COFES, the Congress on the Future of Engineering Software, takes place in the Arizona desert each April. Usually, the sun is glorious, the birds sing, the rabbits hop and the 300 or so attendees scurry between sessions and meetings, with the occasional pause by a pool or fountain. It’s not a bad way to spend a long weekend. This year, the weather turned unseasonably cold and there were even a few spits of rain, but we soldiered on, huddling in meeting suites with fireplaces. Still not a bad way to spend the weekend, though someone pointed out that the presence of bunnies, birds et al. probably means there are snakes on the property, too. Yikes. Note to self: no sandals next year.

The 2012 conference theme was the intersection of design and risk — how to measure and adjust for both known and unknown obstacles in bringing a product to market. Richard Riff, recently retired after an illustrious career with the Ford Motor Company, spoke about how to use analytical methods to assess risk, determine what can be lived with and what needs to be addressed. Mr. Riff stressed that we do this to some extent in engineering, with simulation, but that we have no process to address these questions when it comes to what should be simulated, for example. Mr. Riff’s point was that failure, if you know about it in advance and it is not catastrophic (not related to safety, for example) is an acceptable alternative. It was an interesting perspective, as was his comment that all actions involve cost. What are we willing to spend to avoid risk? Where should we invest first to mitigate it? The reality is that we can’t do everything, can’t know everything and can control even less. Where should we put our precious resources?

The other big topic at this year’s COFES was the cloud. What the cloud is, how it will affect us as users of software and hardware, the implications for business models … Absolutely no consensus. On anything. On the one hand, it’s not safe enough — but, on the other, people with thumb drives likely pose a greater risk. It’s not alway available (such as when WiFi goes down) — but the Internet has never been rebooted, points out Alan Kay. It’s a completely new way of interacting with the software we rely on, but it’s a platform just like Win32 and will have a similar affect on us. The closest the room could come to agreement was that we don’t really know what the cloud will turn out to be, but that the software providers who cannot adapt to its usage are likely to be sidelined as more agile, possibly newer, vendors rise to prominence.

I hosted my nearly annual session on the VAR economy, with a focus on what the cloud implies for the reseller community. I’ll write that up separately, but the most important thing to know is that forward-thinking VARs are looking for ways to expand their businesses beyond reliance on their ISV’s (Independent Software Vendor) margins. They’re branching into new areas of consulting (such as PLM implementation or CAE services), customized training and, in a few cases, business process consulting around product design. Most see the cloud as a threat that will change the relationship dynamic between ISV, VAR and customer — but, like the COFES crowd, aren’t sure what or when that will happen.

COFES is a truly unique event. Most of the good stuff happens between scheduled sessions, but the exposure to new vendors (or to established ones in a more informal setting) is also very valuable. It’s a very welcoming club of industry insiders, people who are all more than willing to share their views and opinions on just about anything. The best part of COFES: it can be what you want. One-on-one meeting with someone you’ve always wanted to meet? You can do that. Sit in on a stream of 5-minute presentations on new, often cool, ideas? you can do that, too. All in all, a great weekend in the desert.

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