Dale Lutz: “Imagine there’s no formats. It’s easy if you try.”

Dale Lutz (@daleatsafe) is the Co-CEO and Vice President of Development of Safe Software. Along with co-founder Don Murray, Dale created Safe Software’s core product, FME, a data integration platform which helps 20,000 organizations across the world get their data from where it is to where they need it to be. Don and Dale have driven the company’s success for over 20 years, leading FME development from vision to delivery, and pushing the edge of data technology. Dale is a big fan of hockey, Star Trek (a new series is coming -- yeah!), and geospatial data.

Q: Tell us about yourself, and what led you to found Safe Software

A: I’m a simple country farm boy from Alberta, Canada, who had an interest in computers before, well, you could even buy them. During my last year of comp sci at the University of Alberta, I took two masters level courses in Remote Sensing and Cartography. Got to write FORTRAN code to read LandSAT tapes! So I was always interested in the application of computing to mapping. After graduating, I got a job in Vancouver at MDA, and got to work with weather data and later a variety of custom-built in-house mapping systems. There I met my good friend and co-founder Don Murray, and when he left MDA and had time on his hands, he asked if I’d be game to join him and start a company to work on a data format called SAIF. I said YES! We really thought SAIF (Spatial Archive and Interchange Format) was going to change the world (but somewhat hedged our bets — we went for safe.com and Safe Software, thinking we were being clever). SAIF sputtered out, but the software we wrote that was capable of working with that do-all-things-for-everyone data format ended up being more than flexible enough to take on all comers. Yes, even XML.

Q: You registered safe.com in 1994 — what a catch! Your internet game was strong. What do you think the domain name is worth today?

A: Yes, we could have had anything back then. Cost us $50! Canadian! We get propositioned for it at least once a month. But remember, I’m a farm boy from Alberta. I’ve never forgiven Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington for selling Wayne Gretzky for $18 million back in 1988. Selling safe.com, for any amount of money, would make us no different than him. And that’s something I’m not willing to wear. So it doesn’t matter what it’s worth. It’s not for sale 🙂

Q: Safe Software is best known for data conversions, but FME does more than just convert data from one format to another. Tell us what else it does.

A: Yes, FME is so much more than a simple conversion tool. Called the ‘Swiss army knife’ of data, FME is a data integration platform that helps users move data exactly where, when, and how it’s needed. FME delivers all of the tools for seamless system integration in one package: data extraction, transformation, loading, validation, and automation. And its interface allows users to build graphical data workflows without coding. Over 350 different applications and data formats are supported in FME, including our spatial favourites like the almighty @Shapefile, MapInfo TAB, Esri Geodatabase, PostGIS, Oracle Spatial, GeoJSON, KML, and GML. And hey, we do BIM, raster, and point clouds for good measure too.

Q: To paraphrase Safe Software’s mission from your website, you are out to free the data. Where do you stand on open vs proprietary formats? Aren’t proprietary formats good for business?

A: We like open data formats, ideally ones where we can help fund an open source development by the OGR/GDAL folks so all can get at it (and help us support it) equally. The biggest seller formats for us include the host of XML variants (all of those are open) and the ever popular and even award winning Shapefile (also open). Proprietary formats can be good for business, provided we can broker an arrangement to get some API to read and write them (the days of reverse engineering binary are long over for us). But even with an API, proprietary formats end up being much more effort for us. Our differentiator is not so much the next format we can do, but what we can do with the data, how easily, and how fast, as it moves from source to destination. Therefore, we’d actually be happy if the world stopped making new formats of any kind. As the poet wrote: “Imagine there’s no formats. It’s easy if you try. Imagine all the people. Sharing all the data. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

Q: Are simple data formats too simplistic? Are complex formats too complex? Is there a happy medium?

A: Yes and yes and yes.  Next question.

Seriously, there really is a happy medium. ArcInfo Generate — way too simple. Can’t do attributes. Can’t tell the difference between a line and a polygon. GML — very powerful and as a result can be made to be very difficult for software builders to cope with. But something like Geopackage aims to hit a sweet spot. Built on the easily-understood SQLite framework, but extends it with a powerful geometry model and even high performance raster support. As a result, it can both be used as an operational format (i.e. software can work on it directly) as well as an exchange format (the specifications and underlying technology are well documented and ubiquitous enough to remove hurdles for use). Our friend the Shapefile threads this needle surprisingly well too, for an old timer, and that is a key part of its success. I mean, when you look at it, it was built on the dBase framework!

Q: My first GIS experience was with PC ARC/INFO coverages in 1991. I see the format listed on your website as one of the 350+ FME supports. Do you still convert data out of PC ARC/INFO coverages in 2017?

A: I hadn’t tried out PC ARC/INFO reading on my mac EVER, so I just found an old (old) input file and give it a spin:

Works like it was 1991!

Doing a bit more digging, the team finds this trend underway for the PC ARC/INFO usage in FME:

In 2017, fewer than 1 in 50000 of the tracked translations involved PC ARC/INFO. So it’s still in use out there, but just barely. I suspect it is a bit jealous of @Shapefile’s trendline…

Q: It is cool to bash the shapefile, but it’s not going away, is it? Or is it?

