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David Downey: Marathon Man

Dream Jobs 2008

4 min read

The midday sun had chased the last of the morning's chill from the air when David Downey turned into the Garmin International parking lot, in Olathe, Kan., winding up a 20-kilometer run. He'd been out on the road for nearly 2 hours, a little longer than usual, but he wanted to enjoy the perfect fall weather while he could.

Heading for the company showers, he passed through rows of offices. One man glanced up from his screen. ”Testing again, Dave?”

Downey held up his arms, displaying several watchlike devices strapped onto each. These little Garmin-made computers mapped his route, tracked his speed and heart rate, and calculated his pace. ”Of course,” Downey replied.

Downey is the software engineering team leader in Garmin's fitness products division. Best known for GPS navigation devices that stick on car dashboards, the company also makes tools for aviators, hikers, fishermen, and athletes.

Testing Garmin's running and biking gear is as much a part of Downey's job as writing the embedded code that makes them tick. ”Usually about 11 a.m., after coding and debugging and helping the guys on my team, I'm like, ’Oh, man, time to get ready to go,' ” Downey says. He checks his e-mail to see what kind of ride his bike-enthusiast colleagues are planning, compares it to the plans of his running colleagues, and decides which group to join. He changes out of his jeans and cotton shirt into sports gear and grabs a handful of Garmin products off his desk; some are already on the market, some are works in progress. Then he's ready to go ”testing.”

Downey's outside interests don't just happen to coincide with the projects he's working on. As the company's recruitment literature puts it: ”Garmin seeks candidates who have a passion for the products that they're developing.” That means fishermen work on marine products, recreational pilots work on aviation products, and exercise enthusiasts work on fitness products. The company encourages these passions by subsidizing sports teams, gym fees, and pilot lessons, as well as race entry fees.

When he started his career, Downey never expected that his job requirements would one day include running and biking. After getting a B.S. in computer science and mathematics from Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., in 1983, he held software jobs at various companies, all in the southern Kansas City metro area.

In 1998, when his employer at the time, a medical device manufacturer, announced a move to California, Downey applied for a job at Garmin. Garmin turned him down.

Downey wouldn't be discouraged. During the interview, he'd learned that Garmin was about to move its line of products to ARM processors, 32-bit devices based on a reduced-instruction-set computer (RISC) architecture. He had never written code for RISC devices before, but he convinced a small company, World Wireless, to hire him to develop software for ARM-based vending machine payment systems. Six months later he reapplied to Garmin; this time he got the job. He worked first on a cellphone project, then developed a GPS system for Palm PDAs.

Then, in 2002, Garmin engineers began developing a fitness product, a souped-up watch for runners. Downey had always been into running and was on the track team in high school and college—never a star athlete, he says; he just liked doing it. He really wanted to work on the new product.

Downey hung out with the people working on the runner's watch. He ran with the developers daily as they tested prototypes and wasn't shy about making suggestions. ”When I run in town, I never remember to stop my stopwatch at a stoplight,” Downey says. ”So I said, ’Hey, it would be really cool to have it just stop the timer at the light and start it up again when you go. It'll know by the GPS signal when you're stopped, because the location doesn't change.' ” For that idea and others, the team credited Downey in patent filings.

He officially joined the fitness group in 2004. His most recent project is the Edge 605 and 705 bike computers, which began selling this year for about US $400 and $500. These handlebar-mounted gadgets use a wireless network to gather information from sensors built into the bike and strapped onto the rider; they can track, among other things, the cadence of the pedals, the force the rider exerts on the pedals, the bike's speed, and the rider's heart rate. Basic street maps come installed; riders can add memory cards with detailed route maps.

These days, Downey competes in a bike race, a running race, or a triathlon at least once a month; that's as much as his family will tolerate. Every event presents another opportunity to test the company's products, though not every test goes well. In 2006, for his first ”adventure” race, he wore a prototype of the Forerunner 305, one of Garmin's watchlike computers for runners. The event had three parts: an inflatable canoe race, a mountain bike ride, and a trail run. The canoe race and bike ride went fine, but the trail run had a few surprises. The trail led through a pond; Downey managed to keep the not-waterproof prototype dry by holding his arm in the air. Then the trail crossed another pond with ropes strung above it; competitors had to crawl through the water under the ropes. By the end of the race, Downey says, ”the prototype was totally fried.” (The commercial product is water-resistant.)

Since just after being hired by Garmin, Downey has organized the company's team for the Kansas City Corporate Challenge, a six-week festival of Ping-Pong matches, races, and other sporting events. Last year, some 180 Garmin workers participated. Lately, Downey has been focusing on recruiting more women to compete, because many events require coed teams.

Right now, swimming is a weak spot, perhaps because the company does not produce a line of products for swimmers. ”Our strategy? Hire a swimmer,” Downey says. With the company adding more than 400 workers annually, an engineer with a passion for swimming may soon find her dream job.

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