A Long Conversation With Keith Mountain

Today I received an email from Spatial’s CEO Keith Mountain that he was retiring and that Jean-Marc Guillard from Dassault Systemes was taking over. I first met Keith at COFES 2010 at Scottsdale, Arizona, in April this year and then again at the Spatial European Forum in Frankfurt, Germany in June. Keith is a great guy. I had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time with him at the European Forum. I remember him mentioning his retirement plans and his wish to visit India among other places. I really hope he takes up my offer of visiting Goa sooner than later.

During one of the sessions at the European Forum I took him aside so that I could talk to him is private and get to know more about him. I had converted most of the conversation from audio to text over the past few weeks but didn’t really finish it. Today when I received the email from him, I took it as a sign that I simply had to finish it.

A word of caution. We spoke for a good hour and a half. Even after trimming a great deal out, this post is still going to be a very long one. In summary Keith talks about his education, serving in Vietnam, working at various companies, starting his consultancy business before joining Spatial, his experiences with working with the “dreaded” Mike Payne and leading Spatial while working closely with sister SolidWorks and parent Dassault Systemes. He gets quite frank at times and if you manage to read all of it, you may get a sense of how things work at the corporate level. So here goes.

Deelip: Tell me your story.

Keith: Well, I was an army brat. My father was in the army and we moved around a lot. I feel that was an important part of my life. I lived in Frankfurt for two years when I was a small boy and then all over the United States. I guess this thing of constantly moving from one thing or place to another reflects perfectly in the high tech world where you work with a company, you enjoy the technology, but you don’t necessarily think of it as a life long thing. I guess that part embedded itself in me. It didn’t hurt that for the most part of my education was in the Boston area which was a hi-tech area where people that I was surrounded by at that time had dreams of what they were going to do. They were all about starting new things, creating new technologies. That was a time when integrated circuits and computers were just becoming a reality. So there was this air of excitement everywhere. It was countered by the fact that there was a war going on and…

Deelip: Which war was this?

Keith: Vietnam. Probably due to my family background it was important for me to be in the army. So I served in Vietnam for a year.

Deelip: What was your position in Vietnam?

Keith: I was a platoon leader, a maintenance platoon. We did our best to fix things. Not sure if our record was all that great (laughs) but I was there in a good time. My job was in a fairly remote area. I was mostly out of harm’s way. We would occasionally get into trouble. But it was a great experience.

Actually, I had a bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering from North Eastern in downtown Boston and then went for a Masters at the University of Rhode Island. After that I served in Vietnam. When I came back my first real job was Computervision. I was part of the development team. It was really a small company at that time. I’ll tell you honestly, I was a terrible developer. My attention span wasn’t really good enough. So as soon as I could I moved into something more customer related. That’s when I decided that whatever be my background in the academic world, I really wanted to be on the marketing side. Computervision was a great place to work. I really had a good time there. My last position at Computervision was the regional manager for the north east region.

Deelip: So since then you have always been on the marketing side.

Keith: I guess so.

Deelip: So in those days people made and sold hardware as well as the software that ran on it. Not like now where hardware vendors make the hardware and software vendors made the software.

Keith: Yes, it was a wholly integrated system. Worked some of the time (laughs). But it was exciting, kind of leading edge and dangerous. A lot of people stuck their necks out to buy that kind of equipment. They understood the risks that they were personally taking on behalf of their organization.

Deelip: I guess that kind of situation will come again now with the Cloud. People in organizations may have to stick their necks out and take risks.

Keith: This is always there. I’ll tell you every job I have every had I have had to make those kind of decisions. This is going to sound a bit too much, but the fact is that the reason your job is there and the reason you like your job is because of the people you get the chance to work with. If you are committed to your customers or care about what they are doing then I guess every time you push technology you are in effect putting yourself out there. And also you are putting other people out there with you.

Anyways, after Computervision I moved to Prime Computer. That’s where I met Mike Payne. A lot of stories there (laughs). But we both worked hard to convince Prime, which was basically a computer company, to grow in the CAD business. Mike and I, as well as many others, managed to convince Prime that MEDUSA was a good investment. We also got them involved in partnerships with other CAD suppliers. I was in the business development side and Mike was in the development side. We didn’t actually know each other till we found out that we kind of had the same vision for where Prime might go. So Prime was good. There are a lot of reasons why I decided that I didn’t want to stay at Prime. But Prime was a well driven, well structured, well process-driven company and I learned a lot there.