A: Honestly, I really thought that with all the choices out there, the Shapefile’s share of the popular vote would be decreasing. Imagine my surprise when I saw the graph of the Shapefile’s share of writer usage in FME over the past 10 years:

If only my investment portfolio looked like that! Even in the face of stiff headwinds (i.e. more choice offered by new formats being continually invented), more Shapefile writers are being used in FME today than ever before. And our usage stats also show that the most popular FME translation goes from Shapefile to Shapefile.  

So how could this be, when there are so many more sophisticated and modern choices to be had? The number of consumers of spatial data has grown substantially over the years, and their ranks have swelled by the inclusion of large numbers of business and other non-GIS professionals, who are more than happy enough to get their maps in a simple format that is supported everywhere. I’d look for Shapefile’s popularity to tank around the same time as Americans start getting their weather forecasts in degrees Celsius instead of Fahrenheit.

Q: What is the tech scene in Vancouver like? How about the hipster scene?

A: Metro Vancouver has a very vibrant tech scene. Being a short flight from and in the same timezone as Seattle and San Francisco makes our city an attractive place for American satellite offices, which in turn fuel a burgeoning startup culture. We’re located in Surrey (just outside of the City of Vancouver), which is one of the fastest growing cities in Canada. Next summer we’ll be moving to ‘Innovation Boulevard,’ Surrey’s new tech hub. Our brand new building is under construction as we speak, and we’ll be taking over the top four floors (and rooftop terrace!). We’re very excited.

As for the hipster scene, Vancouver is pretty well-known for its craft breweries, vintage clothing shops, and farmers markets. Every 3 months our teams at Safe get to pick a team-building exercise, and a recent fan favourite has been local foodie tours. So yes, it’s pretty hipster-y here.

Q: Tell us about your personal hipstery traits

A: I’m a big believer of eating healthy and supporting local whenever I can. I like to start each day with a customized smoothie, using Canadian-grown hemp protein, cashew milk, and acai berries, topped off with some organic fruit I planted, watered, picked, and froze on my own.

I developed web pages before it was cool. Check out www.dalelutz.com for the retro proof. Last updated August 1996.

I’ve also been to Portland twice in the past year to line up for hours to get Voodoo donuts.

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?

A: If being a geohipster means being as comfortable with an E00 as with a Geopackage, stopping to take a picture when you cross the equator on a trip, wondering how you could get your latest spatial tech innovation out there faster than those cool Mapbox cats, and having tcsh-command-line scripts running in an amber-on-black terminal on a Mac named after an obscure HBO sci-fi series company at the ready to bulk rename Shapefiles, then yes, guilty as charged.

Q: I think the FME socks are the best marketing idea to come out of a geo company in a long time — awesome idea! Whose is it? Are there more FME-branded garments in the works?

A: We are very proud of our Safe Sockwear. I still remember the meeting long ago where Employee #3 of Safe (a developer) came up with the concept. We’ve had sports socks for years and years, but only this May did we introduce the new Argyle look as swag for our FME International User conference. And has it ever been popular. #FMESockFriday is now a thing.

There is talk of branded slippers, but we will always prefer to be remembered as the company that encouraged its customers to have Safe Socks.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Keep your fieldnames less than 10 characters long, keep your data formats open, keep your input going to your output, and most importantly, keep your stick on the ice — always be ready to take advantage of whatever opportunity gets thrown your way.

6 thoughts on “Dale Lutz: “Imagine there’s no formats. It’s easy if you try.”

      1. I would not have been able to do my current GIS job if I did not have Alteryx. I is 10-20 times faster than FME at similar tasks. Or does jobs which simply cause FME to crash. And I like its GUI more too. That’s true 21st century stuff.

  1. Thanks Nik for chiming in. We have respect at Safe for Alteryx (and lots of other software packages). Competition is good, and it keeps us hungry and always improving. (However, I do think you are being a bit hard on us.)

    But returning to an analogy burned deeply into my psyche, I’m reminded that in 1983, the Oilers found out that they had some improving to do. They worked hard, and in 1984 (and 85, and 87, and 88, and 90), that improvement paid off.

    We’re on the job, and (returning to another 80s analogy) when I look at those Safers, I see the Eye of the Tiger man, the Eye of the Tiger…

    1. Ok, have been blowing the whistle for long enough. It is mentioned quite often in FME-related publications that Shape file is the most popular format. So if those shape file users get a fast – digestable, similar to YXDB format, they may be quite happy to convert their data to it. I am just puzzled with how ungrateful I am after 10 years of being a daily FME user and informal FME tutor for the team. Any data crunching stuff within my current scope of work causes my hand to click Alteryx icon on the desktop. Not FME. And that is somewhat sad. Good luck and looking forward to FME becoming my first preference again.

  2. Hi Nik,

    We’ll keep working to get your trust back. You’re certainly motivating us!

    BTW you do know that FFS files in FME behave like the YXDB? Our goal actually is to not require you to make those first but if that is fair game then that opens up some possibilities as well…


    (PS: I’m going to organize a special viewing of Rocky III now for the team…)

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