Our interview with Eben is the first on a series of articles to be published in the coming months, where we talk to some of the tech industry’s brightest minds, leaders and visionaries. We are calling this special feature ThinkIt.
Eben Upton has had an interesting trajectory as both an entrepreneur and academic, founding a few startups over the past decade and a half, as well as serving as Director of Studies in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge.
Now employed as SOC architect at Broadcom, his latest “on-the-side” venture adds a bit of each aspect and is perhaps the most ambitious yet: those with cheap ($25-$35), compact computing platforms. Resume programming in schools that children can buy themselves. But despite targeting students, his foundation’s tiny computer has captured the imagination of tinkerers around the world.
We recently had a chance to test-drive the Raspberry Pi Model B and are now following up with an interview with one of the visionaries behind this UK-born non-profit project.
TS: First of all, congratulations on the early success of your project! Although users are just starting to get their Raspberry Pi units, the level of attention you’re getting is impressive.
Thank you. This has been amazing for us. I think it has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.
TS: Tell us a little bit about your professional background and how the idea for the Pi Computer got started.
I’ve been at Cambridge for 16 years – it’s unbelievable, much longer than I had planned. When I was young I spent some time at the University of Cambridge and earned my doctorate in computer science in the computer laboratory. While there, some of us noticed that the number of graduate students was declining every year and the number of students who knew how to do it was declining as well. They knew less every year.
They were still very, very bright, but they had less experience, so you have to spend more time giving them that experience when they come in the door. When you have a three year course to prepare someone to go into a job or do a PhD it is helpful if they have a lot of experience when they come.
So we got the idea that there was a problem with the rise of home PCs and game consoles to replace the machines we were used to in the 1980s, the previous generation programming the Amigas, BBC Micro, Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64 machines. had learned. I liked to program on my own, I was not taught in school. These machines tempted you to programming but that was no longer happening.
We sat down to build such a machine. Something that was cheap enough that kids could buy it themselves or give it to them as a gift and that was powerful enough. We weren’t aiming for a retro computer. It took us a long time but we came up with the Raspberry Pi.
TS: What year was the project born?
I started looking into it around 2006 but the foundation started in 2008.
TS: How many people made up the initial team and how many are working on this project right now?
We have six trustees who are the original founders. We have a large group of volunteers working on the project. Many are Broadcom employees who spend their evenings working on it. We also have many people who are computer laboratory students at the University of Cambridge.
I was in the computer lab when we started the project and now I work at Broadcom, which provides the chips for the Raspberry Pi. So we have these two kinds of “core” places where the Raspberry Pi stuff happens and there are volunteers from both organizations working on it. And then we have a great community of volunteers from all over the place doing all kinds of different things, doing new apps for the Pi, looking at the code we’ve released and finding bugs. , or are implementing new core features in the device.
TS: I don’t mean to put you on the spot here, but how are you managing your role at Broadcom and founding the Raspberry Pi Foundation?
Broadcom has been very understanding and very supportive of the Raspberry Pi. The Pi uses a Broadcom application processor – an ARM based SoC – and at my day job I am the architect for our next generation ARM based SoC. I was on the team that produced the chip that went into the Raspberry Pi and now we’re wondering what chips we’ll have in 2-3 years’ time. So it’s my day job and Broadcom is making a lot of sense to allow me to focus a little on the Raspberry Pi, at least for now.
TS: Is that part of your plan to go full-time at the foundation in the near future?