Management of Wabtec Embedded Software Team

Wabtec’s Winnipeg plant is actually in Oakbank, about 30 km (18 mi) outside of Winnipeg.  Oakbank is a small community of a few thousand people, surrounded by farmland, and, to the northwest, hills with rock quarries.

This was originally a small Winnipeg company called iders (pronounced by most people as I-D-ers), who had been pioneers in the development of PIN pads for Canadian banks and retailers, and later successfully landed the contract to develop the Conviron CMP4000 environmental growth chamber system, among many projects of varying sizes and complexity.   In the 2001 to 2008 time frame, they also manufactured the NxtPhase TESLA DC Isolation Module, which Horst Koelzow and I had developed.

One of the industries that iders broke into in the early 2000s was electronics for the railroad industry.  Their experience in communications in general, and computer networking in particular, led them over several years, to create what’s now known as the GoLINC ACC (Auxiliary Communications Cage), which has the AAR standard for communications on railroad locomotives.

iders was acquired by GE Transportation in 2016.  In 2018, GE Transportation itself was divested from GE, merging with Wabtec.  The Oakbank plant was still referred to as “GETW”  (GE Transportation Winnipeg) until early 2020, when the migration from GE’s IT systems to Wabtec’s IT systems was mostly complete.

I was hired as the Embedded Software Engineering Manager for GETW in August 2018, with 11 direct reports.  A few days after starting, I was advised that I had 3 hires to make – which, for historical reasons, were each assigned to separate hiring managers, and were each managed by separate recruiters.  The hiring took some time to implement, as we worked out the projected seniority of the hires and reviewed dozens of applicants… but the big thing is that I was busy in the interim.  We made the hires in January 2020.

There was a lot of development going on at GETW.  Some was new, some was remedial work, but it was all very intense.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were quite fortunate to be able to work effectively from our homes, because Wabtec has quite a good internal communications infrastructure.  There were issues, mind you – we had trouble accessing the Checkmarx static analysis scanner – but we worked around that using a Raspberry Pi that I put on my desk at the office, until the proper routing could be arranged through the VPN.

The pandemic was not as serious in Manitoba as in many other parts of the world.  When things settled down in mid May, we carefully moved back to the office, taking appropriate precautions.

Unfortunately, as with many industries around the world, the locomotive industry was hurt by the economic downturn that accompanied COVID-19.  As a result, my employment with Wabtec came to an end in June.  Many others were let go at the same time, and apparently there will be a long term strategy to consolidate Wabtec’s electronics manufacturing into other locations, and downsizing the office footprint, saving considerable money in the process.

Elecsys acquired by Norscan Instruments

Elecsys was exciting and fun, but not all that profitable.  There just wasn’t enough high margin work to keep us going.

Meanwhile, Ken Sontag, owner of Norscan Instruments Ltd., was looking for a strategy to expand his product base and change the focus of his company.

We were brought together by Jock Tooley, who facilitated the acquisition of Elecsys by Norscan, and made Jason, Nishant and I employees of Norscan.  Jason became Business Development Manager and I became Product Development Manager, both reporting to the President, Ken.

The concept was that Jason and I would use our contacts and existing customer base to drum up new business in new market verticals, while Norscan’s much-larger product development team would be able to deliver new products much more quickly.

Founded Elecsys Solutions Inc.

As 2003 drew to a close, it was apparent that NxtPhase was having financial challenges.  Its CT & VT developments were costing a lot, and progress was not as quick as hoped.  I left NxtPhase to do independent consulting, but then in early 2004, I joined with Jason Fuith in forming Elecsys Solutions.  Our goal was to help innovators bring their ideas to production, to assist companies who needed engineering guidance, and to develop our own ideas and products.

APT Becomes a part of NxtPhase

At the end of 2000, Vansco decided to focus its effort on its core business, and sought to divest the APT Division to a power-utility-related entity.  It turned out that a company called NxtPhase, based out of Vancouver BC, had been developing digital instrumentation CTs & PTs for power transmission.  These digital devices inherently gave digital information… but nobody in the industry was serious about consuming this digital information, causing them great headaches as they had to transform the information back to analog at the standard 69V and 5A levels!  They acquired APT because we were one of the first to do power system relaying using DSP, and were open to digital communications.  Our relays had the same inter-DSP connection port that the two MPBs on the TESLA used to communicate between them, so this could be great synergy!

On January 1st, 2001, the APT Division of Vansco became NxtPhase Relays & Recorders.

We remained in the Vansco office at 1301 Clarence Ave. until September, when we moved to the newly renovated building at 74 Scurfield Blvd.

Appointed General Manager of the APT Division of Vansco

With the departure of the Conviron business, Ed and Terry Van Humbeck asked me to take on a new venture – creating the APT Division and leading it into the power utility sector.

We had been doing collaborative work with Dr. Glenn Swift and colleagues at the University of Manitoba for years, but the designs were theirs, and we found them to be difficult to build.  They didn’t necessarily design for production.  This would take our learning from those efforts, and create entirely new products.

I hand-picked my dream team, and they gave me all the persons I asked for, except for one  – my friend Filipe, who was very busy working in the Vansco PC division.  Vansco built us a new office area in the strip mall at 1253 Clarence, next to the Wire Harness Division, and we got started.

For the next 4 years, I was Chief Architect, Hardware Designer, Low Level Firmware Developer, IRIG-B Processor Developer, Product Development Manager, General Manager, and reported to the board meeting monthly.  It was pretty crazy – kind of hazy now, honestly, as I worked far too hard during this time.  But, did we accomplish a lot!

Promoted to Engineering Manager, Industrial Systems

I clamoured for a promotion, and finally got it!

James White and I were named Engineering Managers.  James was given half the team for Embedded Systems Engineering, and I was given the other half for Industrial Systems Engineering.  Our offices were side-by-side in the building at 1305 Clarence.  We worked very closely together, often reviewing each others’ work, and seconding our team members back and forth.  We both always interviewed any candidate for either group.  And, for existing historical projects, James and I sometimes would cross over as well.

Started Work at Vansco Electronics

Looking for a job while at first year university, I heard that Ed Van Humbeck was starting an electronics business, so I asked if he had work for me.  Vansco hired me to build turn signal flashers for Versatile tractors.  I wasn’t very good at production soldering, but when they let me work on product design and development, my career really took off!