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Ask Me Anything (AMA) with FME Co-founders: Recap

Yesterday we tried something new. We put Safe Software co-founders Don and Dale in a webcast room and bombarded them with questions for an hour. In our first-ever “Ask Me...

Yesterday we tried something new. We put Safe Software co-founders Don and Dale in a webcast room and bombarded them with questions for an hour. In our first-ever “Ask Me Anything”, we covered everything from LiDAR to the Stanley Cup.

Don and Dale discussed what the future holds for spatial data and FME technology, offered opinions on topics like the Shapefile Challenge and gaming formats, and gave insights on business inside the Safe office. They also had fun chats on random topics like wearable technology, breaking speed limits in a Tesla, and finding happiness in life.

Watch (or listen to) the full thing on YouTube. Scroll on for a summary of the trends and laughs from this live event.

Predicting the future of spatial data

The top trend in the questions was on the future of spatial data.

Don and Dale agreed that we’ll be seeing more 3D. LiDAR scanners are getting cheaper, drones and 3D cameras are on the rise, and we’re getting closer to widespread use of augmented reality. With location becoming a part of all the sensors in the industrial internet, they also expect a lot of geolocation—an integration of both indoor and outdoor.

They stressed the importance of gaming formats for GIS professionals, and the convergence with geospatial and BIM. “Minecraft is a new level of gaming,” said Don. They went on to discuss how Safe invests a lot into keeping the FME platform modern. “That’s a hard thing to do,” said Dale, “but it’s fun, and it sets us up to take advantage of all these emerging technologies.”

Regarding the Shapefile Challenge: “Shape isn’t going anywhere.” They talked a bit about their thoughts on why this is, explaining why too much software supports Shapefile for it to disappear any time soon.

Looking at the technical demands for handling data of the future, they agreed that data will be bigger, faster, and more important than ever, possibly even too much to store. Technology needs to be able to handle this data on demand, computing results as soon as you decide you need them.

Is there a place for small companies/freelancers in the GIS/ETL sector? “Absolutely there is,” said Dale. “I’m aware of quite a number of small consulting shops that are doing great stuff with FME, so lots of opportunity.” The barrier to entry is lower than ever before, especially with cloud technology.

They are convinced that desktop computers will soon be obsolete. Browsers are the new operating system, and JavaScript is the new programming language. Five years ago, end data was on your desktop or your corporate network, but this will not be the case looking forward.

When asked how they stay ahead of the industry, they pointed to their user base. “The key thing that we do is go out and talk to users and listen,” said Dale. “They have always been the fountain of amazing ideas and amazing insight into what’s happening next.”

A genius brainwave about robots and Minecraft


“Hey, maybe you could control the Mindstorm robot within a Minecraft world, with a Hololens on!”

Revealing what’s next for FME

“Geotagged video is the outlier for us,” said Dale. “I would be surprised if we didn’t have that as a full citizen of FME in the next couple years.”

They showed interest when asked about voxels. “LiDAR is poorly behaved rasters, and voxels are well behaved LiDAR,” said Don. Since Safe has invested heavily in point clouds, Don and Dale feel positioned to handle voxels next.

They discussed how FME is about bringing together niche applications that are the best at what they do. Many people are great at making platforms for collecting data. That’s their specialty. FME is the pipe that brings them together.

When asked about new and old formats, they went on to say how FME is not about making new formats, but rather making transformation and automation easier. “The fact is that the world keeps changing,” said Dale. There will always be new formats and systems, and never one format to rule them all. Each one offers something different, so FME is going to keep adding new formats to its repertoire.

Safe aims to never stop supporting old formats, and they only plan to stop adding new formats when the world stops creating them.

Predicting a wearable LiDAR scanner


“Just hit a button – blip! – and it’ll scan the room and off you go.”

Considering a free or specialized FME product suite

A few viewers asked about a potential FME Home Edition and accessing parts of FME for free. For some time, Don and Dale have been considering new licensing models, including free alternatives, and how to make FME easier to try out.

