Interview with Don Beaudry
Don Beaudry, K1DBO, has had a passion for tech solutions his entire life. As a developer, engineer and the creator of Slice Master, Don understands the need and the power of simple, common-sense applications. Like the need to bridge the configuration gap between third-party applications. And the power to make one FlexRadio appear as eight different conventional ones. For Don, his major motivation was a little frustration. Check out the interview with Don Beaudry, DK1DBO, creator of Slice Master.
Q: Tell us briefly about your career and what led you into ham radio.
A: I’m a software developer with over 20 years experience and hold a BS and MS in Computer Science. 10 years ago I gave up development professionally, and have been working as an IT infrastructure engineer.
Technology and electronics were an interest for as far back as I can remember. In 6th grade (1976) I dusted off an old KnightKit R100A™ that my father had built years before and started studying for the novice exam. I couldn’t quite get the hang of CW so that really put some limits on my expectations. About the same time computers were making their way into the school system. I was hooked immediately and radios took a back seat.
Fast forward to 2013. I wasn’t looking for a new hobby, but one found me. By chance, I read the FCC had lowered the code requirement to get an amateur license. I took an online test for the tech license and passed. I was surprised at what I remembered from my early days with the ARRL Handbook.
Not being one to shy away from a challenge, I went from tech to general to extra in the next three consecutive weekends. My first radio was connected to a 40/20/10 fan dipole in the attic. Back then, I was able to contact the world with 30watts and psk31. From there I discovered casual contesting and the need for a better antenna and finally the software defined radios from Flex. And I’m still trying to get the hang of CW.
Q: Why FlexRadio?
A: Mostly, the radio’s hybrid nature… part radio, part computer. There are other software defined radios, but add the Flex technology together with the Flex Community and you have a winning combination.
Q: Talk a bit about your application Slice Master. What does it deliver for the operator as far as a better, more efficient operation?
A: Radios have come a long way over the years. Getting the most from a modern radio requires computers. But not all radio operators enjoy configuring their computers. Slice Master makes using your FlexRadio with third party programs as easy as pushing a button.
Simple configurations of third party programs with FlexRadios is only slightly more complicated than configuring those same third party programs to work with conventional radios. The major difference is, depending on the model, a FlexRadio can appear to be as many as eight conventional radios all in one box. Slice Master makes it easy to configure and launch CW Skimmer™, GRITTY™, HRD’s DM780™, flDigi™, WSJT-X™, and JTDX™ with the push of a button, at any time, on any number of slices, and in any combination.
Many of the third party programs that Slice Master launches are capable of decoding call signs from the signals they process. Since these programs come and go at the whim of the operator, it would be difficult to keep an external spot aggregator in sync with the changes. For this reason, Slice Master collects the spots from the programs it launches and presents them to loggers and also displays them on the SSDR panafalls.
While configuration of third party programs is Slice Master’s primary role, it does have a couple of other tricks. With so many slices to work with it’s easy to think of ways to use them. When working on my antennas I like to make comparisons in real time. Doing this is easier if you dedicate one panafall to antenna 1 and another to antenna 2. But then there’s the problem of keeping both slices in sync. Slice Master lets you lock your slices together in a few different ways. Frequency is the obvious first choice. But it will also let you synchronize the panafall attributes too. So change the zoom on one and watch it automatically change on the other.
The more slices you have, the more audio gain controls you have to adjust. Slice Master’s audio Mixer tab puts them all in one place so it’s easy to make adjustments without first searching for the slice. Slice Master’s audio controls also provide an OTRSP like experience that integrates across all slices not just two. Your audio focus can be set to follow either your active slice or TX slice.
Q: Tell me about the Slice Master development experience.
A: Slice Master was created out of a sense of frustration. The Flex community sees a lot of questions about how to configure various third party programs to work with the FlexRadios. These questions usually get lots of different answers and many of them are conflicting. These answers then lead to even more questions and more frustration. I wanted to contribute clear, concise, repeatable answers but felt that writing good technical docs to describe how things should be done was at least as hard as writing a program to just automatically do the same thing. Add the fact that I don’t care much for writing technical docs, but do love to write software, and Slice Master was born.
The development is fairly straightforward, but testing it can get really complex. It’s hard to predict all of the possible interactions that can come into play between the programs Slice Master launches. So it’s important to get feedback from users. Some are even willing to test new features. This feedback is a big part of the process. It really takes user feedback to make sure everything works and keeps working after each release.
Q: What were the most challenging parts of the process?
A: A big part of the challenge was that I wanted to write Slice Master in Python. Flex provides their API libraries in C# but not Python. So I had to start from the bottom of the protocol stack and work my way up. Slice Master is really two different things. There’s what everybody sees when they run it: mostly a graphical user interface that coordinates communication between the radio and other third party applications. And then there’s the underlying technology that makes all of that possible: the interface to the radio.
Q: What were the most enjoyable parts of the creation process?
A: I really enjoy solving engineering problems. I enjoy expressing solutions in software. Software is never finished. There’s always one (or many) more refinements that can be made.
Q: What has been the major feedback you’ve received about the product?
A: At the start I was really expecting more feedback along the lines of feature request but there’s really been very little of that. Most users seem very happy that they don’t have to spend a lot of time configuring their software.
Q: What are you most proud of in regards to Slice Master?
A: I really like the way it displays spots on the panafall. Before Flex came out with their own support for displaying spots in the panafall, Slice Master was able to simulate the feature by displaying spots as overlays on the pop-out panafalls. For contesting I really like my version of the feature. It provides a bit more information than what you get with the Flex version and also offers a more dynamic display of that information. But, since it requires the use of pop-out panafalls, it’s not quite as convenient as the built-in mechanism from Flex.
Q: How do you define the success of Slice Master?
A: I consider it a success when folks use it to launch third party applications and say it’s really as simple as pushing a button.
Q: Where do you see Slice Master going in the future? What are the possibilities?
A: I’m always looking to add more third party programs that fit the model. The primary criteria being the program can be configured and launched on the fly for any or all of the slices supported by the radios.
SmartLink support is on top of the to-do list.
Support for loggers and hardware (amps, tuners, ant switches), are directions I’ve been considering. Both directions have interesting challenges.
For the most part I consider Slice Master to be nearly complete. The hardware control options are just as likely to find their way into a separate companion program. I tend to like programs with a limited role that work well with other programs. So for now, it’s mostly maintenance and bug fixes.
When I started it, I wasn’t really sure what Slice Master was supposed to be. Now, though, I think I have a pretty good idea. Cleaning up the inner workings is high on my list.