Business Leader: 30 Years of Carlson Software

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series June 2013

The three decades of Carlson Software have been marked by rapid growth, fierce independence in a very competitive market, and expansion worldwide into hardware as well as software. But just like founder and president Bruce Carlson, the company maintains that personal touch, with a direct customer service reputation that has built a loyal customer community. PSM correspondent Brad Ott, PLS, PE sat down with Bruce at the 30th anniversary Carlson user conference held in April 2013 in Cincinnati.
Brad: You’ve had a very busy conference. I’m glad we finally got a chance to speak.
Bruce:  Yes, the very meeting that delayed our meeting was almost the essence of what makes the work our company does so interesting and rewarding.  We just met with a company who develops a sensor to measure out underground utilities and locate them.  Right now, we have in that area a chaotic market, almost, or a chaotic situation where you contact one of those “call before you dig” services whenever you are doing a project where you might encounter underground utilities.  This can be a costly system that is not highly automated.  It is mostly not “in the cloud” and it often does not use current technology.  [Such services] often send out representatives from several key impacted utilities, with natural gas having a high priority because that represents the most danger to people if there is a gas leak or an explosion.  Water is, of course, critical.  Sewer has environmental impacts.  Electrical is important.  Fiber optic can be the most costly if you break the line.  There are a lot of good reasons for caution, but not a lot of good mapping information.  And so they often send out experienced individuals to point out where they know first-hand where utilities are and where not to dig.
Brad: In my experience, utilities often say they are too busy to mark the lines for surveyors.
Bruce:  That’s just it.  Because of the lack of automation and good mapping, locates are so labor-intensive. There is tremendous opportunity there for automation—in fact, for a whole new standard of how to approach this.  That was the essence of the previous meeting. [Carlson] sees how exciting and challenging this could be; it is why we are in business—we solve problems through technology, such as the mapping of mines.  The quality mapping of underground mines has been credited to saving lives.  There is also a tremendous financial value to good mapping for mines, [for example,] the prevention of mining through into old mine works and allowing for better automation and placement of equipment.  
Brad: You’ve mentioned lives saved; tell us about the Quecreek mine rescue in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, 2002.
  [A connection to Carlson] was an aspect of the story I didn’t learn about until long after the event.  I was at the Wisconsin land surveyor’s society meeting where a presenter from the mining industry that had been involved with the Quecreek mine rescue was making the rounds of land surveying conferences and speaking on the value of surveying for mine safety and, specifically, that value in saving lives at Quecreek in recovering those miners.  They looked at accurate mine maps and decided where to drill: not to drill into a pillar where they would be drilling through continuous rock and wouldn’t be able to rescue the miners, but instead to drill into what is clearly an opening in a space away from any walls, preferably at a higher point where the miners would likely have congregated.  
That worked out perfectly.  They did that one drill down with a wide-diameter hole that allowed insertion of a cage to bring the miners up one by one. That is a story that I did not even know featured our software until I bumped into this fellow from the coal industry.  He came by our booth in Wisconsin a year later and said half of his talk was about the use of Carlson Software.  Very gratifying, but that is just one example.
Brad: And, as you said, the same principles can be applied to utility locates.
Bruce: Underground utility mapping offers vast benefits, if we can automate.  That’s because there are few widely adopted standards for how utility lines are stored in terms of xyz data, depth, the material involved, diameter, install date, etc.  If we could assist [industries, public entities, and utilities] in mapping these underground utilities through [various] sensors and in mapping of exposed underground utilities when we do trenching for repairs, then this creates a database that we could access over the cloud.  This could limit the amount of manpower that has to go out on site and relieve the scheduling bottlenecks of utilizing locate services.  This will also save money for the utility companies and their customers.
An example: Carlson Software itself paid a gas company around $10k for a gas line tap [for one of our facilities].  I was shocked at the price, but in part the cost was high because the line had to cross the street and all of the utilities underneath.  They weren’t sure of all the utilities they would hit going from one side to the other.  They knew they had to avoid, for example, the fiber optic line, water, and sewer lines in that street. In some places there is no complete system for recording or mapping all of the utilities. Some of that uncertainty gets lumped into what they have to charge you to get it done in one day so they can move on.      
This ad hoc approach to utilities could be greatly improved and automated where there are pictures taken and mapping of what is going on during construction, with simple and appropriate tools, and without disrupting the work.  I think Carlson can produce [more of] those tools with the right partners.  That leads to another fun aspect of being in this business: we believe in openness – it is one of our core philosophies.  We don’t trap people into our interfaces or use of our software; that might be a fringe benefit of having quality software, where people flock to it, not so much as a trap, but as a positive.
