The Art of Software – An interview with Bruce Carlson

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Like the people who live there, river towns like Maysville, Kentucky often have interesting stories to tell. Maysville’s past has been proudly preserved in well cared-for historic districts, and many of its buildings are listed on the National Register of Historical Places. Still, the town continues to evolve, demonstrating that where there is life there is growth. It was my pleasure, therefore, to visit Maysville again to meet with longtime resident Bruce Carlson, President of Carlson Software, to learn how the company has evolved and grown over the years, and to share the story with our readers.

I visited with Bruce at their company headquarters, presently situated in a handsome historic building on the corner of West 2nd Street in downtown Maysville, and later at Caproni’s on the River where we continued our conversation, enjoyed a delicious lunch, and watched barges float up and down the Ohio River beneath the suspension bridge that connects Maysville to Aberdeen, Ohio.

Carlson Software’s connection to Maysville came from a different direction. Bruce’s father wanted him to be a civil engineer. His mother wanted him to be a surveyor. At the time the only four-year survey program was at Purdue University in Indiana. Bruce chose Dartmouth University in Massachusetts instead, and focused on his proclivity for math. Eight years after graduating, he was licensed as both a land surveyor and a professional engineer. After stints with state and local governments, Bruce became part of an 80-person Dayton, Ohio engineering firm. He had family ties in the Maysville area and happened to be working there when the power plant work in the region dried up. Rather than move, he and a couple of guys started their own surveying and engineering company in 1983.

Stayed In Customers Houses
Money was tight for the fledgling company. Not only was off-the-shelf software too expensive, it did not do what they wanted or needed. Bruce therefore resorted to the coding skills he had learned at Dartmouth and began to write his own software. Word spread and Carlson began to market its software. Sometimes in his early days of doing hands-on demos he would even stay in the houses of the surveyors he was visiting. "More people claim I’ve stayed over at their place than could possibly be the case," stated Bruce. "However, the long hours of the early years are somewhat blurred!"

And so it began. Space does not permit the many details that filled the years from then until now, but layer upon layer the company grew.

"We wouldn’t be where we are today without some great initial hires, namely, my brother Jim Carlson and my nephew Dave Carlson," said Bruce. "They formed a core competency around which we have built this company. Since then we’ve added top software engineers from MIT, Berkeley and other noted schools and a great sales staff. If I can mix metaphors, I’ve always believed that the software team is the engine, and the sales team is the rainmaker."

When I asked him who is "Number One" in software, Bruce smiled and said, "The real question you should be asking is `What is the number used versus the number sold?’" He added, "It’s been my experience that if surveyors are working under an engineer, the package is usually Land Development Desktop. If the company is a survey-focused firm, they usually use Carlson."

As a company, Carlson has almost a fanatical devotion to its customers, and from the President down, is customerdriven. Another key to success has been their ability to absorb good ideas from users and acknowledge various regional methods of surveying and computing. Everybody, programmers included, gets exposure to the field so they know how surveyors work and what they need. Bruce has surrounded himself with surveyors, civil engineers and construction experts. Product direction has resulted in a finely-tuned sense of the value of good software interfaces. "In the same way that a large corporation cannot necessarily produce the Great American Novel, you simply cannot throw money at software development. It’s an art, really."

Today with 70 employees and 23 years of software code development under its belt, the company pursues the ultimate in software design: power, simplicity and intuitive interfaces. Of the 70 employees, 20 are coders, 10 are in tech support, and 20 are in sales and dealer support. The company serves four markets in this order: surveying, civil engineering, construction and mining. Between 2003 and 2005 they more than doubled their staff and revenue, and strong growth continued in 2006.

Bruce sees his company as the alternative to the mega-company solution, and he is dedicated to maintaining the company’s independence. He does not want to take the company public, and feels that by not doing so they will be able to better serve their various markets. Over the years, Carlson Software has purchased such companies as Simplicity Software and C&G Software, yet Bruce is concerned about the buy-up mentality and asks, "Does consolidation serve the industry?" There’s even a bit of noblesse oblige involved: a desire to serve and not be driven by the dollar. "If not us, who can the end user turn to, in this marketplace battle of titans?"

