Starring in the first in our ‘Intern Interview’ series is former ETC intern, Michael Lichter. Now a senior technical product manager for ETC, Michael has played an active role in the development of several ETC products over the past 20 years, and worked on many projects around the globe. In this interview, Michael takes us on a journey through his working life from leaving university to the present day.
Tell us a bit about what you were doing before you joined ETC as an intern.
At the end of university in Germany, a student has to complete a Diplomarbeit [final year project]. I was studying electrical engineering and working for a large rental company setting up shows and concerts on the weekends, and the field of entertainment technology appealed to me. After I finished the university theoretical work, I took some time out to go backpacking around the world, with the intention of doing my Diplomarbeit with a company somewhere along the way.
How did the internship with ETC come about?
I sent an application to a rental company and they referred me to the head of R&D at ETC. After explaining what I wanted to do, we agreed to a meeting. All of this happened over a single payphone that was shared between 500 people in a summer camp in Wisconsin, where I had a fun summer job as a waterskiing and climbing instructor!
That does sound like fun! What happened next?
After the interview, I was offered an internship position and I accepted. It took a little time to organize all the paperwork, work permits and everything. I started my Diplomarbeit work with ETC in November of 1996.
Do you remember the first project you worked on?
My assignment was part of the Obsession-II console project. I designed a box that could be used in manufacturing to test the fader and button PCBs on the console. It had a bit of feature creep in it too, that would allow it to be used as a DMX tester.
You stayed on with ETC after your internship, so what was the next step after you completed your Diplomarbeit?
I moved back to Europe and filled a position in field service in the ETC London office. My first project was the installation of the lighting system at the Royal Opera House, which was a way ahead of its time back then. After that followed a number of large installations and cruise ships.
And somewhere along the way you acquired a certain nickname?
[Laughs] Yes, that’s right. I became the “flickering-dimmer-and-weird-power-guy”. Basically, whenever there was a dimmer with blinking lights anywhere in the world, I was straight on a plane to that site. I developed a method of “listening to mains power” with headsets to diagnose power issues and problem sources by listening to what’s happening on the power line — it’s pretty amazing the vast number of power problems you can hear.
By recording these bad-power phenomena, we were able to re-create these situations in R&D and develop new dimming products accordingly. Even today, we still use this bad-power library to test new dimmer designs.
It sounds as though you were travelling lot, how did this work for you?
Since I was on a plane most of my time, the most important thing I needed for my work was a major airport nearby. As my now-wife had finished at university, and so that we could be closer to family, we decided to move back to Germany. From there, I worked for several months on commissioning the park-wide lighting control systems for the second Disney theme park [Walt Disney Studios Park], in France.
After that, I got more involved in R&D work, using my field experience to contribute to new product designs. Shortly after, ETC bought German lighting company Transtechnik, near Munich, and I started working out of this office.
Can you tell us about some of the projects you’ve been a part of?
The first big design project I got to do there was the hardware and driver software design of the Smartfade console, followed by Smartfade ML and the Congo console. Soon after, I was tasked with updating the studio machinery automation control system Transtechnik had developed. We went on to design a modern and fully configurable studio automation system (Voyager-II).
At which point did you make the move into rigging?
In 2008, when ETC was looking at rigging and they needed a control system, they approached me. So, we packed up our family and moved back to the USA. There, I was working with a team of engineers on the ETC rigging control systems — QuickTouch, QuickTouch+ and Foundation.
You were also involved in the standardization process – what did this entail?
I contributed content to the US rigging standards. A team of eight, including me, was selected to finish the US overhead winch standard that had already been in the works for 25 years. After that, I was voted to chair another standards effort: Common Show File Format for Rigging Control Systems. The standardization work goes on in Europe, I’m currently the appointed chairperson of the European Stage Machinery Control System standards working group.
What else have you been involved in through your work with ETC so far?
I’ve attended tradeshows, presenting the rigging systems, but also speaking on panels about rigging-related topics and functional safety standards. This also gave me several opportunities to teach these subjects at various universities.
What’s the format of your current position with ETC?
In 2011, I moved back to the Holzkirchen [Germany] office where most of the software is developed for the rigging effort. In reality, half of my team is in the US and the other half is in Europe, and I live on a plane in between. However, a lot of the functions I performed in the US are now covered by new employees, and I now work with local resources to develop the European market.
Anything you want to share about your experience working for ETC?
I’m really excited to work for ETC. It has been an amazing trip so far, being able to climb the ranks from an intern to my current position. I’m looking forward in anticipation for even more interesting things to come, and for more amazing challenges to solve.
Finally, what do you do with your spare time outside of ETC?
I very much enjoy living with my family, wife and two kids. And, when there is any time left, doing all kinds of outdoorsy stuff like mountain-biking, hiking, horseback riding and snowboarding. I also play bass guitar in a rock band.
ETC has a company culture that our employees love. So if you’re looking for a great opportunity to showcase your talents, make new friends and work for a company you can truly be proud of, consider applying for one of our open positions – we’d love to hear from you!