 2, the educational program from learn.parallax.com and the new equipment planned for our manufacturing department Parallax is ready to move to the next level. 


What are some new technologies we can expect to see from Parallax in the near future? 



Exactly what our commercial customers request in our future multicore chips: more RAM, flexible I/O with A/D and software peripherals on any pin, faster speed and more I/Os. 

You’ll also see some fun projects come out of Parallax. The Microsoft reference robot design (Eddie) will evolve, our ELEV-8 Quadcopters will fly autonomously, and students everywhere will learn about the ease of programming a multicore chip. 


What challenges do you foresee in our industry?



I don’t have any data to back my point, but I think there’s been a shift in product designs using microcontrollers from the USA towards Taiwan and China. American and European companies will focus more on custom product design efforts for specialized equipment in newer technologies. These products will often be more expensive and of lower volume. The high-volume commercial products will continue to be made elsewhere. 

Our electronic manufacturing capability must be rebuilt more quickly in the USA at any cost to support these products. This is happening at many different scales thankfully, from the innovative efforts around hackerspaces and DIY to the contract companies that do assembly. 


Is there anything that you have not accomplished yet, that you have your sights on accomplishing in the near future?  

Personally?

I’m running the robotics program at my kids’ middle school as a regular elective and I hope to connect it up with a productive and rewarding high school program this year. For many years the parents of my children’s friends have asked me when I’ll bring our robotics expertise to the school, and that time has arrived. The school has been very receptive and supportive, and I’m starting to see the early results as some students have become really motivated. I’ve found it really rewarding to work with the students.

Professionally, I want to grow Parallax Semiconductor into the commercial chip business. We’re supporting more commercial customers every day, and we are learning how to assist these customers in bringing their Propeller-based products to market. 


What are some of your hobbies outside of work? 



I like running my own week-long whitewater trips down our western rivers, mountaineering on our local peaks, self-supported bicycle tours and travelling with my wife Mary Beth and two boys (Nathan 10, Carson 12). I guess I’ve got another less-natural side that enjoys snowmobiling, shooting guns, and exercising all of the wonderful freedom that our country provides. 

I’m still trying to summit Mt. Shasta. I’ve climbed more difficult mountains but Shasta continues to turn me around near the top due to severe weather. Mountain climbing is a really peaceful, strenuous and rewarding activity I’ve taken up in the past couple of years.

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