My First COFES, Congress on the Future of Engineering Software

You’ve heard of COFES, right? The Congress on the Future of Engineering Software describes itself as “the engineering software industry’s only annual think tank event.” I have known about it for years and more recently have enjoyed reading attendees’ post-event blog posts to learn about what goes on there.

So last year I opened my big mouth and emailed Monica Schnitger (@monica_schnitge) after reading her writeup of the 2012 event and said something like “Why does the future of engineering software look so much like CAD? Where’s analysis?” And she replied along the lines of “Good question, let’s ask Brad Holtz.” Brad (@bradholtz) is CEO of Cyon Research, the organization that runs COFES. Before you know it, I’m speaking with Brad on the phone. We had a perfectly amiable chat during which he ensured me that analysis and simulation certainly were part and parcel of COFES.

And then what should appear in the mail but my very own invitation to COFES. (Did I mention that the event is invitation only?)

Enough preamble.

cofes2013smallThe bottom line is that COFES delivers on its promise. This is truly a think tank event with lots of high achievers (here’s the attendee list for COFES 2013 but the full agenda seems to already be off the site) who are smart, industrious, successful and gregarious. While the event has an annual theme (2013’s theme was “design for resiliency”), the theme seemed to be just common ground for the conversations to follow.

This is not an event where you sit and listen to other people talk, hope to learn something, and come home to implement an idea or two. This is an interactive event where you develop relationships that drive business forward.

Day 1 – Thu 11 Apr

When I arrived the speakers were talking about future programming paradigms. [I should mention now that I am the world’s worst photographer.]

Mike Riddle at COFES 2013

Mike Riddle at COFES 2013

Mike Riddle (one of the original founders of AutoCAD and a founder of Evolution Computing) talked about extreme object encapsulation, a way of object-oriented programming that maintains context-free objects that communicate via message passing.

Kai Backman (@kaibackman, founder of Tinkercad and Airstone Labs) gave an overview of our cloud computing options today. Hint: use Amazon.

Jon Hirschtick at COFES 2013

Jon Hirschtick at COFES 2013

I was most interesting in hearing what Jon Hirschtick (@jhirschtick) had to say. As the founder of SolidWorks and now the CEO of venture-backed Belmont Technologies, I was curious to see what he’d say about the future of programming for CAD. He started with this gem about the present: “CAD is filled with old people and old applications.” Without going into specifics about what Belmont was working on, he then delved into the topic of a “new programming culture” – Singapore subway versus New Orleans jazz, bye-bye desktop apps and hello cloud apps, bye-bye binary and hello text, SSD versus hard disk, and more. Sounds to me like Belmont’s going to deliver CAD via the SaaS (software as a service) model.

It was at the evening’s reception that I met my host and fellow Texan, Chad Jackson (@ChadKJackson, president of Lifecycle Insights). All COFES newbies are assigned a host to make introductions and show them the ropes. Chad made me feel quite at home and ensured my COFES experience was a good one.

Day 2 – Fri 12 Apr

Zander Rose (@zander, director of the Long Now Foundation) was the morning’s keynote speaker and wrapped the tale of the foundation’s building of a 10,000 year clock with the COFES theme of resiliency. Just imagine the engineering challenges of designing such a clock.

The Long Now Foundation's Zander Rose addresses COFES 2013.

The Long Now Foundation’s Zander Rose addresses COFES 2013.

  • What location and materials will allow it to survive that long? (Lots of titanium gears and ceramic bearings)
  • How will you make it maintainable by future generations? (It will run without maintenance but some parts still require winding.)
  • How do you make it transparent and discoverable? People will need to be able to find the clock and then figure out how it works. (Access to the site is being designed and instructions are being carved into some pieces.)

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is providing a lot of the current funding for the clock which has an unknown final cost and an unknown completion date. The site is in west Texas. If you think the idea of a 10,000 year clock is kinda silly, Zander pointed out that “every day there’s a once in 10,000 year event.”

I was aware of the Long Now’s clock prior to COFES. I am a fan of Brian Eno and he composed bell chimes for the clock.  I have Eno’s 2003 CD January 07003 | Bell Studies for The Clock of The Long Now and if you’re interested there’s a clip on YouTube of his Bell Improvisations 2. I listened to the album as I wrote this post.

Attendees were dispersed for the remainder of the day into several concurrent “analyst and user briefings” and “technology suite briefings” with interesting titles like Beyond Correctness and Efficiency and Promoting Profound Change. You can think of these as birds-of-a-feather session where folks gather for an unguided discussion of the topic. My choices were as follows.

  • Windows 8 & Devices from Microsoft with Simon Floyd (@FloydInnovation). I’m not imaginative enough to foresee CFD mesh generation on a tablet so as cool as those devices were (3D CAD model manipulation on a Surface Pro was pretty slick) it all comes down to the fact that Win 8 on a desktop or laptop without a touch screen pretty much requires you to put the UI in desktop mode and leave it there. And one of the other participants in that session made sure to point out that there’s a freeware extension that brings back the Programs menu.
  • Magnifying the Impulse of Simulation by Sandia’s Ted Blacker. Ted made me feel at home by pointing out to the assembled group that modeling and meshing still consume 70+% of every simulation. But we spent most of the time discussing the roles of verification, validation, and quantifying uncertainty in simulations. For a guy who’s work involves simulating nuclear weapons you can be certain these topics are important to him. But now that the FDA is accepting simulation as part of the certification process for medical devices we all have to start considering these issues more seriously.
  • In What Kind of Computer is the Brain?, The Santa Fe Institute‘s Chris Wood concluded that the brain is more like a slide rule than an iPhone. Having used both (my high school class was the last for whom learning the slide rule was required) I can say that my brain is more like an abacus but all the marbles are rolling around loose.
  • And it was nice to sit in a room with Jon Peddie (@jonpeddie, from Jon Peddie Research) and discuss the current state of virtual and augmented reality under the auspices of Reality: Not What You Thought It Was. An interesting issue is if or when people will care if what they’re seeing is real real or just virtually real.

