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Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Box of Chocolates

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A career in technology often exposes you to some interesting topics and people. I have been blessed to be like Forrest Gump in this regard, in the background in some interesting scenes. During my time at the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon I crossed paths with some famous names in computer science and technology. A workshop in Austin included Jack Kilby, one of the inventors of the integrated circuit. I reprimanded Grace Hopper for smoking in a non-smoking area, of course many decades after she helped create COBOL. Grady Booch (object-oriented design, UML) and Jakob Nielsen (usability research) did work at the SEI, and I got beaten up at tennis by Barry Boehm, a pioneer in software engineering economics. We also did work with Rational when they were a hardware company, making Ada machines, long before they became part of the IBM Software Group. I also got to spend some time with Dr. Doug Engelbart, again long after the Mother of All Demos, and soon had a copy of my own (on VHS).

Why these trips down memory lane? Because I had the same feeling a couple weeks back when I attended a meeting at Onshape, Inc., “a venture-funded startup founded by members of the original SolidWorks team plus top engineers from the CAD, data center, mobile and streaming media industries.” (So says their Website). I attended the meeting with my colleague, Dr. Ken Versprille, whose PhD dissertation brought non-uniform rational B-splines (NURBS) to the CAD industry. Ken, and many of his Computervision colleagues, are scattered throughout the PLM Economy. Since he was a pioneer in the CAD space, people are rightfully interested in Ken’s ideas about their work. That was the purpose of this visit, and I am glad I got to tag along.

Our host was Jon Hirschtick, one of those SolidWorks founders. Jon gets that same sort of “rock star” reception at COFES, and his talk at our PLM Road Map event in 2012 was well attended and of great interest to the crowd. Jon showed us around the offices, right near the Alewife T stop, and then spent a couple hours sharing the fruits of their labor. And have those labors have been productive! Onshape will share these results on their timetable, so we cannot comment further on what we saw. Given that, I decided to ask Jon another question: what have you done differently this time around? He listed three things.

Number one is the egalitarian nature of the work environment. There are no offices, and Jon may be working side by side with an intern at any given moment. Our meeting was in a small conference room just off the main path through the office space. This is sort of a “back to the future” moment in office design. When office work and bureaucracy were new, people worked in what is now called an open plan office, parodied in some films with seas of identical desks inhabited by office drones. Then it was thought that private space could be more productive, which leads to some comical behavior. (Scott Adams made HIS millions off Dilbert’s exploits in the land of cubicles.) Now open plan is the preferred option in most start-ups and many established companies.

Number two is product quality. In the early days at SolidWorks, the focus was on getting product out. That is not to say that quality was poor, but it was not the focus. Bringing needed functionality to the desktop was. As we have seen with other start-ups, this can be a problem as they rush to get to market fast, and sometimes have not thought it all through. This time around at Onshape, functionality is important but they know they need the quality to be impeccable to change the adoption and use patterns of their target users. Software users can love their products, and be very hesitant to even consider a rival, much less move. Onshape’s founders should know this well, as SolidWorks was (and still is) known for their fanatical users who love the product.

Number three? Forrest Gump would have a hard time finding that box of chocolates at the Onshape offices, at least for free, because there are NOT unlimited soft drinks and snacks available. This is very different from many start-ups, who cater to the whims of their young teams with exotic food and drink, among other things, available 24/7. Perhaps Onshape will give lean software development an alternative meaning.

Their passion was evident (there was a companywide meeting going on when we left, with people overflowing out of a larger conference room, sharing in some new functionality being presented to the group.) We look forward to the grand unveiling. Follow Stan on Twitter at @smprezbo.

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Stan Przybylinski

For more information on Stan visit.

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