Tuesday, October 8, 2013

10 Questions: With Ralph Grabowski

The Questions - Ralph Grabowski


It seems that for every industry that exists, certain people bubble up to the top with regards to being the trusted source of information for that industry.  For Information Technology, Finance, Engineering, Web Development, Database Systems, Information Security, Application Development, and so on.

When it comes to providing trusted, objective news and information relating to CAD, CAM, CAE, BIM and all other industry acronyms that pertain to design and fabrication/construction, one that usually comes to the top is Ralph Grabowski.  Ralph has been tirelessly digging and reporting on all things related to the world of software and hardware technology that enables designing and building things.  If you are curious how Russia is exploring CAD, Ralph is your guy.  How about in Asia? Europe?  What about mobile devices and data import/export reliability topics?  Ralph is your guy.

I chased Ralph down for a while, which isn't easy, as he is often traveling and working, to pick his mind on how things are going.

The Questions

Dave: As many "CAD news" outlets as there are today, you have still remained in the top of everyone's list as far as I can tell.  What do you feel is the biggest challenge you face when preparing each newsletter?

Ralph: Usually none, except when I have no main feature for the next issue of upFront.eZine. In this case, I will generate a story out of nothing, by thinking about some aspect of CAD that irritates or interests me, and then banging away at the keyboard.

I dislike the press release section, "Out of the Inbox," where I have to read dozens of press releases and in a few seconds figure out (a) what it is about and (b) whether it is worth writing up. I dislike it so much that as of next week I am dropping the section from upFront.eZine.

I write the newsletter in Notepad, spell check it in Atlantis (the word processor I use), and then convert it to HTML in Dreamweaver, Adobe's oddly-named Web editor. I use GroupMail to bulk send it to my 11,000 subscribers. It generally takes me 3-4  hours to produce the newsletter each Monday morning.

This is why I like my blog better, because in WorldCAD Access I can write as I feel like, and not to a weekly schedule. On the other hand, upFront.eZine makes significant revenues from advertising (WorldCAD Access barely does), and so I can't give up the weekly newsletter, as much as I would like to.

Dave: The "Cloud" trend seems to be gaining momentum lately, across nearly all technology markets.  What aspects of CAD/CAM/CAE do you think will be toughest for service providers to overcome in that regard?

Ralph: Customer trust, especially now with the revelations that the America NSA spy agency reads through all our stuff with the permission of cloud providers. But then I was saying this right from the beginning, that CAD vendors need to figure out the trust angle. An executive at Autodesk recommended that I should retire for writing such heresy; since then, I was proved wright.

Dave: How did you first get involved with "CAD" technology?

Ralph: My background is a transportation planning engineer. I got my B.A.Sc. degree at the University of British Columbia. In high school, I loved drafting class; my dad was a mechanical draftsman in the 1960s.

I first experienced CAD in hearing about it at the consulting engineering office I worked in at the time, probably around 1982. An Intergraph salesman was trying to sell the firm on getting a $100,000 CAD workstation or two. Around 1983, a local computer dealer brought in a Victor 9000 personal computer running AutoCAD, probably v1.0 or so. With a hard drive, it was going to cost $10,000. The firm eventually got AnvilCAD, bizarrely enough.

My first use of CAD was in 1985, a demo disk of AutoCAD v1.4, running on the Victor 9000 I had bought myself a few years earlier. By this point, I had been laid off by the consulting firm due to the recession, and so I was looking for other work. A small ad in the newspaper caught my eye: "Fast growing computer magazine needs a technical writer/editor." Since my teen years, I loved writing, and owning my own personal computer taught me programming and taking apart hardware. I applied, got the job, and was the first full time employee at CADalyst magazine.

Back then, nobody knew anything about desktop CAD, and so we all learned as we went along. I was technical editor and then senior editor at the magazine for five years. My appreciation to founder Lionel Johnston for letting me be free do my own thing at the mag, and take it in directions he never thought of.

Dave: How and when did you move from the CAD user world to the news and reporting world?

Ralph: Well, I never was a CAD user. I became a CAD user after I moved to the news and reporting world, after working as a professional engineer who did hand drafting.

Dave: Your reporting includes some of the widest range of vendors and technologies of any "CAD" related sources I know.  A lot of that seems closely tied to traveling and on-site interviews.  How would you describe that aspect of your work?

