CTOs Best to Lead CAD Companies. Like Biplab Sarkar at Vectorworks.
Roopinder Tara posted on September 25, 2017 | 2320 views
Dr. Biplab Sarkar, CEO of Vectorworks, at the company’s annual user meeting.
Dr. Biplab Sarkar, CEO of Vectorworks, at the company’s annual user meeting.

Engineering software, which is tech at its most noble (sorry Angry Birds), needs to take a lesson from Vectorworks. The independently operating division of Nemetschek is in its second year of being led by Dr.Biplab Sarkar, who was previously its CTO. In ways that CFO, CMO or other C-levels cannot, a CTO can plow in long-term, foundational changes in a software to yield the most long-term and significant value in the product.

Sarkar has transformed Vectorworks into 64-bit code, a massive five-year effort. It has adopted Unicode throughout, which will be able to make his software localized and usable in big foreign markets.

“These changes are not exactly glamourous,” as Sarkar apologized to the 450 or so attendees at Vectorworks Design Summit 2017. He shouldn’t. Users will have much to appreciate with fundamental changes that ensure their choice in design software is viable now—and future-proofed.

Interview

We sat down with CEO Sarkar and his lieutenants on the first full day of the conference. He had been doing interviews all day but showed no sign of flagging.

Dr. Biplab Sarkar, CEO (left), and his lieutenants Darick De Hart, VP of product management; Lauren Burke Meyer, communications manager; Steve Johnson, VP of product development; and Sue Collins, director of publications and communications.

“I had to tell [ex-CEO] Sean that almost none of his code has remained,” said Sarkar. The popular and jovial Sean Flaherty was the no. 2 developer at the company—which was initially called MiniCAD. “I don’t know what we were thinking,” Flaherty has said. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Flaherty, instead of leaving to do comedy, took a position as chief strategy officer at Nemetschek.

“There’s hardly a bit of C code left in Vectorworks, it’s almost all C++ now,” Sarkar said.

Sarkar, a techie at heart, was educated in one of the world’s most prestigious institution, the India Institute of Technology. He came to Vectorworks from PTC (that’s right, the MCAD company) and was appointed CTO in 2008, then CEO in 2016.

What technology Vectorworks cannot develop it will acquire, said Sarkar. Vectorworks has installed the Parasolid geometry kernel, which meant replacing homegrown code for solid modeling. Rendering is done with Maxon, and the company uses the Pixar engine for subdivision modeling.

You might have expected the chief technologist to have tried to develop all technologists in-house. Shopping for an off-the-shelf technologist may prove that Sarkar also has a savvy business side.

Who Needs Subdivisions?

Vectorworks can make complex, organic shapes using subdivision modeling, thanks to the Pixaranimation engine. (Image courtesy of Vectorworks.)
Vectorworks can make complex, organic shapes using subdivision modeling, thanks to the Pixaranimation engine. (Image courtesy of Vectorworks.)

Subdivision modeling, in which complicated shapes can be formed by pulling and pushing on a simpler shape, may be more in demand for making Angry Birds, but what good is it for buildings?

“It’s great for fabric structures, like tents, cloth-covered furniture, etc.,” Sarkar said.

Vectorworks will dominate the tent market. You have your sights on the Middle East?

Clearly, I am not filling the comic void left by Sean. Look out the window, I am told. A large, multi-canopy tent has been erected next to the conference hotel on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Competition

How does Vectorworks compete with Nemetschek’s other division? Allplan is strong in Europe, especially Germany. ArchiCAD is strong in Japan, right? (Graphisoft hosted journalists, including this author, at its Tokyo offices a few years ago.)

Not so, according to Sarkar. “Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD has only a 9 percent share of the Japanese CAD market. We have 40 percent,” Sarkar said. “We do a volume business, whereas ArchiCAD is used by big, building information modeling–oriented architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms.”

How to Compete With AutoCAD? It’s Everywhere.

True. Everyone is using AutoCAD. But not intelligently. They are making stage elements with lines and arc, for example, not intelligent objects, said Sarkar.

Revit? Coexist or Compete?

Vectorworks may be unique in being able to import native Revit files. (Image courtesy of Vectorworks.)
Vectorworks may be unique in being able to import native Revit files. (Image courtesy of Vectorworks.)

Vectorworks appears realistic in that it cannot displace Revit and is choosing to coexist rather than compete with Revit.

“We alone can import native Revit files,” said Sarkar. “Both RFA and RVT formats.” Vectorworks relies on ODA SDKs, another example of using off-the-shelf technology when adequate and available.

Can it write Revit files though? True coexistence—that is what is really needed if Vectorworks is to coexist beside Revit in architecture firms.