Bruce says his company is in it for the long term, and wants his software to be a platform and springboard to a full-fledged project cycle solution: data gathering, mapping, design, construction layout, estimating and machine control. Major industry partners include Autodesk, Leica, Sokkia, Magellan, Pentax and Topcon. For machine control, they often partner and provide OEM solutions, but will also continue direct sales.

While I was there, Bruce received a call from one of his Australian partners about a project they were working on for a gold mine in Peru, so while he was talking, I snapped a few photographs and looked around his office. I noticed a couple of books about Bill Gates on his bookshelf and later inquired as to what inspired him about those books. From Hard Drive and Accidental Empires he said he had learned an important lesson: it’s not the big that eat the small, it’s the fast that eat the slow. Contrary however to Gates’ belief that the primary goal is to grow the business and swallow markets whole, Bruce believes that, first, it’s more important to serve the industry. In doing so, he believes that success will be a byproduct. He also added that business success can be as much a result of providence and timing as deliberate, willful strategic decisions.

Two ways Carlson serves the industry are through its free technical support and free upgrades. In terms of technical support, Bruce stated the obvious: products that require armies of support people are not good to begin with. As for upgrades, he said new software builds are free, but new releases cost due to the significant development costs for major new features. He was pleased to point out that from the moment SurvCE hit the market in 2001, all upgrades have been free. The first paid upgrade is SurvCE 2.0, due out at the beginning of 2007.

Still another service is the new Carlson College, a concept being developed by Harry Ward, PE, who has brought Outsource, Inc. inside Carlson Software. Detailed training programs, involving basics to advanced concepts, will be offered for all Carlson products, from SurvCE to Carlson Survey, Carlson Civil, Hydrology, Mining and Takeoff. Because Outsource is an authorized AutoDesk Training Center, courses on AutoDesk products are also offered. Companies can maximize software performance by availing themselves of these training offerings.

Bruce sees software evolving into a common ideal. He notes that the
"next thing" is often developed independently by several companies. To him, the fun side of the business is pursuing the highest software design ideal. Not just a mercenary approach, but rather one of coming up with a world-beating solution, that, in a sense, is already out there waiting to be written.

Speaking of software development, Bruce believes it is one of the last few true marketplaces ­ not government-driven ­ where product quality can be a deciding factor in business success. He used health care, insurance and banking as examples of industries that are heavily regulated by the government, and said, "Software development is a throwback to the nineteenth century where individuals made a difference in an industry. In that sense, it is similar to the survey industry." Looking to the future, Bruce sees real-time data as the next big thing. Not just uploading and downloading while in the field, but true synchronization ­ using coffee shop wireless and cell phones ­ as soon as a point is collected or staked. No chance for data loss. He described the new Ultra-VNC and similar viewers, available free or as shareware, that will allow a surveyor to witness data collection and even assist the field crew from the office, thereby asserting a more truly supervisory role. Real-time viewing and messaging to a field crew is coming, along with real-time drawing updates at the office.

Bruce says this is already happening in mining industries such as coal, gold and phosphate. The land development construction industry is lagging behind only because the fixed-site mining industry has a much larger interest in not only idle equipment and safety regulations, but also in daily quantity reporting. At many mines the sensors are logging everything, and the information is being post-processed to improve cycle times, productivity and analyze operations. The savings available to construction through equipment scheduling and productivity analysis are potentially huge. Grading to accurate DTMs is only part of the picture. As for laser scanning, Bruce believes point clouds will become popular when software can auto-detect such things as an edge of pavement. He believes it needs to better handle field-to-finish, and sees a hybrid system composed of individual point coding combined with automatic field-to-finish coding. The Carlson PointCloud Module is scheduled for first release in 2007.

Experience has taught them that wordof-mouth references often trump classic marketing campaigns. "We don’t rely on hyped images," said Bruce. "We’ve built this company by relating to surveyors, meeting with them on-site, and creating a straight conduit from their input to the final product. Trust, support, and earnest attention to product requests are the prime ingredients of our success. This has translated to highly usable software and a reputation for service, not to mention a lot of friendships." With a twinkle in his eye, Bruce averred when I pressed him for more details about where the company is headed and what they’ve got up their sleeves. We’ll just have to wait and see. Nevertheless, from humble beginnings to a worldwide business with involvement in several aspects of the land development industry, Carlson Software has a story that is fun to tell.

Marc Cheves is editor of the magazine. 

A 463Kb PDF of this article, including images, may be downloaded by clicking HERE