Monday, 6 February 2012

Interview : Eben Upton at Raspberry Pi

NSB has been deeply impressed by the Raspberry Pi project, which is about to release a small, extremely low cost, computer that aims to give children an exciting way of learning programming, just like kids were able to do with their ZX Spectrums in the 1980s.

Eben Upton, one of the trustees of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, kindly agreed to an interview with NSB recently. It was a fascinating discussion, touching on how the number of people studying Computer Science has dropped over the last 10-15years, tips for youngsters who want to enter this field, and what it has been like to develop the Raspberry Pi device. A transcript of the best bits is shown below. Enjoy.

NSB : Going right back to when you were working in the admissions department in Cambridge University, can you give a feel for what you were seeing at that time?

Eben Upton : I came up to Cambridge University in 1996 as an undergraduate student to read computer science and the vast majority of the people on the course with me had been programming since they were around 8-12years of age [using] machines in their bedrooms that were easily programmable and [that] you could use to write commercial quality games. People were almost tricked into becoming computer programmers, you would buy a Spectrum in order to play games on it or a BBC micro in order to do your word processing and you would find that when you turned the thing on the first thing it did was to beep and then give you a BASIC prompt. And even if 99 times out of a 100 the first thing you did with the device was to load a game or start a word processor you could still write that two line program :
10 PRINT “I’m great”
20 GOTO10
So that was the environment I came from and it was reflected in the skill set of the people I was at university with.

Program me, you know you want to. Go on, just a little one. . .

Ten years later, I had graduated, done a PhD and got involved in admissions. The really surprising thing to me, in 2005, was that your average student now, rather than knowing BASIC, one or two assembly languages, maybe some “C” or some PASCAL, had done, at best, a little bit of PHP, a little bit of web programming. And that is an amazing change over 10 years in terms of skill set and the really alarming thing was it went alongside a halving in the number of people who were applying. So we went from having nearly 500 applying for 80 places. . . to a situation where we had under 250 applying for broadly the same number of places.

Although superbly equipped, an unfortunate mix up between centimetres and inches
resulted in the roof for the new Cambridge University Computer Science Centre being the wrong size. . .

So this was very dispiriting for us so we looked around for why skills might have changed and. . . the thing we could do something about was that kids used to have programmable hardware, which was replaced by games consoles and then by family PC’s. And even if you are a middle class family that can afford PC hardware, it’s still the case that that could be the “family” PC and you are not going to be encouraged to mess around with it, in particular, you are not going to be allowed to risk breaking it in the same way that you could risk breaking your machine in the 1980s when if you broke it, that was your fault and you had to save up and buy a new one.

Don’t you dare try to program me, there is no built-in programming language
and your parents won’t let you anyway

So we looked around to see what we could do and what we have come up with after about five years of effort is this thing that we call Raspberry Pi.

NSB : Just to pick up on one aspect of that - what was it like to be an undergraduate in computing at Cambridge University.

Eben Upton : Enormously competitive is probably my memory of it. . . we had 20 weeks (of teaching) in a year, so that’s 60 weeks over three years. 60 weeks isn’t very long to go from knowing nothing to being a Cambridge graduate. So there is a feeling of pressure, of competition. As I found out in one or two courses, if you don’t pay attention for 15minutes in a lecture then that course is dead, there is a treadmill and you fall off it. . . .But it’s a fantastic experience to mix with people (like) Alex Evans who subsequently has gone on to run a company called Media Molecule who produce Little Big Planet. So that’s the kind of calibre of person you would sit around and have a drink with.

Thinking about Kylie, Tom Cruise, yesterdays Man U - Arsenal game could cost you dear.

NSB : Are there any tips you can give students at sixth form who are keen to do computer science? What would advise them to focus on?

Eben Upton : Looking today, thinking about the “pre-Raspberry Pi” world and good things to get involved with if you want to be a computer scientist, you can pretty much ignore anything called ICT because it’s not going to teach you anything that is useful. We even had a thing at Cambridge when we were doing admissions where if people were doing an ICT A-Level, we didn’t even count that as as A-Level, and that was heartbreaking because we would be getting people who had done perhaps Maths, Physics and ICT - and they would have chosen ICT because they wanted to read Computer Science at Cambridge. They would come for an interview and we would have to say “Look, as far as we are concerned, you’ve doing 2 A-levels and we can’t make you an offer.

