David Ptak is the President of SolidProfessor, a company that is revolutionizing the concept of training for CAD and CAM users. SolidProfessor is proposing a product line of high quality interactive video focused mostly on SolidWorks and related engineering tools. While video training has been around for a while, SolidProfessor is raising the bar with professionally designed and manufactured training products. I believe that training videos could allow the end-user to become independent of expensive traditional resellers thus creating opportunities for online resellers like Novedge. In order to fully understand how users take advantage of these powerful tools and how this affects the design process, I asked Dave a few questions. Here is the complete interview.
Dave, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company?
I’m President of SolidProfessor. SolidProfessor was a business plan written while in my MBA Program at Thunderbird Graduate School of International Management back in 2003. Since launching in 2004, we’ve become a SolidWorks Solution Partner and create self-paced multimedia training and support for users of SolidWorks and other SolidWorks partner software. We’ve been in business for more than three years now and with the help of the companies we’ve partnered with, we do our best to provide the highest quality and best training and support we can. At this point we’ve helped more than 35,000 students and professionals.
I’m asking the same question I asked Matt Lombard: In an ideal world -- where CAD systems are easy to use and perfectly documented -- do we still need products like yours?
Well, our business is absolutely to support the effort toward perfect documentation and ease of use. We don’t compete with that. Our goal is to partner with companies that share our vision to make design software as user friendly as products like Word or Excel. SolidWorks is a leader in this and that’s a big reason why our business is based around supporting their success and helping their customers continue to push the design envelope.
What are the reasons for the success of your products? The popularization of CAD/CAM products, the poor quality of the original documentation, or the cost of live training?
our courses are authored by certified instructors and delivered by a professional narrator
We have success because we help people do their jobs better and help people eager to get into the design world develop the skills required to be successful and achieve their goals. We try to find ways to make the process of learning relatively complex software as intuitive as we can. We do this by incorporating three principles of learning. Our courses are authored by certified instructors and delivered by a professional narrator. We combine this with full motion video allowing users the ability to see what’s being taught right on the screen. And, we include exercises with sample parts so that users can practice exactly what they are learning in the course.
we’re a just in time problem solver to mitigate lost productivity due to a lack of specific knowledge
Another factor is that software is getting more robust every day. As a result, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a user to retain a level of expertise using such a broad range of tools and functionality. What we do is give designers answers to their questions in real time when they get stuck. We help reduce time spent trying to “figure it out” and instead give them a resource so they can quickly learn or refresh their knowledge and continue with their project. We’re a just in time problem solver to mitigate lost productivity due to a lack of specific knowledge. That said, without the popularization of CAD/CAM and the exceptional growth SolidWorks has experienced I don’t think we would be talking today.
Regarding poor documentation I would say that it makes sense that software makers would rather focus on building their product. I feel most look at documentation as a cost center or necessary evil. However, I think what you’ll see over the coming years is that the companies that incorporate a solution like ours into their business will not only differentiate themselves from their competition, but will win sales as a direct result of shortening the learning curve for their customers. I have real stories from companies like Teksoft. We’ve created three courses for them and they make these courses available to their customers as part of the CAMWorks investment. I’ve had conversations with their VARs where I was told that they closed deals because of our solution. That’s an indication to me that we’re adding real value.
To touch on the cost of live training, I would say that it’s not as much the expense that is the issue but more the accessibility. In many cases the demand for training by the user, and the training schedule at the local VAR doesn’t match up. Or the class is too far away, or the user simply can’t get away for consecutive days to take a live class. That’s where we can come in and add value by filling the gap. Some of the largest and most respected SolidWorks VARs such as GoEngineer and Computer Aided Technology realize this value and have partnered with us to offer our solution to their customers. They offer a complete package that includes live instruction, SolidProfessor self-paced instruction and live tech support. By adopting this model these VARs help ensure that their customers are getting the best possible training and support resources out there.
Some time ago you mentioned that your customers are using your trainings in ways you didn’t expect. Can you explain this in more details?
Teksoft is using the courses we created to help educate and standardize competency throughout their global channel
In that particular case I was referring to Teksoft. They’re using the courses we created for them to help educate and standardize competency throughout their global channel of sales reps and tech specialists. A critical benefit of our solution is that it’s the same every time. So you can ensure the accuracy of what people are learning and know that everyone is on the same page with how the software works. It’s also a huge cost savings. Sending a few DVDs to the new VAR in Bangalore, India is a lot cheaper than pulling one of your tech experts off his job and flying him out for a week of product training. Looking back it seems like a no brainer, but until I saw what they were doing I never even considered that as a potential benefit of our solution. Maybe there’s a software person or two out there right now reading this and a light bulb is going off.
