On my recent trip to Vegas for Autodesk University 2014, I was lucky enough to collar Marco Mirandola, CEO of coolOrange, for a sit-down chat about the company and the products they produce. Marco very kindly gave up a couple of hours of his time, which isn’t easy for anyone at the hectic madhouse that is “AU”.

If you haven’t heard of coolOrange, they’re a development house that specialises in 3rd party tools for Autodesk products, primarily data management tools for Vault and Inventor. Aside from the software itself, they maintain a very active blog, and frequently post code samples and useful tips for Inventor and Vault customisation. A great example of a modern company that is not afraid to give away some IP for nothing, even though they also sell commercial products. Rather than give the game away in a summary though, I’ll leave it to Marco to tell you more about his company, with his answers to my questions below.


GB: I’m a little confused. Obviously you’re still CEO of coolOrange but do you have a role inside Autodesk?

MM: I used to work at Autodesk between 2005 and 2009 as a product manager for Data Management. I came into Autodesk as part of the compass acquisition.


GB: How did you start out in the world of coding?

MM: I started out as a freelancer working on machinery with PLCs combined with computers. I was developing software that would read AutoCAD geometry and convert to information that a PLC could understand to drive custom machinery for machining window extrusions.


GB: How was coolOrange formed?

MM: In 2009, Autodesk downsized development in a big way. All the co-founders of coolOrange were affected by this. Coincidentally, I got out just before this happened. I found myself looking for a job and so were some of my ex-coworkers. I realised we had a lot of knowledge and connections, so we wondered if we could turn it into a business. We asked one main question, which was: ‘What was not going to change over the next 7 years in Autodesk?’ We found a gap in support and consulting. Product support is great for product questions. If you have customisation questions, ADN is not as accessible for smaller entities or short term issue solving. On the other hand, we had years of experience working with resellers, we knew how they worked, and how Autodesk works, so we decided to fill that gap. Project related consulting rather than product related.

GB: Tell me about the coolOrange team, and your role as CEO.

MM: 14 people. 2 sites, 1 in Italy, 1 in Germany. 12 developers with different skill sets. Database experts, UI experts, architects. They have a lot of knowledge of the Inventor API, Autocad Mechanical API, Vault API etc. It’s a diverse team, but almost all developers. I’m a technical CEO, but still spend time developing. I also branch out and try new things in areas like finance and marketing, to test ideas that may enhance our business. Once I have the answer I need, I then pass that responsibility off to others.


GB: What’s your favourite language to work with?

MM: I started with C (and the Borland compiler), then moved onto C++. I touched on other languages like java, as well as php, html, and javascript as well. C# was definitely something that I fell in love with quite quickly, just because of the simplicity compared to C, but I don’t think there has ever been one language for everything. I think there is a language for each particular case, for instance Powershell is ugly for developers, but it’s lovely for non-developers and there is definitely a purpose for it, and it makes sense. The real cool thing right now I think, is all this REST API stuff that is currently going on, because it just makes it so simple to get access to so many technologies. As an example, the powerGate solution that we just created connects with SAP, which is a bit of a black box. SAP came out with a new technology about 3 years ago called Gateway, which is actually a REST server, so now you can talk to SAP via a RESTful API without needing to know anything about how the system behind it is working. Same as Facebook, Twitter, PLM360, I don’t know how they work in the background, but I don’t need to. I just send out a REST call, and I receive an XML or JSON string which I can read and interpret. So this notion of REST APIs definitely fits well with the philosophy of coolOrange.


GB: Why did you pick powershell as the base for a lot of your tools?

MM: We needed a scripting language. Number 1 was, how can we allow an application engineer (AE) to create his own job. Every AE somehow has some scripting experience, maybe lisp, maybe javascript. Secondly, we needed a scripting language which was easy enough to digest and widely available. We considered PERL and Ruby too, but settled on powershell because it’s ubiquitous, on every Microsoft system, meant for IT people not developers and it’s tightly integrate with Microsoft systems. Extensions for SQL, exchange, share point, active directory etc. Microsoft is almost a standard, and we try to avoid niche proprietary stuff.

GB: Data Standard was gently criticised by Doug Redmond as being a bit of an “API for an API.” How would you respond to that?

MM: Doug’s comments are perfectly correct from a technical point of view or developer point of view. Data standard is a framework on top of the vault API framework. Inside data standard you can access the vault API so it is kind of cyclic. The things that data standard reduces are the configuration and setup type tasks which require developer skills. Think of Data Standard as a kick starter for customisation.


GB: How do you see customisation of Autodesk products changing as we transition to a cloud world and RESTful APIs?

MM: It’s a tough question, because it depends how you look at it. If you look at it from a customer perspective, what I would be excited about would be that as an owner of the system, I’m finally in a position of being able to read and do something with my data. Up to this point, generally speaking, most data management systems have been of a proprietary nature, and to get access to MY data, I’d usually need to learn some sort of proprietary development language. It’s my data, I’m creating it every day, but to get it out to do other things with it, I usually would need to pay a developer to do it for me. With the cloud and REST APIs, everything suddenly gets so much simpler, more transparent and more standardised. This is even better if they’re using OData, which is a standard that came out of Microsoft which standardises things even more. So from a user perspective, I think these technologies will meaning gaining back ownership and control of my data. Migration is the other big thing. In the past, I may use a big proprietary system for 10 years, and then decide to move to another system. In some cases, moving the data from one to the other becomes too hard, and I’ve heard people say they’re going to have to start from scratch. Huh? That’s seems crazy, and not a very practical solution. So I think these technologies we’re talking about, will help a lot in that sense.


GB: What gets you excited about developing software?

MM: I have a software development background. I realised early on that I was more interested in the cool things people could do with my products, than how cool the code was. It’s the thing that drives coolOrange. So basically, as we founded the company, the idea was to put people who were not developers, in a position to be able to still do some customisation that would extend their software beyond the standard. .NET does not help. If you are a developer, .NET is great, but if you are not a developer, you have no chance, because it’s complex, and cumbersome. Visual Studio, getting into compiled assemblies and references and all of that, is difficult, and takes a lot of time to learn. All the tools we are developing, for example powerJobs, myView (which became Data Standard, through the acquisition by Autodesk,) powerGate (which we are currently working on for ERP integration,) are all being developed with the idea of addressing application engineers needs. These are highly-skilled technical people, but they’re not necessarily developers, but we want to bring them into a position where they can execute a project, with knowledge and resources, and get them excited that they can now do something that they didn’t think they could do with tools that are more-or-less “easy” to use. That is really what drives us.


GB: Do you build software with intention for it to be bought by Autodesk and incorporated, or is that just a bonus?

MM: We don’t start with the intention to get acquired by Autodesk, but we do have the intention to get enough visibility, that Autodesk might want to acquire our technologies. If we get to the point where Autodesk might acquire us, we know we are doing well. From the beginning, I have always wanted to have contact and exposure worldwide, and not build a “local” company.

And to finish off, a few questions for Marco from our very own Scott Moyse:

SM: What is your favourite Italian car?

MM: The Tesla, which is not Italian. People tell me that the BMWs are better, but I like the approach of Elon Musk. Nothing seems to be a barrier to that guy.


SM: Favourite Italian dish?

MM: Pizza. No, seriously, it’s pizza.


SM: Favourite Italian wine?

MM: Lagrein (from where I’m from South Tyrol)


Image credit: Oranges by Free Photos