There is I understand, from OCR, a GCSE course that some schools are starting to offer which is much more Computer Science oriented, which is good news.

In terms of your spare time, one thing that is a very popular way in still is writing mods for games. A lot of games have the ability to create mods for them and those mods are written in scripting language and it is a genuine, legitimate piece of programming. It’s one of the few ways that people today can come up in the same way that we did. There is a thing called “Garry's Mod” which is quite popular for Half-Life2. There is a programming language called “Lua” which is very popular in the games industry, so there are these tools which let you get involved in serious scripting and you will probably come out of that knowing as much as I did when I left school.

Half-Life2 : Guns and the ability to  write scripts to modify the game.
Does it get any better than this ?

NSB: Lets move forward to 2008. You had decided to do something to improve the situation and were starting to build the Raspberry Pi board of trustees. What was that process like? What were the challenges? What was easy? What was hard?

Eben Upton : I guess its about finding people who have a common interest. We were very lucky because this is an issue that affects a lot of people and that means there are a lot of people who are interested in finding a solution. So on the board of trustees we have myself and five other people:
David Braben, a game developer from the 1980s who learnt his stuff on a lot of the same hardware that I learnt my stuff on and who has experienced this problem because he is trying to hire graduates and the reduction in the supply of graduates directly affects his business. This issue is something that has been close to David’s heart for a long time, well before I met him. Together with people like Ian Livingstone, the former head of Eidos, David has been talking to the government about the general skills problem.
Pete Lomas, who is a hardware engineer and runs a company up in Cheshire that has exactly the same problem,
Professor Alan Mycroft and Dr Rob Mullins from Cambridge University, that’s quite an obvious fit.
Jack Lang, a long time Cambridge entrepreneur and angel investor.
And I have a relationship with Broadcom, which is my day job.

So the nice thing is, these are all people who have a common interest but who have complimentary skills.

If you have a problem, if nobody else can help, and if you can find them,
maybe you can hire the Trustees-of-the-Raspberry Pi-Foundation

NSB : There have been a number of recent reports by the Royal Society and others who wanted to see more programming and a sense of excitement for computing in the way it is taught at schools. Do you feel that, going forward, these will address the problems that you are seeing?

Eben Upton : I think we have been lucky with this government. . . for a long time we were pushing at a closed door with the (previous) government. I think we have been very lucky with initiatives such as thos from Ian Livingstone, Steve Furber or the Royal Society report and a new government that has come along. It has nothing necessarily to do with the ideology of the new government but the fact that new governments tend to do new things.

NSB: Why did you have such trouble initially, for all those years when the door was closed?

Eben Upton : There is just such an enormous amount of inertia associated with changing a curriculum and it requires the government to be scared, to perceive that there is a problem. And its hard to convince the government there is a problem because you look out there and we do have a functioning economy and we have the financial services sector which consumes quite a lot of our engineering output and everything kinda looks fine. So this is a delayed action time bomb.

And things have to start to get bad. Maybe five years ago we only had 5 years of their not being graduates, now we have 10 years. People are looking around in engineering companies saying “Where are all the guys in their 20s? Why are we only hiring 35yr olds these days”.

Changing government policy can be like trying to get one of these to do a handbrake turn. . .

NSB: To move forward to today, where is the project now and can you give some information about the physical size of the Raspberry Pi, because it is quite a small device.

Eben Upton : It is exactly the size of a credit card. We used the ISO spec for a credit card to size the product, so this thing is, within a millimetre, the size of a credit card; about half an inch tall; around the outside its got connectors for analogue and digital television, analogue audio, USB to allow you to attach a mouse and keyboard and a 100Mbit Ethernet connection so that you can connect to a network. It takes its power from a mobile phone charger. The idea is that all the peripherals are things that people already own.

The Raspberry Pi in all its tiny, low cost, programmable, connectable glory.

