Backing a winner: Stardraw's David Snipp on Big Data and the cloud

After a record year, Paul Milligan speaks to Stardraw CTO David Snipp about the company’s plans to use big data and the cloud to maintain an upward trajectory.

The world of software never stops evolving, and David Snipp, CTO of design and documenting tool provider Stardraw, knows this more than most. “It’s so dynamic working in software because it changes so rapidly. You are constantly learning, adapting and taking risks,” he says. The product has been available since 1995, and in that time it has amassed a customer base of more than 40,000 users, spanning 83 countries worldwide. In the last two decades it has seen huge changes in the IT world, and has learnt how to react quickly. “Technology changes so rapidly, our current product, Stardraw 7 is called that because we have rewritten it seven times in 20 years.  It was not because there was anything wrong with it before, but we did it to take advantage of new technology and features. We had to say to ourselves ‘ok that was good for that market then but things have changed’. Everyone used to own a PC and Internet Explorer had 95% of the browser market share at one point. Then the iPad came out and it changed everything,” says Snipp. Apple’s iPad product caused a seismic change in software provision when it was launched. Software now had to load instantly, update frequently and work quickly with the internet.

“With Microsoft Silverlight we sent a year converting our application over to it and then the iPad came out and Steve Jobs said Apple won’t support Silverlight and overnight it was dead.   It was like betting on a horse that got all the way to the finish line and then somebody shot it.”
The constantly changing waters of the software industry can be exhausting to work in, but also exhilarating at time too says Snipp. “Because software takes time to write, you have to keep up to date all the time and try and spot technology trends. There’s so much noise out there, and you are always trying to back a winner. Half the time you end up throwing away your work. For example, with Microsoft Silverlight we sent a year converting our application over to it and then the iPad came out and Steve Jobs said Apple won’t support Silverlight and overnight it was dead. It was like betting on a horse that got all the way to the finish line and then somebody shot it.”

With so many distractions in the marketplace, what is Stardraw focusing on right now? “We are moving everything to the cloud, because the world is ‘mobile first’,” he says. “To collaborate users can put all their files in a central server and access them from any device and share them with colleagues, it’s all instantly available 24/7, and is accessible via mobile. It’s also automatically backed up in three different places in the data centre and is geo-replicated in another data centre on the other side of that continent.”

Snipp sees Big Data as playing a significant part of Stardraw’s future, as it will enable the software to offer more intelligence to its users. “If I want to add a product to my project (we have 80-90,000 products in our library) you could do a simple search but how about we actually suggest products for you to use based on your history? Rather than saying this is my favourite product, we will automatically figure out what your favourite product is based on all your other projects that you have done before.  We have then gone a step further than that and can provide (anonymous) data from all the other integrators around the world to suggest additional products to use as well.   It’s like when you do a Google search and it suggests words to finish the question you are typing is, based on history and geography etc. We can also predict what you want to do next, as it can help to sanity check your design i.e you might have created an audio system but forgotten to put a microphone down on your list.”

In his discussions with integrators and consultants what challenges have they discussed with him, and is Stardraw able to help at all? “One change we have seen in the AV market was that integrators used to be able to get the AutoCad .dwg files of the site they were going to install their AV kit in. Architects don’t want to give that out anymore, they view that as proprietary information.  They are worried if they give out their design in a editable format someone could take it, make a few tweaks and compete against them.  They don’t want that, so they now send out PDF files.  So the integrators are always asking us ‘what can I do with a PDF?’ the answer is not much.”  However, Adobe has now opened up the PDF format, and there are a range of tools and SDKs to play around with adapt the PDF format. Snipp says they played with a few of them but found them ‘big, and clumsy, slow and expensive’, so decided to write the software from scratch themselves to read in the PDF file. Called PDF Import it will be launched at InfoComm 2016 in Stardraw version 7.2. It has not been a straightforward process, “There are so many applications that can generate PDFs, but they all kind of suck.  They are all slightly different and don’t conform to the standard quite right.  We have ironed out loads of inconsistences and we now have 99% compatibility with PDF. It is completely editable, it reads it into the Stardraw format so that you can then go and edit it and add stuff to it, and save it back out as a PDF, without even going through a Stardraw file format.  Or you can go from PDF to AutoCad.”

One major strategic shift the company has undergone recently is to move to a subscription-based model.  Snipp explains the reasons behind this; “Historically in the software world, you would launch a product, for example Microsoft Office 95, and you would buy it. The problem for us is, what do you do for next year’s revenue? You have to launch new versions, which have to be bigger than the previous model to justify the price.  When you move to this business model, the user always gets the latest version.  For software it means we can guarantee our revenue over the next year, and every new customer adds to that. The whole challenge of selling anything is that you have to guess what your sales might be, you don’t know if the phones might go quiet.  If you have a good year the next year you have to do exactly the same, and works just as hard, just to stand still.  With a recurring model, any new sales are incremental. If you do a million dollars in sales this year, you are pretty much guaranteed to do that next year, without having to do anything, without having to come up with a new product.”

Snipp credits the recent announcement the company has enjoyed record results down to moving to this new model. Not only has it enjoyed consecutive record quarters but has seen its usage stats rise too, from an average of 9,000 logins per month in 2014 to more than 15,000 logins per month in March 2016. “We are making the world a better place,” says Snipp. “These technologies are making our lives easier and our customer’s lives better because we are finally able to deliver solutions to their problems using technology that didn’t exist a few years ago.”

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