Brad: Along with your own lines of hardware and software, Carlson is popular as a third-party alternative to or “bridge” between products from other companies. How do you feel about that role?
Bruce: Our goal is to work on as many devices as possible; we want to work with as many GPS systems as are available on the market and are open to Carlson and other third parties; to remain independent; to work on as many total stations as possible; and to offer as diverse a product line as we can.  So there is no gap in supporting the production cycles for a full range of disciplines: construction, surveying, civil engineering, mining, and utilities.  We’ve got a uniquely complete and very compatible product line.
I often refer to our competitors, who are also in many ways partners, as the “big six,” though there are many more that we work with, companies whose equipment and products we work with or on.  We work with the Esri engine, and we have products that use the ArcMap engine inside our very products like SurvPC.  We also have our full line of office products that work embedded within AutoCAD or work on top as add-on applications.   We also work with IntelliCAD.  We have links and can work with Bentley MicroStation and also in SurvPC where you can work native in the “DGN” environment.  Those represent the “big three” in office: Esri, Autodesk, and Bentley MicroStation.
The “big three” in field equipment, of course includes Trimble, Hexagon/Leica, and Topcon/Sokkia. With these and other hardware manufacturers we try to work with everything we can gain access to. Because of this unique role, Carlson is positioned as a company that is attractive to manufacturers of sensors and in some cases heavy equipment manufacturers who want solutions that are not beholden to any specific equipment vendors.  Also, they want to work with a company who has that nimble capability to react to their needs quickly.
We are in a unique position, particularly with all the mergers, leaving us as almost the last man standing in terms of the independent, mid-sized, full product cycle provider.  That is a point I would also like to emphasize: Not even major manufacturers or providers fill every need. While each has strengths, there are gaps. For example: does a company strong in survey hardware also offer office mining solutions or mining software, full civil engineering solutions, machine control software? Can they also support plat drafting for surveyors?  Do they go all the way through from field to finish with network least squares and annotations?  No, that may not be their emphasis.  While they might seek to go in that direction, Carlson already has this full circle, all the way around, from the data collection, through the CADD, to the civil engineering and mining, all the way through the machine control and beyond—we have the customer-validated solutions.
This draws not only manufacturers and sensor providers to us, an open company, but it is also appealing to people who want to join a company with our culture.  We are the kind of a company built on entrepreneurs who want to apply their creativity and motivations to a mid-sized dynamic organization.  And we are also open to “refugees,” if you will, from these larger more corporate organizations who want to experience that one-to-one relationship among effort and contribution and reward, both professional reward and financial reward. 
Brad: Of course there is that one question you probably get asked a lot…  
Bruce:  “When are we going to sell out?” The whole joy of running this company and being involved with it is in the race itself.  The joy is in the opportunities before us and in the satisfaction [of conquering] technological challenges.
Brad:  What, in the past year, do you think has been the most exciting technological or professional advancement you have seen or see coming?
Bruce:  It goes back to that word fun.  Humans are visual creatures.  We have this expectation that you have to have this spatial mind that sees 3D, organizes the world geometrically, and basically projects in your own mind the world onto plan view, all while not being properly assisted by the very design tools created by the industry such as your data collector, your office software.  We are currently putting things into plan and profile views with a certain look.  We are currently designing by taking the 3D world down to a vertical plane projection and a horizontal plane projection, and then we merge the two in our minds, and that is how we build—we actually expect our contractors to do this.  We expect our contractors to take these plans and create these fantastic 3D surfaces and structures with all kinds of rich detail in all dimensions from flat paper or flat designs in CADD.
So what do I see as the most exciting area?  It is moving towards 3D design.  We can continue to output these horizontal and vertical plane plan and profile sheets, but the actual design process can be aided by and reside within the 3D visual environment.  One of my favorite examples would be the culverts under county roads; there are many different types.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to drop in culvert [objects] with preset design specs, move the inlet and outlet ends dynamically, with live feedback on the screen as to slope, alignment, flow rate calcs [and more]? You get to [visualize] it in 3D and know exactly what you are doing. Your calculations are punched out, and you have the 3D view to give to the contractor and say, “When you are done it should look like this.”  That would make it fun to come to work, which is how it should be.
In the past we have basically taken design tools that take CADD and technology to duplicate what we have done on paper.  But why not take the whole design environment to where it could be?  3D – visual – dynamic.  That is where we are taking things.  It relates directly to the utility discussion we had earlier. 
Brad:  You guys are definitely already headed that way.  You make me think of this point cloud class I sat through yesterday [here at the conference]; I was blown away.  We cleaned up the example laser scan from 8 million points to 2 million points so we could manage the file.  Then the instructor took a 3D CADD symbol and clicked on an actual light pole in [what looks like a] point cloud mess, and, boom, it automatically drew the light pole with the 3D CADD symbol to the correct height and orientation of the light pole arm.  It was just amazing!  And so now we can have that symbol in our plan view drawings, etc. 