Ralph: I love traveling, especially to exotic destinations, defined as anything outside of North America. I did a lot of traveling while at CADalyst magazine, and this continued after I went freelance in 1991.

In those early years of business trips, I learned how to be thinking about the next question to ask, even as the executive was still answering the current one. Also, I type very fast, and so I can type almost as fast as people talk, especially on a good keyboard.

Dave: What airport(s) do you find most enjoyable to pass through and which airport(s) do you dread?  Also, what food(s) and drink(s) would make your perfect breakfast?

Ralph: Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is one of the best in the world, and is my home airport. Oddly, I love the United terminal of Chicago's O'Hare airport (ORD), maybe because I pass through there often, and I still recall how amazing it looked when it was new. I also like Denver airport (DEN). As you can see, I've got those airport codes memorized.

Worst is Frankfurt (FRA), no question about it. It is so screwed up. Usually, in most airports it takes about 10 minutes to get to a connection (5 minutes to get off the plane, 5 minutes to hike to the next gate.) The last time I went through FRA, I timed it: it took me 45 minutes, gate to gate, non-stop. So on trips to Europe I try to go through MUC or LHR.

Breakfast? I've heard of it. Don't tell my wife, but I love American breakfast: eggs, bacon, hash browns, orange juice.

Dave: Of all the engineering and design related technologies/products you've seen emerge over the years, which of them do you feel are (or were) most under-appreciated or under-utilized?

Ralph: CAD vendors are working in a mature market, meaning there aren't many new customers. So, they need to pitch new ideas, of which we in the CAD media get sick hearing, such as the "C" word in the mid-1990s (collaboration), and object-orientation, and of course now the cloud. Ugh. The most over-hyped technology today is 3D printing. Did you know fewer than 60,000 units will sell this year?

I find it fascinating that now in 2013, that it's not touch or 3D motion or 3D printing or cloud or social that users are pining for, but for better and easier 2D.

Dave: A lot of talk these days, related to technology and manufacturing, has been on "emerging markets" in various parts of the world.  Where do you think the next emerging markets will be in ten years?

Ralph: I think CAD vendors are too dependent on the possibilities of increasing revenues from new customers in emerging countries. We are seeing sales deflate, because these countries lack infrastructure. I asked a guy from Africa when Africa would get its act together; he figures it'll take another generation -- 30 or 40 years.

Dave: GIS, NC machining, Parametric Design, Virtual Reality, Holography, 3D Printing, BIM, Rapid Prototyping.  What next?

Ralph: The problem with making predictions is that we humans do it poorly: we take current events, and then project them in a straight line into the future. We can't know about the twists and turns that are ahead of us; after all, four years ago the iPad did not exist, and look at the twist it made to technological trends.

What I can predict fairly reliably is when a CAD vendor sets off in a certain course and expects to be successful. From history, even history as brief as CAD's, I can fairly guess at what will happen. I have stunned some CAD executives by asking them what they plan to do when their product or marketing scheme fails.

Dave: If you were asked to speak to an auditorium filled with teenagers who are looking to find their direction in the fields of engineering and design, what would you say to them?

Ralph: Being a contrarian, I would tell them to avoid engineering. There are so many other things to do in the world that are far more interesting. I've told my kids, now in their 20s, that the great thing about being alive today is that they an do whatever job they want; no slotting.

I don't get the obsession of some that more women "need" to be in STEM; let young women make up their own minds at what they prefer to work. Heh: none of my kids "get" math, so none of them will follow me into engineering or CAD.

Me, I just happened to fall into CAD; I could be writing about any other topic and enjoy it, too. I am first a writer, a whatever second. I enjoy learning how to write better; my appreciation to professor of English literature Stephen Dunning for spending the last decade teaching me how to write well.

But I do enjoy the way that the complexities of CAD and computers exercise my mind. (And to think your English teacher probably told you to never begin a sentence with 'but',)


I hope you enjoyed this installment of 10 Questions.  Post some feedback to let me know what you like or what I could improve upon?  I encourage you to explore the links below for more information about Ralph and his impressive contributions.


upFront eZine
eBooks Library
WorldCAD Access blog
Gizmos Grabowski
More about Ralph

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