Interviews with CEO’s and people in the upper strata of management are commonly used as part of the larger marketing plan of spreading the word about a company, which is a good thing. But I believe that as far as software products go, the people that matter most are the people who write the software. The programmers are the unsung heroes who sit in the back room do the wonderful things that the marketing people rave about.
Apart from being a business owner I am also a programmer. I will always be one till the day I die or retire, whichever comes earlier. I hope the latter comes first. Over time I intend to interview a few programmers (in no particular order) with who I have have the chance to interact and who are key players in shaping CAD software as we know it.
The first interview in this series is with Dale Fugier, a programmer at Robert McNeel and Associates. I have been interacting with Dale for many years now, mostly on the Rhino SDK newsgroup, where he faithfuly helps third party developers write plug-ins for Rhino. Incidently, at McNeel, very few employees have a formal titles or positions. “We wear many hats“, said Dale when I asked him what is position was in the company.
What is your academic background? What positions did you hold before joining McNeel?
I spent my undergraduate days at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, where I studied Computer Science and Mathematics. From there, I spent four years working as a Software Engineer for the Boeing’s Defense and Space before coming to Robert McNeel & Associates in 1990.
How did you get into CAD software development? When and where did it all start?
While with Boeing, I wrote several file translators for now-extinct graphics products. I was also involved in supporting engineers who used CAD products, which was how I first met Bob McNeel.
Do you still code? What are your main job responsibilities at McNeel?
Sure do. I am one of a dozen or so developers who type on the core Rhino product. I also work on RhinoScript; a scripting tool for Rhino, and the Zoo; a network license manager. And, I support our 3rd party development partners who use the Rhino SDK and the openNURBS toolkit.
What’s with the animal names? Who comes up with them?
For a worldwide product, a good product name is very difficult to find. We have a checklist that is used when selecting a new product name:
1. No trademark problems anywhere in the world.
2. Web addresses available.
3. Works in most languages without translation.
4. Easy to pronounce and spell in all languages.
5. Sounds about the same in all languages.
6. Not a disgusting or confusing meaning in some language.
7. Google does not return something disgusting or confusing.
8. Easy to remember.
9. Related to our other product names.
Rhino was the name of the development project before there as a formal name. The formal name we had selected turn out to have a trademark problem and by the time we got that sorted out, everyone already knew the product a Rhino, so we didn’t change it. Our other product names are based on #9.
Do Rhinos appear in your dreams?
The Rhinos I dream about have increased functionality, improved efficiency, and make our customers more productive. The job description for everybody here is to figure out what works best for the customer, and then deliver it.
Why does McNeel still develop plug-ins for Autodesk products? Tell us something about them?
We started as an AutoCAD dealer and developer in 1985. We had nearly 20 AutoCAD-based products at one point, but as Autodesk added new features and purchased many of the third-party developers we gradually abandonned most of them. AccuRender and DOSLib (free) are the only ones left. Since the AccuRender engine is used in many other products it is not a big deal to keep it going for AutoCAD. DOSLib is a hobby project.
Like SYCODE, McNeel supports plug-ins for versions of AutoCAD more than a decade old? What’s your reason for that?
The development was done years ago. There is little or no cost related to making those versions available.
McNeel offers AutoCAD training. Have you guys gone nuts?
We were an AutoCAD dealer up until a few years ago. When Autodesk dropped us as a reseller there was not anyone offering basic AutoCAD classes at a reasonable price, so we continued to offer basic AutoCAD classes.
Why hasn’t the look of rhino3d.com changed? Will it ever?
Who knows? We have more than 3,000 requests for improvements to Rhino and very few related to the web site. We always have to make a tradeoff between spending resources on marketing and resources on product development. So far, we have focused all of our available resources on development and let the users, dealers, and developers handle the sales and marketing… mostly by word of mouth. We do not have any plans to change our focus from a development to sales and marketing.
Unlike other CAD systems, the Rhino about box and documentation lacks copyright notices of third party software. Are you paranoid about using third party libraries?
Not really. It is mostly an issue of cost verses being able to bring new functionality that is not available in other products at our price point. Driving our costs up just to bring the same functionality found in the other products does not seem like a good idea.
I believe McNeel should be given the Nobel Prize for the openNURBS Initiative. Which category would you recommend?
Is “no brainer” one of the categories? The inability to accurately transfer geometry between applications is a primary factor stifling designers’ use of 3-D. There is no point in a designer finishing a 3-D model if it is just going to be rebuilt for product engineering, again for analysis, and yet again for tooling. The decision to provide a free, open source toolkit to read and write our file format was an easy one.
Dale sent me an image which he claims “kind of looks like” him.