The End of an Era

1 Aug, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

A look at the MCAD industry makes the author wonder, where have all the product guys gone?

When the MCAD industry was born a few decades ago, virtually all of the founders who later went on to become their company’s president or CEO were intimately involved with creating the core technology that would later become viable, marketable products. Times have changed and those days are largely gone as fewer and fewer heads of MCAD companies are involved at all with product development, much less able to actually use the products they represent and sell in the design and engineering space.

Way Back When
More than 40 years ago several parties and educational institutions were working diligently on the notion of using computer graphics for mechanical design. One of the pioneers who got mechanical CAD off the ground in the 1960s was Patrick Hanratty. While working at General Motors’ Research Laboratories, he was instrumental in creating Design Automated by Computer (DAC), the first true, production-ready manufacturing system based on computer graphics.

Although DAC was a success, GM eventually chose a different direction for its mechanical design, engineering, and manufacturing software. Hanratty decided to strike out on his own and founded his own company, ICS, that developed a production drafting package. Unfortunately, however, the package was never widely accepted because it was written in a proprietary language and ran on computers that were not regarded as mainstream at the time.

Although discouraged, Hanratty did not give up and he shut down ICS, only to bounce back in 1971 with his new company, Manufacturing and Consulting Services (MCS). This time around he succeeded in a big way by writing Automated Drafting and Machining (ADAM, which later evolved into ANVIL), a comprehensive mechanical design, drafting, and manufacturing system. Not only could it run on virtually any computer, the underlying software technology also was licensed and became the basis for several other CAD applications. At last the promise of computer graphics for mechanical design, engineering, and manufacturing had been realized.

Many years ago I met Hanratty, the person who got me interested and inspired me to embrace MCAD -- not just as a job, but also as a career path, and not as an end, but a means. One of the things that impressed me most about him was his practical, hands-on approach. He was definitely a product guy.

A Notable Recent Exception
Jumping ahead some 30-plus years, a couple of weeks ago, SolidWorks announced that its CEO, John McEleney, was stepping down and away from the company. Parent company, Dassault Systemes, announced the appointment of former COO Jeff Ray as CEO of SolidWorks. Founded 14 years ago by Jon Hirschtick and under John McEleney's leadership since 2001, SolidWorks is a well-known MCAD success story.

McEleney (known by his close friends and associates as Johnny Mac) is retiring to embrace new personal opportunities. Although he is stepping away from day-to-day operations, he will remain closely linked to the company as a member of SolidWorks' board of directors and Dassault Systemes' global management team until the end of the year.

I’ve known John for a number of years and have always found him to be one of the most personable and approachable people in the MCAD industry. I always enjoyed John’s company and admired the way he treated people.

John was better at handling three distinct groups that can be credited for the success SolidWorks enjoys today -- customers, employees, and resellers -- than just about anyone I’ve ever known. All three groups are vital, and no one can be regarded as more important than the others, and John was very good at balancing the three in what became known as the SolidWorks Community, an entity that really has no equal in the MCAD space.

I always admired John because, along with many other things, he was a product guy, meaning he could talk in an honest and straightforward manner about what his products could and could not do. His discussions about SolidWorks products were always credible because he could actually run the software himself. Further testimony to his product guy status is the fact that he was a Certified SolidWorks Professional (CSWP). He took the test anonymously and took pride in the fact that although he was CEO, he was also a regular SolidWorks guy, just like any customer.

I have to contrast John’s attitude to that of a competitor’s top executive, who said to me a number of years ago that he wouldn’t dirty his hands with the product. I also asked this same executive who was the most important person in his world: employee, stockholder, or customer? Without flinching, this person said to me, “Why the stockholder, of course.” Stockholders have become so important to some MCAD companies that they are willing to sacrifice employees by letting them go if financial forecasts are not met. This very thing just happened recently at PTC when financial reality came up short of expectations. Therein lies a couple of the many differences between John McEleney and his peers at several of the other MCAD companies.

McEleney has to be credited for making a real contribution to mechanical engineering practice during his tenure at SolidWorks, and also for making his competitors try to be innovative, as well. I believe that one of the main reasons for SolidWorks' success is that John was, first and foremost, a product guy. People who eventually become CEOs with finance or marketing backgrounds are fine, but they have to learn to understand what they are selling. This doesn’t just apply to the top echelon of management, but middle and lower levels, too. You don’t have to be an expert, just conversant in the product while experiencing at least some of the pains and triumphs of your customers.

The sad part of this whole story is that I wonder just how many businesses (let’s restrict it to electromechanical CAD/CAM/CAE) left in this country are still in the hands of product guys? I would venture to guess not many, and that’s too bad for current and future customers, employees, and stockholders. I’m afraid it’s the end of an era.