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3 Jan 2013

Jon Hirschtick: New technologies – still focus on what customers want to build with it

From the editors: Jon Hirschtick, M.S. is well-known as a founder of SolidWorks Corporation (1993), where he served as CEO, Group Executive and Board Member until 2011 watching SolidWorks grow to $500 million / year in revenue. SolidWorks was sold to Dassault Systemes (DS) in 1997, and has since operated successfully as a DS subsidiary.

In November 2012 Jon reunited the original SolidWorks band into a startup called Belmont Technology, which already received $9 million venture funding.

Mr. Hirschtick's career in mechanical engineering and CAD spans 30 years. He served on the board of directors at Vela Systems, Liquid Machines, Z Corporation and Revit Technology Corp. He also served as a director of engineering at Computervision. He was a founder and CEO of Premise, Inc. and served as manager of the CAD laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Jon Hirschtick has bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT, and was also known as a player, investor and trainer of famous MIT Blackjack team. had an opportunity to interview this extraordinary man and we are pleased to share this interview with our readers.


isicad: It seems that history of SolidWorks can roughly be split into three periods: 1) before DS, 2) SW as an independent subsidiary of DS, 3) merging of SW and DS ecosystems. Could you characterize each of these periods? Which one was the most interesting for you?
Jon Hirschtick: Each period was very interesting. The most interesting one was the period after joining Dassault Systemes. At that time we were growing our sales and customer base very quickly, which required us to completely redefine many things such as customer support, order processing, etc. In 2001 I left my CEO position and became an advisor. You know advising is simpler than managing the company :)
What is the secret of SolidWorks’ great success? Right design methodology (parametric feature modeling); strong technological basis (Parasolid); GUI familiar to all (Microsoft Office like); excellent marketing? If all these topics contributed to SolidWorks’ success, then in what proportion?
All things you mentioned were necessary for the market success. The main thing that differentiates SolidWorks from other good products is the focus on what customers build or want to build. Also our reseller channel strategy was very important and it was built differently than in other companies.
For LEDAS, it was surprising to discover that SolidWorks is capable to exploit many advanced functions of the constraint management – in contrast to CATIA, where some constraint solving functions were not present. We also have recognized that SolidWorks is often better than CATIA for many typical design tasks, but you were probably sure of that from the beginning :). How did you feel about SolidWorks being positioned as a “junior sibling” of CATIA?
Only CAD vendor insiders worry about the value and positioning of SolidWorks within Dassault. Customers on the broad market do not care about of have any knowledge about that. Many customers don’t even understand which products come from which companies. For example some believe that SolidWorks and AutoCAD come from the same vendor :)

I am a research guy from MIT and I know the technology. For example, I love constraint management. SolidWorks was able to create under-constrained sketches from very beginning, while other CAD systems could not do that. But we never focused on explaining this to our customers. Only a few things were important for our customers: powerful 3D modeling, ease of use, native Windows user interface, and low cost. Positioning of SolidWorks in relation to CATIA was not an issue for the broad market.

What do you think about SolidWorks V6?
I have not seen this product. I still have many friends in SolidWorks, but they have not shown it to me. I can say that V6 technology has a lot of great concepts, and the team of people working on it at SolidWorks is a very strong and impressive group of engineers so I will look forward to seeing the results of their work.

In general, I don’t like announcing a product prematurely, several years before its release, and I think SolidWorks V6 was announced too early.

In the interview you've recently given to Deelip Menezes you mentioned that you were thinking of hiring a new team and looking for the top programmers at companies like Google and Amazon. Does it mean you are going to develop a web (cloud) application? Or may be an app for a mobile device?
I won't develop another Windows application. It makes no sense and customers want to put their money on new technologies such as web, cloud, and mobile. We will use a new technology platform.
You have involved almost the entire old team of SolidWorks in the new venture. Do you plan to engage Mike Payne as well at some point in time? What about Vick Leventhal?
I would like to work with Vick and Mike again. Vick would be very helpful with programming… Just kidding – he is great at sales and marketing strategy. Mike founded his own new company.
Do you plan to involve younger people, not only for software development but also for refinement of initial ideas?
(Smiling) When we started SolidWorks people said to us: "you're too young". Now they are saying: "you're too old":). We will involve young people, because they think of technology differently.

You know, these guys from Facebook see many things differently. And I’m proud that SolidWorks was used for creation of equipment that Facebook uses. However, we cannot talk explicitly about age preferences in the USA since age discrimination is against the law.

In your prior interviews you mentioned that you are now preparing for a “new gig” in product development. What do you have in mind – industrial design, machines, or may be (suddenly) architecture and buildings?
I target industrial design and machines market. There are other good products (e.g. Revit) that address AEC market.
CAD vendors are now actively targeting consumer market, what do you think about that? Do you also plan to develop professional applications?
Yes, we're looking at the “Do-It-Yourself” market as well.
What is the right platform for the next generation product development applications: Windows, Linux, Mac, Android, iOS, web, cloud?
All platforms should be supported, including Windows. I like Windows 8, especially its tiling layout. However, all platforms should be supported via cloud, not natively.
Sometimes it is claimed that currently used building blocks of CAD software are obsolete because they are based on outdated software architecture. At the same time, there is a strong requirement to maintain compatibility with the legacy data. Consequently it is very difficult to introduce brand-new ideas and technologies into widely used CAD software products. Do you think this problem really exists?
I do not think that existing technologies are obsolete. For example, Pro/E (or whatever the new name is – don’t know why they changes the name, but it’s the marketing stuff…) is still a very capable 3D product on the market despite being the oldest one.
There is one particular extension of the previous question: Do you believe that a totally new geometric kernel, which will exploit advantages offered by modern hardware architectures, is a necessary component of the new generation of engineering software?
Indeed, clouds shifted the parallel computing from 2-4 cores to 2000-4000 cores in clusters. Look at the "Supercomputer for Everyone" project from Adapteva team. They are going to put thousands of CPUs on one motherboard. If the new kernel can exploit multi-core processing, why not use it? But the product robustness is more important than speed. The new kernel should be as stable and reliable as the current ones.
Jon, thank you very much for this interview. We wish great success to your new project!

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