Bruce:  It is very good that you brought up that example. Another reason that we enjoy being in this business is that I think the marketplace needs us.  Everybody watches the other.  We do learn from the other companies but they also learn from us, and we are driving some of the technology out there.  That very feature, where it would be difficult to sort of wrap in the point cloud of that light pole so that it fits perfectly and represents a valid, to-scale 3D light pole feature—that can be tough to do straight from a raw point cloud.  
Some people are happy right now just to pick up edges, just to pick up curb lines, just to pick up pipe tubes, etc.  But we said, “Hey, we know the look of that pole.  That’s that one arm style that this particular jurisdiction likes to use, but they are all of different heights as placed on the site. Dut the arms are the same length going out and the arm has a certain direction of projection.  Why not be able just to pick at the base of the feature in the point cloud, apply that library light pole, from the cloud know how high vertically to go, and point it in the right direction because we can detect where the lamp is going, yet reference the actual design of the lamp from the icon itself, the CADD blocks?
Brad:  Yes, we did that with one click in the class. 
Bruce:  You got it, and we can do that with trees too. If it’s a classic pin oak with a certain look, if it’s an elm it has that vase-like look.  So we can get the drip line, get the height of the tree, we can get the height to the first branches, because you might have a branch-free trunk, you see.  But we came up with this idea, and darn if a few of the other companies haven’t adopted it after they’ve watched our products.
Brad: Would you characterize surveying, or elements of surveying, as “creative”?
Bruce: I think surveying is creative.  Any field that is creative is rewarding and enjoyable; I think this speaks to human nature.  When you do a survey, and you go out, you might work with a farmer who comes to you and says, “Here is my property.”  The farmer says, “I am clear in my mind as to where a couple of my lines are located.”  It becomes an immediate sort of journey of discovery.  You go to the courthouse.  You find everything you can there on the adjoining property lines.  It is sort of a puzzle you put together.  You try to make each piece match.  You sort of have to be a little historian, go back and maybe even skip over a couple bad deeds.  Sometimes the earlier deeds are more accurate, and some of the detail has been lost along the way.  And so that part of it is tremendous fun.  Then you bring out the equipment.
This is where you have to get creative.  Where do I do my setup and back sight?  Where do I have the best position to see the most things?  What is my level of certainty on setting the corner here?  Then you get into judgment factors, and this also involves a creative decision.  Then you have that one advantage that surveyors have over the rest of us: you are outdoors.  So you have the best of all environments.
I think if we can bring more 3D visualization and fun automation to the preparation of surveys and plats, to engineering design, to the work of contractors, that is when you can look forward to coming in and using tools that enhance your professional position. That is rewarding.
Brad:  That is well said. The small part of these tools I use regularly is Survey Field to Finish.  I take great pride in how it looks and how it works so quickly, thanks to you and your software.  It takes very little time to set up initially, and now when I draw this feature, I am drawing it in the field in my mind and at the same time with the data collector.  And what is amazing is the medium is a simple ASCII format.  This type of functionality is rewarding and validating for my profession.  I feel like I am producing a better product automatically.

Bruce:  Validated automation, certainly. Say you are locating a rail line field to finish; don’t measure both rails, but do “OH 4.5” or whatever command you use.  That is the beauty of the tool.  It saves you time.  But it still requires creativity to use that tool properly and effectively in the field to cut your field time down. 
Brad:  Years ago we were using [a legacy] field book file format: If we wanted to draw four overhead power lines we had to take four shots at that pole.  It is so simple now and it is so beautiful and elegant.  It just feels nice to know when I am taking that shot and that I am not going to have to clean that up later in the office with CADD.  Thank you for this sir, you and your whole team. Folks on your team I have worked with directly are an example of great support: Ladd Nelson and Lon Watson are names that readily come to mind.  A lot of users indicate that they don’t have to be afraid to reach out and ask questions; your team keeps telling us that they want us asking questions.
Bruce:  You can never sing praises of our tech support [too much].  For all the strength of the programming and sales division, if you had to say what division of Carlson is most known in the industry as uniquely outstanding, that is our tech support.  We have free tech support.  Now, to the credit of the software, sometimes it “tech supports” itself.  But in our business there are deep, more complicated yet subtle things that we need to do, and that is what tech support is there for.  If they lead the new user through the commands early on, soon we don’t hear from them.
