Uncloaking Orion: Behind the Scenes with Neil Girling

Did you know that Orion’s Lead Hardware Engineer Neil Girling was also the company’s first employee? When he isn’t building the latest hardware for voice communication, Neil can be found behind the lens of his camera or traveling to new corners of the world. We sat down with him to hear how he found his way to Orion, his experiences with some tech giants and all of the adventures he has had along the way.

How did you find your way to Orion? 
I had recently parted ways with Ekso Bionics, where I was designing exoskeletons for paraplegics. I was touring whiskey distilleries in Kentucky when I got an email from Greg Albrecht out of the blue, asking if I was available to come in and chat about a hardware project he was working on.

At that time, OnBeep — as it was known then — consisted only of Jesse and Greg, their “office” a lunchroom table at a startup accelerator in SOMA. They told me their vision for the future of communication and gave me a real working demo with these incredibly clunky hand-soldered prototypes cobbled together from RadioShack components. I was sold and started the next day.

What is your role at Orion? 
I joined Greg and Jesse as the first employee as a hardware engineer, responsible for 100% of the electrical design and architecture. I also wrote the initial firmware (that I was very grateful to give to a real professional later), helped with recruiting and hiring, shot team photos, attended a number of fundraising meetings with venture capitalists, traveled to China for manufacturing support and set up our electrical engineering laboratory.

They say to always hire people smarter than yourself, and now that I’ve done just that, my role has become more administrative and leadership-oriented. I now handle budgets and contracts, run meetings, recruit and hire people, set priorities for the hardware division, and help keep the various teams working together smoothly. There’s a lot of room for me to learn and grow in the new role, and I’m excited for the opportunity.

How did you get into your field? 
I wanted to be an artist, to be honest, and I thought that I had the best chance of doing that by going into engineering (as I had little faith in the efficacy of my making a living as an artist). It also helped that I was really, really good with computers: I owe a large chunk of that to my parents, who let me tear apart the family computer (repeatedly) when I was young, and I always, ultimately, figured out how to fix it. So, I went into computer engineering at Cal Poly. I sort of always expected to be writing code for embedded systems, but when Apple offered me an internship as an electrical engineer to help design the Mac Mini, I couldn’t say no. That established me being typecast as an electrical engineer, where I’ve worked ever since.

You’ve done a lot of cool things in your career so far. What did you work on at Apple and Google?
I’ve had some really amazing opportunities to work with world-class companies designing amazing things. It started in my sophomore year of college when Apple hired me as an intern to help design the original Mac Mini. I’d always said Apple should have a low-cost computer, and then here I was working on it! I came back to Apple the next summer, and the big project then was converting everything to Intel architecture. This time, one of the members of the design team quit very early on, so the whole project was led by just two people: the tech lead, and me, an intern. I actually ended up staying on through the fall quarter (skipping school) to continue helping on the project. It was an amazing experience.

While I was at Apple, I asked a mentor there if he had any suggestions for getting more experience before graduating. He ended up helping me land a pair of internships in Google’s hardware division, testing and designing subsystems for their servers. When I arrived, the hardware team was minuscule, desks were in the hallways and motherboards were sitting on couches. A ton of the software engineers at Google didn’t even realize there was a hardware department there at all! It felt very much like a startup in the middle of a gigantic company.

You’re a pretty accomplished photographer. How did you get involved in photography? What are some of the best adventures you’ve had taking photos? 
I started taking pictures at the age of 10 when my mother gave me a little point-and-shoot to take to science camp. I’ve shot ever since, progressively leveling up as I learn new things and have epiphanies on how to correct things I’m doing wrong. I taught myself via the internet and hands-on experience, always analyzing my photos for what I could have done better.

I’ve had a number of amazing opportunities through photography. My involvement with the underground arts scene in the San Francisco Bay Area (and a little of New York’s, too) is entirely through my work as a photographer. The first time I ever left the country was to be flown to Venice, Italy, as a wedding photographer. Then, it was my connections as a photographer for Burning Man that got me places to stay throughout the rest of that trip (in Berlin, Amsterdam, London and Brussels). I’ve been published internationally on a number of occasions, but the one I’m most proud of is several of my images appearing in Vanity Fair’s 2011 special edition on travel.

You’ve also worked with the circus. What did you do there?
My role with the circus was that of embedded photographer and roustabout, working primarily with the Vau de Vire Society (avant garde circus noir) and other troupes such as Cirque Berzerk, The Wandering Marionettes, Gooferman and more. I was flown to Seattle (for Bumbershoot), New Orleans (Jazzfest) and Scottsdale (a Super Bowl party hosted by Paris Hilton, of all people), but one of the most amazing shows we put on was in the infirmary ward on Alcatraz — you can apparently rent the entire island, which the car company Scion did.

Do you have any other hobbies? 
I host a weekly cocktail party where we mix fancy drinks and discuss nerdy things. I also organize and lead a modest Burning Man camp.

What’s your favorite travel destination? 
That’s a really tough one. I love New Orleans for the culture, architecture, food and drink; New York City for the friends I have there and that it never seems to sleep; and Berlin for its amazing art scene and history. China and Hong Kong — when I head there for work — is fascinating.

What are you most excited about for the future of Orion?
We have a unique product, an amazing team of talented people and a grand but achievable vision of enabling beautiful collaboration through voice. What excites me the most is bringing that to life.