Neil Peterson

Continuing my series of interviews of programmers who I have worked with over the years, here is one with Neil Peterson, CTO of the Open Design Alliance. I have met Neil on two occasions – on the sidelines of COFES 2008 and at the IntelliCAD World Meeting in Athens last year.

How did you get into CAD software development? What was life like before the ODA?

Before ODA I worked for a small company called ImageMark Software Labs, who provided conversion support for a large number of graphics and engineering file formats, including DWG, IGES, PDF, PowerPoint, and most common graphics file formats. At ImageMark I had my first experience with CAD development working on an importer for R13 DWG. Prior to that I had worked with a number of presentation applications such as Corel Draw, PowerPoint, etc. The CAD work was more interesting and more challenging. Working on R13 was the most difficult task I had faced up to that point in my career, and it was that work that allowed me to step in and handle development work for the ODA.

You were the first employee of the ODA and today you are the CTO? How much has changed, apart from salary?

For me everything has changed. I was the first developer hired in 1999, and in the early years I did everything—development, bug fixing, testing, porting, client support, documentation. When I was first hired, AutoCAD 2000 had just been released and there were several hundred ODA members depending on the ODA to support it ASAP. Although I had worked extensively with DWG at my previous job, I had never worked with the ODA source code—needless to say, my first few months were interesting and intense. We got the 2000 support finished, and I had the opportunity to work closely with a number of ODA member companies. Our early success allowed us to start expanding our development team, and as the team has expanded over the years I have handed off most of my original day-to-day responsibilities. I now work as a coordinator and enabler for our various teams. I’ve had the opportunity to watch a number of talented and hard-working engineers grow into senior members of our development team, and it has been a pleasure for me to continue working with our developers as CTO.

Do you still code? Why?

I still enjoy coding, but it’s not my role any more. My current focus is on managing the growth of our organization, improving communication with existing and potential ODA members, and making sure our developers have everything they need to be successful.

What do you feel when people call the ODA a “bunch of hackers”?

I don’t take it personally. Anyone making such claims hasn’t taken a serious look at our software. Most people in our industry are aware that we perform a critical service by providing open access to the DWG file format. But our software has evolved over the past 10 years, and we now have a full-featured CAD development platform and not just a DWG I/O library. This evolution is clearly demonstrated by the fact that we now have several member companies building full CAD systems using our platform as the kernel. One of our goals this year is to get this message out to our membership and to the general public. For anyone who is interested in learning more about our software, the ODA World Conference will be held in Leiden, The Netherlands on April 27-29 this year. The conference will showcase our latest software, provide an opportunity to meet our development staff, and serve as a forum for discussions. Registration for the World Conference is now open on the ODA web site.

How much has changed at the ODA after Arnold took over as president?

Things have changed dramatically at the ODA since Arnold took over. Our infrastructure has been significantly upgraded. We’ve hired several key people to manage various parts of the organization. Our development and QA teams have grown. Communication with members has improved. Arnold has also been instrumental in initiating relationships with companies like Spatial and TechSoft3D, allowing us to provide integration solutions for third-party components such as ACIS and HOOPS. Overall the ODA is a much stronger organization today than it was a few years ago.

Autodesk is changing the DWG format for AutoCAD 2010. More than a thousand ODA members (including myself) are relying on you to deliver. Do you manage to get sound sleep at night?

I’m sleeping OK. This is the 5th DWG format change that I’ve been involved with as a developer and manager. All of our engineers understand how critical this work is, and we are ready to face this challenge.

The file size of all the ODA libraries add up to more than 12 GB. How long does it take to build all of them?

It of course depends on the platform, compiler and actual hardware, but average build time for a full set of our libraries is around 30 minutes on a reasonably fast machine.

As the CTO of the ODA do you wish to see different variants of the DRX SDK floating around? If not, can you do anything to stop it?

We want to see a single DRX standard. We take this issue seriously, and we are working with members to ensure that anyone using our DRX technology is maintaining compatibility. Member companies can build extensions on top of DRX, but they are contractually required to maintain compatibility with our core SDK.

What is stopping the ODA from developing a product for CAD end users?

Our member companies develop a wide range of end-user applications. If we were to start developing end user products, we would be in direct competition with our membership. We are a member-driven organization, and currently end-user products are not in our charter.

Will the DWGdirect SDK ever be made source compatible with ObjectARX? Don’t tell me ITC members are not asking for it.

Source compatibility with ObjectARX has never been our goal. We have a better API than ARX in many respects—for example, client code using our libraries is generally cleaner and more compact than ARX code due to our smart pointer usage, exception handling, and other features. We also run on every major UNIX platform, while ARX is Windows-only. Out of 1000+ member companies, we of course have individuals who would prefer to see us move in a slightly different direction on specific issues—but overall we do a good job of finding solutions which provide maximum benefit for the majority of our membership.

I look forward to meeting Neil once again at the first ODA World Conference in Leiden, Holland this April.