NSB :So when you switch it on, what happens? Does it go into a programming mode?

Eben Upton : You switch it on and it boots just like an ordinary Linux PC. If you want to use this as a productivity machine, you can configure it to boot into a desktop. If you want to use it as a media player you can configure it to boot into a media player - we have a port of the X-Box media centre for it. If you want to use it for programming you can configure it to boot into Python (a programming language); you can configure it to boot to a prompt where you can then start programming it in “C” or BASIC or of the other popular programming languages.

Programming in Python on Raspberrypi. So excting that you may lose control of some bodily functions.

NSB : There may be people out there who are wondering how they can get hold of one of these?

Eben Upton : Anybody who is interested in this should go to our website We currently have a batch (a few thousand) being manufactured for us in China. We are then going to go into volume manufacture. One of the big challenges for us is that we forecast that if we had 50,000 devices today we would have zero tomorrow. And for a charitable foundation like ours, with limited sources of capital, that is extremely hard to satisfy. So we have been working on a number of approaches to try and solve that problem, one of these is by scaling very fast, another is to open sourcing the design, releasing the design to third parties so that they can make their own versions. So visit and watch for status updates.

Go here for more info.

NSB : The website is fascinating as you really get a feel for the process of designing and manufacturing this device.

Eben Upton : It’s interesting to do this thing in public. Hardly anyone ever tries to do this in public. What this means is that we said we would like to get this out in the fourth quarter of 2011 but we hit some problems and some people were critical. By December we had some, but only a trial quantity. And now we are in February and I’m saying that we are only a couple of weeks away. If we had gone into stealth mode we wouldn’t be having this and it would be easier in some ways, but it would also be harder because I very much enjoy some of the lovely email that I get, encouraging email that keeps you going when things get tough, something that we would be deprived of if we were in stealth mode.

NSB : The last question that we have for you is one that we ask all guests on the show : What do you think is the best thing about living in the UK?

Eben Upton :What would I put at the top of my list of the best things about living in the UK? I’ve lived in a number of places. I’ve lived in France and I’ve lived in the US and the thing about the UK is that it feels like having been the UK for a very long time. It has a lot of institutions that have been around for a long time, like the University of Cambridge which has been around for an enormous amount of time. They’re not perfect, heaven knows that the University is not a perfect institution. You can stand in the middle of Cambridge and you are standing in the city that gave us Newton and a thousand scientists and a thousand philosophers. And there is just something about that sense of history about the place and the fact that that co-exists, certainly in Cambridge in any case, with an enoumous economic dynamism that we at Raspberrypi are trying to keep going. It makes it a very congenial place. I love it in the UK.

Eben was interviewed as a guest on the "Building for the Future" show on Nottinghams community radio station "Radio Dawn 107.6FM"

Image Sources:
Raspberrypi logo and device image courtesy of Raspberrypi. All other images from Wikipedia

To NSB's delight and amazement, this interview got a mention in the Guardigan(as No1 son used to call it )

1 comment:

  1. It is a great shame how computing in schools degenerated so far - from having a few Acorn machines in one room where the hard-core enthusiasts could learn a bit of programming, safe in the knowledge the whole operating system was in ROM so even the worst coding errors were no more than a reset from being fixed, to Windows PCs: black boxes needing coddling, with boot sectors and system files to worry about. Never mind coding errors, even word processing users risked viruses. Run your own code? These days, school machines get polices to stop you even accessing a command prompt!

    I recall my own interview - same College, in fact I think Eben would have been doing Part IB at the time. I'd been pretty serious about computing at school, running the school network and getting a holiday job as a Unix sysadmin at a local university, teaching myself ARM assembler - how many school pupils can do that now? Ironically, they probably own ARM devices already - they do power both iPhones and Android handsets - but never get the chance to program it themselves, just install off-the-shelf code from others. I would love to see people coming out of school a few years from now having learned C, Perl, ARM assembler like I did, instead of having wasted months of classroom time on "how to use Google/Excel/PowerPoint".

    I imagine CUCPS will be excited at the prospect of a RISC OS port to RaspberryPi, too: I know I'm looking forward to giving that a shot.