Deelip: So how far down did Prime actually get into CAD?

Keith: We were distributing MEDUSA but we didn’t own it. We were distributing displays among a lot of things. We were basically packaging a Prime to look a lot like the Computervision stuff, even though Prime didn’t own most of that technology. At that point it became clear to me that CAD was going to end up being a software business because you can integrate things so easily. I left before any of that happened. But shortly after I left they ended up getting involved with Computervision. I think they bought Computervision, changed the name to Prime and changed it back to Computervision or something like that.

Deelip: So where did you head next?

Keith: I decided to get involved in doing something new and got joined a startup called Autographix. The founders had already started developing the software and were looking for a marketing person. Their business was really something like  prelude to PowerPoint. It was a business presentation graphics business based on creating 35 mm slides with a very low cost client. The Apple computer first and then a small PC was used as a client that transmitted information to centralized server that created slides and prints. Basically it was a service business, reminiscent to the Cloud actually (laughs). It was a great business and we did really well. It was venture funded and got to be reasonably profitable in three years. Then we ended up selling part of that company to Agfa, the film company. So then I worked with Agfa for a while as part of the transaction. Boy this is going on, isn’t it?

Deelip: No problem. You keep talking. I don’t need to squeeze this down to a predetermined number of words. Some things are best left as they are.

Keith: So after Agfa I started my own business called Mountain Associates which was a consulting business and was aimed at international companies build or analyze their distribution. I should have called it Plan B Consulting because most of the companies I worked with companies who were having trouble with their US operations or in some cases US companies having trouble with their international operations. I did that for twelve years. For me it was an age of putting kids through college and taking a month off in the summer, which as you know is impossible to do when you are working at a company. It was a really good twelve years which ended when I met Mike Payne at a bar in Concord, MA. He was the CEO of Spatial and was looking for a marketing person. So I joined Spatial and worked under Linda Lokay.

Deelip: When you joined Spatial was the company already bought by Dassault Systemes?

Keith: Yes, it was. And Dassault Systemes was investing very heavily into it as well. When I joined there were some severe problems with the quality of our components, especially the translators and Mike made it his goal to fix that problem.

Deelip: I hear that Mike was a horrible task master. Is that true?

Keith: Yes, he is. You didn’t want to make a foolish mistake and have Mike find it out. You could make the foolish mistake and tell Mike (laughs) and you would end up having a “discussion” with Mike. But the result that discussion would very different from one resulting from Mike finding out the foolish mistake himself. Mike has high expectation of people that work for him.

Anyways, Mike decided to retire in 2005 and I became the CEO of Spatial. He make me COO for a while before I became CEO. When I took over, I was handed what I would call a very favorable situation. We had a strong product line as a result of Mike’s work and the people that made it happen. I had a good distribution system. Also I found myself emotionally attached to this business. Its a great business. You get to leverage in a way that affects so many people.

Deelip: So from 2005 onwards what did you do differently? What did you change? Or did you like the course the ship was taking and sailed straight?

Keith: (Laughs) No, I guess this goes back to my military background. Whenever you take control of a group of people the first thing you want to do it make it known to everybody that you are in charge. So we started something that we started calling the Magnificent Seven projects. There were seven projects that we wanted to get done in six months and everybody in the company was on one of the teams. These projects dealt with some of the administrative problems that we faced, the way we worked with customers, restructuring service and support, etc. The important thing about the projects were not the projects themselves. But people knew I was there, that we had problems that we knew we had to solve in six months. At the end of the six months I would say that we probably didn’t get straight A’s on all the seven projects, but the point was that we all knew that some of those problems were still there.

The second thing I did was started segmenting our customers into groups and analyzing them in that light. Looking at customers individually, especially when they are very diverse is not very helpful. Another thing I realized about the components business is that if you just develop components in reaction to your customer’s demands you are never going to be ready for their next product. I believe in the components business you need to be looking out two to three years and your customers can’t always be the best judge of what that means. So our CAD on the Cloud stuff that you saw this week was a symptom of that kind of thought process.

So basically I thought that the company needed to take a market view of what it was doing and what it was going to be.

Deelip: So in all this time did Dassault Systemes let you run the company independently? What’s the relationship like between Spatial and your parent company?

