Yesterday I spoke with Eben Upton, CEO of Raspberry Pi (Trading) Ltd. Currently employed as an SoC architect at Broadcom, Raspberry Pi is his nurtured ‘extra-curricular’ venture which looks to promote coding at schools with cheap and compact open-board computers.
I took this opportunity to speak with Eben about this non-profit project based in Cambridge, his drive to get more kids coding, Pi’s reach beyond education, as well as the company’s plans for the future.
Firstly Eben, can you please explain the fruit obsession tech companies have with branding their products?
Honestly, no. But everyone wants to be a successful fruit company! Once you’ve had one tech company named after a fruit that’s been spectacularly successful, there’s always temptation. Raspberry came about for us as A) it was among a small number of remaining fruits available and B) it is the rudest of the fruits. But there weren’t that many fruits left!
Now we’ve settled that, tell us a bit about your community involvement?
Increasingly we are using Raspberry Pi as a venue for education events. Taking advantage of our available space at Pi Tower, chosen especially as an office to grow into, we are able to host several workshops and training courses throughout the year.
An example of this is our free teacher training programme, Picademy, led by Carrie Anne Philbin, through which we offer 2 days of professional development for primary and secondary teachers from across the UK. 75 teachers have already benefitted from the Pi training. The course is particularly useful as teachers need help getting to grips with new rigorous and robust curriculum for computing in schools. Picademy is an opportunity to prepare teachers for this development and provides them with the skills they are going to need to succeed in that new environment.
I understand you are also hosting the Young Rewired State (YRS) event Festival of Code at Pi Tower next week. How important are events like this for promoting coding among the younger generation?
The YRS event, Festival of Code, will welcome a bunch of young coders into our offices to improve and build on their programming skills and develop software in teams. I had the chance to attend the final in Birmingham two years ago and was impressed by what these amazing kids were building. The children truly embrace the fact that they have access to these big data sets and build such sophisticated pieces of software in very short periods of time in a really collaborative environment.
Were there any gadgets and gizmos that sparked your enthusiasm for tech from a young age?
For a lot of people in the UK from my generation, the BBC micro occupies a very pivotal moment in their childhood when you got your hands on computer hardware that you could programme. On a personal level, it’s also really nice that another product originating from Cambridge holds that importance.
With tablets being introduced into schools, how do you go about competing for schools’ tech budget spends?
I do not believe we run in competition with the introduction of tablets in schools. We are rather a sort of parallel activity. I can’t bring myself to say that we compete with tablets – people need different tools for different jobs. Tablets are good for some things and Raspberry Pis are good for others. For example, if a platform for language teaching software is needed then a tablet would be the device of choice, however if a platform to write code on is needed, something like a PC would do or a Raspberry Pi. The Pi is so cheap that it can easily sit alongside any other technology. Compared to the cost of giving someone a laptop for example the cost is minimal.
Besides education, which other industries can benefit from Pi?
We are seeing the Raspberry Pi employed increasingly in general industrial automation. There is a whole world of small industrial computers that the Raspberry Pi fits into. This is a broad area, but generally we see a three-way split between things you would recognise as being embedded or industrial, things you recognise as educational, as well as hobbyist interest of course.
What’s the most unusual use of Raspberry Pi computing you have come across?
The number of people who have started using it in art projects is absolutely fascinating. Raspberry Pis are showing up in installations and people are building some really interesting projects and attractive interactive exhibits. The Pi’s GPIO and interfacing capability makes a great platform for physical computing and artistic installation control. Making our little product into something like that was always a long way away from what we ever imagined.
After last week’s launch of the Pi B+, is there a Pi 2 on the horizon?
No, not at the moment. We have a lot of software work to do. We are still seeing really substantial improvements on the Raspberry Pi simply from working diligently on the software. Obviously, eventually we are going to have to develop in 2 or 3 years. That’s just the way of the IT industry, I guess. You can’t just keep shipping something forever. I think we will ship for a few more years yet and then start looking at something different.