So, I think we are a good company for the new user who has just discovered the software for the first time and for a user who has come over from a different solution.  Tap into the tech support, and we will get you over the hump.  Then users will continue to excel on their own; but we are always there with the same level of support for all levels of users. Challenge us, challenge our products; feedback and user experiences are how we move forward and improve our products and services.
Brad: There is quite a community of Carlson users on [the popular online surveying forums], for
Bruce: Does that one have a strong international presence?
Brad: Yes, especially in Europe. There are some noted users and [forum] posters whom many of us would like to meet in person should we find ourselves in Europe.
Bruce: [I anticipate] that when you do meet surveyors [from other parts of the world] that you will find that [you have a lot in common]; surveyors think the same way worldwide.
Brad: Carlson has come a long way in 30 years. Where do you see Carlson going forward—the next 30 years? What will be the key areas of emphasis?
Bruce: The big picture, I think, is going to 3D.  I am greatly pleased and privileged to be part of this assembled team that will take us forward.  When I look back 30 years, we based ourselves in Maysville, Kentucky, a town of about 10,000 people.  It is quite difficult to build a business in a small town for two reasons.  First, the talent pool there is very limited.  Second, drawing talented people to a small rural town was a challenge.  So in our early days where we kind of drew from the local area, we did not have the industry players that we have today.  As we grew and accumulated more talent and more relationships, that led to more connections, and some of the original people have moved on and have been replaced by people who have moved into Maysville.  Sometimes just by chance there were programmers who lived in Maysville.  We were very fortunate because we have three or four Maysville-based programmers, which is just remarkable—they are very good.
[Our small-town environment] has been something we have almost had to overcome, and yet on another level it [has been] an asset: We have a very low-stress environment.  We can influence and support our own town.  We are building a park for our town and a new office with a coffee shop.  So we can kind of create our own world in a small town.  This is something you cannot necessarily do in a large metro area. 
We are up to about 90 employees worldwide now.  We just hired a new person into our Zurich office.  We have the major worldwide languages covered by either fluent or native-speaking employees.  Maybe Italy is the largest market that we don’t have a native speaker as an employee, yet.  That is how far we have grown.
Brad: Thirty years … what was it like doing a startup in 1983; did the company started with one person?
Bruce:  It was just two people initially, then three when my brother Jim Carlson joined. My nephew Dave Carlson joined us as a programmer in the early ‘90s, and that also proved pivotal.  I started as a practicing surveyor and civil engineer with a math background but only knew how to program in BASIC.  I later learned LISP when we moved in to AutoCAD.  But we built the product pretty much in the BASIC language.  Then we moved over to the IBM PC from the Apple where we stared.  We slowly but surely evolved into C language, which is where we are today: in original C, C++, and now C Sharp. My nephew Dave Carlson (he has a B.S. in programming from Berkeley) joined us as a programmer in the early 90’s, and that also proved pivotal.
Brad:  You were a math major at Dartmouth?  What else from your background influenced the path for Carlson Software?
Bruce:  Yes, I attended Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. I grew up in the Pittsburg area and New Jersey, and lived a couple of years in England when my father got transferred over there in the ’60s—they had a great school system.  I attribute those two years [in the UK] as pivotal to my career.  Dartmouth was a blessing because, although it is not well known, that is where the BASIC language was developed.  If you saw a family tree of [BASIC], it starts at Dartmouth College, invented as a language to simplify programming by John G. Kemeny who had been a math assistant to Einstein.  He served as head of the math department at Dartmouth.  When I enrolled there, he was the college president.  I do give him partial credit for our company’s founding because it was learning BASIC that got me started—everyone at Dartmouth was spoon fed BASIC, even psychology majors!  If you were a math major, you knew it inside and out.
When I started a surveying company in a small, rural town, we were too dirt-poor to buy any commercial software.  So I said to myself, let’s write it ourselves and try to sell that in addition to surveying, and that led to Carlson Software.
Back then, if you recall the early ‘80s, there were at least 20 to 25 survey software companies.  We were just one of many.  There was, of course, C&G, that has since merged into Carlson; I was so happy when they joined us in 2001.  Anybody who could code and understood the math behind surveying and the trig involved could write coordinate geometry software.  There was a lot out there and there were also self-sufficient people who just did it on their own.   Then there was that sort of merging and falling out phase that resulted in far fewer players.  The price of entry, especially nowadays, is enormous.  Just to write Field to Finish could take a company three years, and right now there would be several major players to compete with.  
The barriers to entry are huge at this point, and that [drives] part of our commitment to go forward.  We have such a base over our 30-year history, such a base of code that we almost have an obligation to our industry to drive that forward on an independent track to see how far we can go. It is like you are a runner.  Keep going. Take it to where it could be.  Keep going…

Bradley P. Ott, PLS, PE is a consulting land surveyor currently licensed in five states.

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