Keith: When Mike was the CEO we had a lot of technical discussions with Dassault Systemes and some joint projects as well. When I came in… I guess I’ll put it bluntly, I felt that we had a few of those projects that weren’t helping the company financially. I also felt that Dassault Systemes was treating them as research projects and not as development projects and they had other projects that were better staffed and which were already predetermined to be the solutions that they would use. So I looked at each of those, we had meetings. At the end of it all I felt that Spatial would be better off, at least temporarily, as being separate.

Deelip: So in effect you are saying that Dassault Systemes was trying to outsource R&D to Spatial.

Keith: I wouldn’t say outsource. There were some projects linked to modeling, visualization and interoperability that they felt Spatial could add value to. It wasn’t like they said, “We’ll give you one million dollars to do this“. It was more like a team effort. But honestly, at that time I felt that it wasn’t good for Spatial. I guess this speaks more about me that anyone else. You see, to really feel that you are accomplishing something you need to feel like you control it, that you have set your own expectations and goals and those kind of fit within the team. If you lose something like that, like say if you feel like you don’t have an expectation of yourself or if your goal isn’t consistent with the team, its a problem and it really makes it tough to go to work. You know, work becomes work. And I’m not just talking about me here. The whole company felt like that. We needed that individuality. And here is the good part. Dassault said to me, “Hey, just run the company profitably.” And we did just that. You know, the thing about Spatial is that the middle management and director level is just terrific. You could replace me in two minutes. But not these guys.

Anyways, this is not to say that we stayed completely away from Dassault Systemes in all this time. We worked with the Abacus and Simulia guys, We did projects for SolidWorks and worked with the interoperability team from Dassault Systemes.

Deelip: So I guess you got yourself a long leash.

Keith: Yes, you can say that. We gained confidence. I think Dassault gained confidence in us. I’d like to believe that none of this Cloud stuff that we showed would have happened of we were not left along to stand on our own feet. Come on, a two billion dollar company relying on a 20 million dollar company for something that they consider pretty important.

Deelip: Yeah, for Dassault the Cloud is a game changer.

Keith: Sure, you know when I heard what happened at SolidWorks World 2010 I said, “Hey Dassault has bought into this game changing. This is really a significant…

Deelip: Whoa! Hold on a second. You mean to say that you didn’t know anything about SolidWorks on the Cloud?

Keith: No, I didn’t know anything about it. I read it like everybody else. You know, Dassault doesn’t call us much. Up until now at least. Sometimes I feel that Colarado is some outpost in the middle of nowhere (laughs). But to be fair, we have been running this company independently. So there has not been much to talk about anyways.

Deelip: So what’s the relationship like between Spatial and SolidWorks? I mean, you guys are actually reverse engineering their proprietary file formats and enabling their competitors to read the them.

Keith: Yeah, I know. I guess the thing that people question most is how come we can read and write CATIA V4 ad V5 formats when SolidWorks cannot?

Deelip: Sure, I license the CATIA V4 and V5 libraries from you and create add-ins for SolidWorks. And to make bad matters worse, they license Parasolid. This is like one big mess.

Keith: (Laughs) Yes, it is. The very fact that we have been running independently means that I really don’t have to worry about those kind of things. SolidWorks is our customer on projects that we have worked with them, just like any other customer. Its not like we share strategy together. Jeff Ray is on the board of directors of Spatial. But keep in mind that the only discussions that every take place in the board are financial. We don’t talk about our strategy.

Deelip: OK, so did SolidWorks know anything about Spatial working with Dassault Systemes on the Cloud. Or was this announcement a shock to Jeff Ray. I am trying to get a sense of how you three companies operate.

Keith: No, this will not come as a shock to Jeff Ray.

Deelip: Just wondering. So you don’t think that this Cloud technology that you are developing is some R&D project of Dassault Systemes, like how you thought of some of the projects that Spatial was working on earlier when you took over as CEO?

Keith: No, not at all. Because this is our vision as well.

Deelip: Do you believe that geometry is a solved problem?

Keith: No way. Every time a manufacturing operation is invented, it puts new pressures on the geometry that drives it. Every time you add another axis on your robot it makes the geometry work harder. Every time you go from fiber glass to composites, what does that mean in terms of the manufacturing process and how they are going to be captured in the geometry. When I listen to the mathematicians at Spatial tell me something, frankly, after about two minutes most of it goes over my head. But what I do understand is that they have problems that they are looking to solve. I’m pretty sure mathematicians have a very safe profession.

Deelip: It was really nice talking to you, Keith.

Keith: Nice talking to you as well.