Vectorworks Gets Serious
Roopinder Tara posted on May 13, 2016 |
CEO Sean Flaherty turns over the reins to his CTO, Dr. Biplab Sarkar.
The Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, more commonly known as “The Bean.” Millennium Park, which was laid out with the help of Vectorworks, near the Fairmont Hotel, scene of Vectorworks Design Summit 2016.(Stock photo.)
The Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, more commonly known as “The Bean,” near the scene of Vectorworks Design Summit 2016.(Stock photo.)

The funniest guy in CAD is leaving the stage. Sean Flaherty told the 600 or so assembled at the recent Vectorworks Design Summit in Chicago that keynote was his last. Those who attended the previous Summit were, no doubt, hoping for a repeat performance: a series of one liners that had them practically rolling in the aisles. But this year, we’re getting serious. Flaherty introduced Dr. Biplab Sarkar, who, up until three weeks ago, was Vectorworks' chief technology officer (CTO). Flaherty will be taking on a strategic role at Nemetschek, Vectorworks' parent company.

Figure 1- Sean Flaherty introduces new CEO Dr. Biplab Sarkar at the Vectorworks Design Summit 2016 in Chicago

Figure 1. Sean Flaherty introduces new CEO Dr. Biplab Sarkar at the Vectorworks Design Summit 2016 in Chicago.

Rise of the CTO

Sarkar becomes the second CAD CTO in the last ten years to take the reins of his company. Carl Bass also rose from the rank of CTO to become CEO of Autodesk in 2006.

While two CTO-to-CEO promotions hardly signify a trend, Sarkar's promotion may once again make technologists wonder why this is the exception rather than the rule. It is goofier, perhaps, to think that software companies can be governed by professional managers, as if software is a mere commodity. Remember John Sculley, who came from Pepsi to lead Apple through most of the '80s? That’s my point. Maybe we should more often pick someone who actually knows the product—or at least the industry.

Getting Serious

Sarkar beat out a host of contenders, some from CAD vendors you would surely recognize if we could name them. A four-month process included interviews on two continents managed by a professional head hunting team, with the finalists enduring a gauntlet of judges from Nemetschek, including the founding father, Dr. Georg Nemetschek, who leads the parent company while in his 80s.

Biplab Sarkar, 53 and a graduate of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), India’s most prestigious university, emerged as the winner.

Although Sarkar leaves the post of CTO at Vectorworks vacant, several other promotions came about at the same time as his. Steve Johnson, a 23-year veteran of software development at Vectorworks, is now VP of product development. Darick DeHart, once the architectural features manager, was promoted to VP of product management. Both are new positions. “It took two of us to replace Biplab,” joked Johnson.

Rise of the Indians

IIT is no stranger to the upper levels of software companies. Bhupinder Singh, also an IIT graduate, is the senior vice president at Bentley and graduated the same year as Sarkar, although from a different IIT campus. Sundar Pichai, Google, Inc.'s CEO, is an IIT graduate. So is Satya Nadella, who took over the reins of Microsoft from CEO Paul Allen. Vyomesh Joshi, who has more than 30 years with Hewlett-Packard imaging and printing, just took over leadership of 3D Systems.

While Sarkar's CAD product development talents are unassailable—stints at PTC and Intergraph, where he worked with Dan Staples, father of Solid Edge’s Synchronous Technology—Flaherty assured us that Sarkar's talents also extend into management and people. He recalls once casually mentioning that Vectorworks executives should visit “a hundred customers.”

“It seemed like a good number,” quipped Flaherty. “The next day, Biplab brings me a list of our top 100 customers—and a schedule.”

“A CEO's job is really HR,” he added. “I've never met anyone better than Biplab for picking the right person for the job—and knowing exactly what that person needs to do. He’s great at managing people's careers.”

Talking with the New Boss

We met up with Vectorworks' new CEO, Sarkar, who, in keeping with his new position, met me in the presidential suite on the 37th floor of the Fairmont Hotel, overlooking Chicago's Millennium Park, home of the sculpture popularly known as “The Bean.” 

Sarkar arrived at Vectorworks from PTC and took over the geometry and rendering team. There were 35 developers at the time. He leaves his post with 111.

But what doesn't he know? Sarkar confessed his Kryptonite is sales and promotion. Decades in product development and an engineering mindset (Sarkar has a MS and PhD in mechanical engineering from Ohio State) will have him needing to pick up on marketing and sales.

“What else is pressing on you in your new position,” I asked Sarkar.

“We have not added any major distributors in 15 years, though the ones Vectorworks has have stayed loyal," Sarkar explained. "One in Japan, where Vectorworks enjoys a lead among all of Nemetschek's CAD companies, has been selling Vectorworks for 30 years.”

I asked if the lower cost of Vectorworks is a deterrent to resellers. Far from it, said Sarkar. Though Vectorworks' price is about half of big CAD, its margins are actually higher. “A reseller will make more selling Vectorworks,” said Sarkar.

Sarkar has his eyes on developing economies in Asia and Africa. “I know we won’t make much revenue from these countries, but I want that awareness. And we are going to get into more schools. . . . We haven’t made many inroads in China and India.” This seemed to irk him. “We have a product that is value-priced and it should sell in those geographies.”

Sarkar may be forgetting for the moment that the Mac platform on which Vectorworks is premium-priced may be preventing widespread acceptance in those fast developing but still very price-conscious areas of the world.

Vectorworks Lite

The possibility of an even more value-priced Vectorworks is clearly on the agenda. “Perhaps we should have a VW Lite, say at $300,” he suggested. “We’d sell it directly on our website.”

It’s not a new price category. The market for CAD for a few hundred dollars already has its players. ZWCAD, from China’s ZWSOFT,is available through resellers at a “fifth of the cost of AutoCAD.” GstarSOFT, also from China, sells GstarCAD LT on its site for under $300. From Europe comes Bricsys with BricsCAD “Classic” available in the U.S. for $550. All already claim to be able to challenge AutoCAD's dominance from a much lower price point.

I got the distinct impression that challenging the CAD status quo, including its leaders, with a more affordable option is not a new idea at Vectorworks, either, but one that the new CEO is likely to execute where others may have been thwarted.

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