Maieutic Parataxis

An event unique (as far as I know) to COFES is Maieutic Parataxis (which I mispelled twice in two different ways in two different tweets). So what the hell is maieutic parataxis?

  • maieutic: of or relating to the aspect of the Socratic method that induces a respondent to formulate latent concepts through a dialectic or logical sequence of questions.
  • parataxis: to arrange side by side

In case that didn’t help, think of it this way: it’s kinda like the entrepreneur’s pitch on the TV show Shark Tank but without the sharks.  In practice, it’s 10-1-5: ten people, each speaking on one idea, each taking only five minutes. One talk was about configuration management and design and that dovetailed nicely with a talk about visualization of massively multivariate data. A presentation on FlixFit, an application that takes your body measurements using just two photos made with the webcam in your laptop had interesting implications for another technology called Direct Pattern to Loom that reduces the waste of clothing production by producing pre-cut pieces directly on the loom rather than cutting them from a bolt of fabric. (Did you know that 40% of all e-commerce clothing purchases end in returning the merchandise and half of those are for poor fit?) In fact, another attendee was so inspired that he installed FlixFit, measured himself, sent the measurements off to be loomed (or whatever the sewing term is), and the unique 1-of-a-kind garment was on it’s way to COFES overnight (until it got stuck in Tokyo).

Day 3 – Sat 13 Apr

Esther Dyson (@edyson, investor) gave the morning’s keynote on the topic of When Exceptions Become the Rule. While admitting that she prefers Q&A to giving a presentation, Esther did cover some interesting ideas. Specifically, in our current age driven by customization, timeliness, and self-service you can no longer rely on producing applications that force people into a standard way of interacting.  On the topic of privacy versus personalization she stated that privacy, like happiness, isn’t guaranteed but people should have full control over their level of privacy. But in general, more transparency leads to better behavior.

Esther Dyson at COFES 2013

Esther Dyson at COFES 2013

When it comes to her investment philosophy she said the key to success is hoping that people don’t remember your failures. She tends to invest in a large number of ventures that she personally likes (such as healthcare topics related to “quantified self”) and acts more like a neutral net than an expert system. She has made considerable investments in Russia and she compared that country to a beloved uncle who drinks too much. Lest we think to little of the Russian economy, the statistic about Russian productivity being only 1/4 of that in the Western world should be viewed as equivalent productivity in high tech but only 1/8 in everything else. On Putin, she said that he’s simply what their system produced – they need to change the system.

On journalism (where her career started) versus media, she said the latter will be OK but the former will require “philanthropic support.” She was not kind to NASA. According to her, NASA’s job is to employ people not to put them in outer space. The U.S. government has gotten too risk averse.

The morning’s roundtable discussion for me was Millenials are Different. I attended because I think that premise is categorically false and a form of generational conceit. (See where I wrote above about what Jon Hirschtick thinks of the current CAD business.) The discussion proved me correct. The real issue seemed to be a lack of understanding (bordering on paranoia) of use and roles of cell phones and social media tools rather than a suspicion that somehow 20-somethings are behaviorally flawed. (Damn kids these days!)

I got a little lucky on the afternoon’s roundtable, EOL 4 Email, because were were joined by Esther Dyson. So in addition to listening to her in an auditorium with 100+ other people, I got to talk to her around a table with 10 other people. First, email is not dead. Surprise! The issue is email management. Esther’s email issues are a bit unique, IMO. She said her inbox contains 4,000+ messages, most of which are unsolicited while others are from partners, friends, etc. How can she manage that practically? This led to a discussion of paying to accept email (i.e. “Esther will read your email in return for payment of $100.”) While this may work for her whose attention is highly sought, it won’t work for most of us. One participant in the discussion whose job was sales-centric was completely the opposite – he yearns for more email. His solution is to integrate email with a CRM solution that organizes it on the way into his inbox to allow him to segregate personal from business from… As you can imagine, no conclusions were reached other than the fact that email is not going away.

Next Year

COFES 2014 will be held on 24-27 April 2014. Based on my experiences this year (and I haven’t described them all) it certainly would be an event worth returning to.

The only other conference I’ve attended that’s even close to this is Business of Software but BoS comes at the matter from the other end of the business spectrum – its attendees are mostly new, young, and smaller ventures as opposed to some of the large companies represented at COFES. BoS is also application agnostic whereas COFES obviously targets engineering software. BoS also has their version of the Maieutic Parataxis – Lightning Talks, aka Pecha Kucha, in which 20 slides auto advance one every 20 seconds and into which the presenters cram not only information but a good sense of humor.

Oh yeah – the future of engineering software still does look like CAD to me. Lots of representation of design of form, not so much on design of function nor on simulation and analysis. Am I cutting things a bit too fine? Probably. Dare I contradict Brad Holtz? I can always blame ignorance. Maybe I just want him to call me again.

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One Response to My First COFES, Congress on the Future of Engineering Software

  1. Pingback: News you can use, 24 March 2013 | Schnitger Corporation

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