“The ODA expects to enable saving to Revit formats soon,” says Sarkar.

More Competition. Bentley?

What about large-scale projects, a specialty of Bentley. Can Vectorworks compete?

“That is infrastructure. Bentley is well established. We don’t play in that arena,” said Sarkar, conceding to Bentley’s dominance.

Brace Yourself

Braceworks put a structural engineer in the software for stage designers. (Image courtesy of Vectorworks.)
Braceworks put a structural engineer in the software for stage designers. (Image courtesy of Vectorworks.)

Vectorworks counts among its strengths its ability to handle lighting and stage design. The constructions used for big rock and roll events are nothing less than architectural marvels—but with an added complication. They have to be assembled and dissembled with each performance. The lighting for stages, musical acts and live theater can be modeled in 3D. Vectorworks remains unique among major CAD software in its ability to fill these needs.

Ensuring that heavy objects overhead don’t land on the audience or performers is too often left to a roadie’s rule of thumb or experience. “But these guys are not structural engineers,” said Remco Teunissen, owner of RTN Show support.

Braceworks, enter stage right. New this year, Braceworks handles modeling and calculations for the space beams used for sets.

Braceworks sells for $1,200 year, which big-time stage designers would pay in a heartbeat—if only they knew of it.

Getting Into Schools

Most schools are using AutoCAD, said Sarkar. A shame. Autodesk has managed to get into all the schools, so it’s all people know.

“It’s up to us to spread the news about Braceworks in the educational institutions,” said Sarkar. “We are working on that.”

Landscaping in 3D

Another specialty Vectorworks excels at is landscaping, which 9 percent of its users take advantage of (57 percent use it for AEC and 18 percent use it for stage/lighting).

Landscapers, if they use CAD at all, also tend to favor AutoCAD, similar to stage design. And again, the geometry created is not intelligent, being lines and arcs and having none of the properties of the object they are modeling. And it’s probably 2D.

In comparison, Vectorworks landscaping is inherently 3D and intelligent. Just witness Adam Greenspan of the San Francisco firm PWP Landscape Architecture. taking a unused container port in Sydney and transforming it into a lush landscape for a museum—not easy to convey without 3D modeling.

Cloudy?

With hype ramped up for cloud-friendly and full-cloud applications, its causing every engineering software company to answer to its cloud strategy. Sarkar is prepared.

“Our software can use the cloud for storage and for calculation,” said Sarkar. “Rendering can be sent off to the cloud. Our new mesh handling, the simplification of large meshes, takes a lot of calculation. You don’t want to have your desktop tied up for a long time. You can send it to the cloud.”

Vectorworks does not charge extra for cloud processing; any subscribed user can take advantage. It uses Amazon Web Services for the cloud.

Mac Attack

Vectorworks is quite at home with Mac users—and vice versa. Style-conscious architects tend to favor the aesthetics of Apple computers over PCs. Vectorworks caters to this audience with a native Mac app. Meanwhile, Autodesk has faltered. Its attempts to be ported to the Mac are half-hearted and ultimately unsuccessful, says Vectorworks.

Asked how successful is Vectorworks among architects, Sarkar cited the last study he knows of, which in 2008 concluded Vectorworks had 75 percent of the Mac CAD market.

Is Vectorworks Usable on Mobile Devices?

Right now, you can view Vectorworks files on mobile devices. But full use of Vectorworks on an iPad? “Not any time soon,” Sarkar said. “We might make a subset of Vectorworks that works on a mobile device (or through the browser).”

Term Licensing

As software embraces term licensing, Vectorworks remains with the bulk of CAD, CAE and CAM vendors who are sticking to a perpetual license model. A hybrid system, one that adds the ability to “rent” Vectorworks, is being considered though, said Sarkar.

What About China and India? Vectorworks Is Not a Player in Two of the Biggest Countries in the World (by Population). Why?

“We don’t have much of a reseller program in those countries,” said Sarkar. “We would need more boots on the ground.”

And Those Markets Are Tough to Crack, Right? Is Software Piracy, Especially in China, a Big Issue?

Sarkar nodded in agreement.

We’re out of time—and I better let Dr. Sarkar get a break from questions. Although he gamely fielded all of my questions, I doubt if technologists would think talking to media is the best use of a day. Besides, the annual Vectorworks party awaits. A good way to end the day—Vectorworks parties are known for fun, food and music.

This year was to prove no exception.

Which CAD company has the best food, music and vibe? Might be the Vectorworks Design Summit.
Which CAD company has the best food, music and vibe? Might be the Vectorworks Design Summit.


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