Can you tell us about the process of creating a training product starting from the topic choice up to the recording?
we want users to understand how SolidWorks thinks about design
You want us to give away our secrets? To be honest we’re refining the process regularly always looking for ways to reduce costs, speed development and scale the process. The same kinds of issues our customers deal with. Generally though, we gather the knowledge required to build a course from published material and actual experts on the software. We then go through the process of synthesizing this information into a format that we’ve developed over time which focuses on fundamental knowledge that one can use regardless of the product they are designing. This is an important distinction from most traditional instruction in that most of what you find will teach you the software by designing something. That’s a great exercise and we teach that way also, but before we get into exercises we focus on the fundamentals. The how and why of the software. We want users to understand how SolidWorks thinks about design so they can reach a comfort level with the software that allows them to really master their craft. Once authored, we bring in all of the other elements to make the product what it is. I think the key step in the process though is about the author. People want to know that when they invest in learning they are getting the best instructors. The ability of our instructors to clearly and concisely transfer knowledge is where we differentiate ourselves in the marketplace. Think about choosing a professor for math back in college. One teaches at 8am Monday, Wednesday and Friday and just writes a bunch of formulas on the board and tells you to go figure it out. The other breaks it all down in a way that makes sense. Who are you going to choose? We model ourselves on the second professor with one added bonus; our professor is instantly at your door to teach you what you want to learn on your schedule when you want to learn it. No more classes at 8am on a Friday!
When would you recommend live training over a training video?
in my mind training is terribly under-rated
I get this or some variation of this question comparing live with classroom training all the time. If you want to skip to the end, the short answer is both. The long answer could become a novel, but I’ll try to sum it up here. Based on the business we are in, I spend a lot of time thinking about and doing research on the pros and cons of both. Looking at the broader market of learning in general I see a clear trend toward the type of instruction that we offer. There are a lot of reasons for that, and we are just at the start of this trend. However, live instruction isn’t going anywhere. Hands on interaction with real people has been the method of choice for thousands of years. Think Socrates. We’re not trying to compete with that. What we offer is a solution that delivers accurate, consistent, professional content in a more accessible manner. The just in time learner needs a just in time solution. In my mind training is terribly under-rated. If one is serious about making products better, faster and cheaper than their competitor, the answer is to invest in a blended training solution that combines live instruction with our just in time solution.
Assuming that you could put a greater amount of resources in creating a training product, which features or aspects would you like to change or improve?
we’ve built our product to run inside the SolidWorks interface
Right now we are spending a lot of time on our SolidWorks integration. We’ve built our product to run inside the SolidWorks interface - in the Task Pane. Through this integration, we make it possible for our customers to have access to view our entire library of content at the click of a mouse. Right now we are partnering with VARs and customizing the Task Pane to offer support services that compliment the video content. We’re just scratching the surface of what we can do with this tool to make it really powerful for designers. It’s going to be really interesting to see where we take this. One example I was discussing with Digital Dimensions one of our VAR partners is to integrate live chat into their Task Pane. As a support solution wouldn’t it be great to have a live person available to help you solve your design problems without ever leaving your design environment?
Over time, do you expect the interactive video format to take over hypertext as a preferred format for the product documentation of CAD/CAM systems?
we’re currently working on a course on Advanced Surfacing with Matt Lombard
You definitely see more and more video tutorials in software. That will continue to grow as companies become more familiar with the process of creating them. However, I think it’s important to note that what we’re doing isn’t putting together a bunch of tutorial lessons on where to find this button or that button and what it does. SolidWorks and other providers already offer a bunch of that. Our instructors are experienced certified professionals that deliver insight and the kind of best practices you won’t find in a tutorial. We have a team of content creators that are leaders in the industry. For example, we’re currently working on a course on Advanced Surfacing with Matt Lombard who is one of the most talented surfacing designers out there. He’s at the forefront of his craft and an expert with SolidWorks. Courses like this are going to lift the talent pool of skilled designers in a way that follow the mouse tutorials simply don’t do. To me that’s pretty exciting stuff!
I would like to thank David Ptak for his time in answering my questions. If you have any questions for David or for Novedge, please leave a comment below and we will be glad to answer.