“The issue for us is the support and infrastructure we’d need to pull that off,” said Dale, speaking frankly about a free FME Desktop. “The good news is that every year our ability to execute on this is getting better.” For those who require a free FME, Don and Dale encouraged them to contact Safe. “We want to help people like this,” they said, and in fact, “the idea of a free FME is happening today.” They also mentioned the recently updated FME Grant Program.

When asked about alternative or specialized versions of FME: “There are no plans to turn FME into a GIS or data editor,” said Don. “Right from the ground we’ve been a data pipe.” The focus of Safe Software is on moving data from wherever it is to wherever it needs to be. Similarly, there are no plans to turn the FME Data Inspector into a lightweight editing tool. They do, however, want to extend the Data Inspector to handle video.

Don and Dale have been discussing how best to group all the available formats, but breaking FME into streams of data types is unlikely. Each customer only cares about a handful of formats, but it’s a different handful. They didn’t rule out the possibility of running FME Desktop within a browser, nor the idea of running raster/LiDAR processing on a GPU.

On the topic of FME and self-driving cars: “Without revealing too many secrets, FME is in the bowels of many—if not all—of the places that grind the data that feeds eventually into [self-driving cars]. Because that data didn’t start off its life ready to be used in a car, and so somehow it had to be moved.”

What about photogrammetry? They saw that as being too far from the core of FME, but encouraged users to integrate specialized software with FME. This type of custom transformer (like what Martin Isenburg has done with high-end LiDAR processing) is the goal of the FME Store. “Anybody can take their cool technology and with very little effort can wrap it up and ship it with FME,” said Don.

As for Safe’s relationship with the GDAL/OGR: “We support the open source community,” said Don. “They do a lot of great work.” They talked about being a part of GDAL / OGR early on, and continuing to do a lot to support open source. (Read about Safe’s relationship with FOSS.)

That time Dale got interrupted by his Apple Watch in the middle of talking about the Apple Watch


“Speaking of Apple Watches, it’s telling me it’s time to stand up right now.”

Some life advice

So, how do Don and Dale manage to run a business and still make time for the other important things in life?

Don’s advice was to make some things, like exercise, non-negotiable. If you’re passionate about work it can be all-consuming, which is why they wrote down the goals of Safe from the start, with the last two points being “have fun” and “have a life”.

Dale’s advice was to figure out the handful of things that are most important in your life. “The most precious and depleting resource is time,” he said. “Don’t spend a lot of time on things that aren’t urgent and aren’t important.”

Retirement plans? Not any time soon. “I think I’ve already retired,” said Don. If retirement means getting up in the morning, doing whatever you want, and spending your day having fun, he feels he’s already there. “If you find something you’re really passionate about then it doesn’t feel like work.”

“By making a happy life part of the normal day-to-day, it decreases the pressure to want to retire,” said Dale. He listed three things that make for a happy life: “find work that you’re passionate about, that you have some ability for, and that someone will pay you for. If you can put all three together then why would you want to quit?”

Don giving life advice to his daughter


On meeting his wife: “We did not date in grade 10. Or 11 or 12. Not until university.”

Insights on Safe Software as a company

There was some candid discussion about the GIS project that brought Don and Dale together and the early days working with Spatial Archive Interchange Format (S.A.I.F). “We thought it was going to overtake the world,” said Don. They decided to name the company after the format, and bought for only $50 in the 1990s.

They also talked a bit about the Safe team and staying ahead in the competitive job market in the Vancouver area.

Looking into the future, both Don and Dale were open to the idea of starting a podcast. They also announced the date of the next FME International User Conference. Next year at this time will be FME Days 2016 in Germany, and the next the next FME UC will be the year following: June 2017.

The story of the FME Lizard revealed


“Here he is in his hockey helmet. He first appeared when Don had a vision.”


Thanks to everyone who tuned in and asked questions! What did you think? Should we do it again, and do you have feedback for next time?

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