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Communications of the ACM


An Interview with Ping Fu

Geomagic Chairman, President and CEO Ping Fu

Courtesy of Geomagic

Ping Fu, Chairman and CEO of Geomagic, envisions a future populated by small-and medium-sized companies empowered by digital design and distribution—where even a two-person company or an individual in a remote location can share their innovations with the rest of the world.

Geomagic (see is a leading company in the industry category called digital shape sampling and processing (DSSP). DSSP describes technologies that close the loop between physical products and their digital representations. It is fundamentally changing the way products are made, driving a shift from mass manufacturing to mass customization.

In selecting her as Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005, Inc. magazine praised Fu as a "visionary" and said "she's leading a modern industrial revolution that will make customization cheap and outsourcing obsolete, and forever change the way things get made—from turbines to artificial hearts."

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Vision by Necessity

Growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, vision for Fu was not merely an asset, but a tool for survival. She was born in Nanjing, but raised by an aunt and uncle in a suburb of Shanghai. Her life changed dramatically at age seven, when she was taken away from her home and family by Red Guards. She spent more than a decade in captivity with her sister, who was three years old at the time of the abduction. It was a life of pain and torture, sustained only by a strong will and an imagination that could conjure up beauty in the darkest of circumstances.

After Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Fu began her first formal education at age 18. She earned a literature degree and pursued further studies in journalism. Unfortunately, her inquisitive mind was not welcomed in her native country: Her reporting about the killing of baby girls in China was published in a leading Shanghai newspaper, leading to international outrage, imprisonment, and deportation.

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Dream Becomes Reality

Fu came to the U.S. in 1981, enrolling at the University of New Mexico to study comparative literature. A year later, her life took a turn when she decided to pursue a computer science degree at the University of California-San Diego. After graduation, she worked in a series of jobs with increasing responsibilities. Although shy in demeanor, a restless intellect kept her thinking of new ways to apply technology.

While at Bell Labs, she led the development of data mining and ISDN digital switch software, the technology components that make digital telephony possible. As Director of Visualization at the National Center for Super-computing Applications, she initiated and managed the development of the NCSA Mosaic software project, which subsequently led to Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer browsers.

At Geomagic, she leads a 110-person company that is applying computer geometry algorithms to a wide range of applications. Geomagic software is being used to enable mass customization, speed time to market for consumer and industrial products, make it possible for NASA to conduct in-flight inspections on the outside of the space shuttle, and optimize design for everything from racing cars to blimps.

In the following interview, journalist Bob Cramblitt talks to Fu about her challenges as a woman, an immigrant, and CEO of a company at an awkward stage of growth.

What made you decide to study computer science after coming to the U.S.?

I decided to study computer science a year after I arrived in the U.S. I was 25 at the time. I had studied comparative literature and realized I couldn't make a living with that major. I looked for a field where my literature skills could be put to good use. Computer science involves language and seemed like a lesser evil than other sciences.

I didn't have the normal background to study math or science, since I had no grade school or high school education. Fortunately in the early 1980s computer science wasn't a field taught in high school. It wasn't like today when everybody knows how to use a computer. Then, everyone in college had to start from scratch, so I wasn't at much of a disadvantage. I was naive and it was definitely a nontraditional way of picking a major. But it turned out to be a good choice.

What obstacles did you face as a Chinese immigrant pursuing computer science first academically, then in business?

The biggest obstacle in my case was the language barrier. When I came to the U.S., I only knew a few words of English. Business is more challenging for a Chinese immigrant because if you don't grow up in the U.S. you don't know American culture.

I don't believe in life/work balance, because I never think of home and work as separate things.

What did you do to acclimate?

The first thing was to try to understand the differences between Chinese and American culture. Business views are remarkably similar: They are both large countries, and people from larger countries tend to think bigger rather than provincially. Both countries also value individualism.

The huge difference is in communication. The Chinese language is symbolic and imprecise. I needed to learn how to communicate in a way people in the U.S. could understand. I took classes immigrants don't normally take in university—American history, culture, sociology. I wanted to understand the society in which I'd live and do business. Lots of immigrants don't do that when living in foreign country; they tend to hold on strongly to their native culture.

What obstacles did you face as a woman in computer science?

I was lucky to grow up in China during a time when men and women were considered equal. I didn't grow up with a view that a woman is inferior to a man. I also learned later through my Myers-Briggs profile that my thinking pattern and personal preferences are more typical of a man than a woman. I'm more rational and less emotional. I realize that women going into a male-dominated field will always have fewer colleagues, and you have to work harder to be viewed as capable, but I've never been too sensitive to those things.

What attributes from your background in China do you think helped you succeed in technology and business?

I grew up in a large country with a long history, so I had a wired-in ability to think big and long term. Being able to live in two different societies for a significant amount of time has also been an asset. I lived in China for 24 years. I had the benefit of a cultural background where I learned more people skills than I probably would have learned if I'd grown up in the U.S.

I was exposed to a lot of atrocities growing up in China that I had to overcome. It gave me more tenacity and the ability to deal with pressure. I developed confidence from bad experiences that everything will work out—you can make it work out. That helps a lot in the business world.

What attributes as a woman have helped you in your career?

In general, women think broader and are more capable of multitasking. Even with a [Myers-Briggs] profile similar to a male, I was still brought up as a woman with different expectations of how to behave. You can't escape that.

Being a woman, I think I had more choices. Women are generally less success-driven and more opportunity-driven than men, who are raised to be successful in their careers, build a family, and be the breadwinners. Many women work because they like to, not because they have to. Being raised as a woman gave me more opportunity to explore cutting-edge technology without worrying whether I would be successful. I just followed what interested me.

In business I think my mothering instinct has been valuable. The mother is always the fallback; no job is too small and whatever someone else doesn't do is her responsibility. Mothers have a stronger sense of duty—they won't allow anything to fall apart. In general, the mother not only takes care of and loves her children, but disciplines them as well. A lot of principles I follow to raise my child I use in business.

You're the mother of a teenage daughter with a lot of interests outside of work. What do you think about the philosophy of balancing life and work?

I don't believe in life/work balance, because I never think of home and work as separate things. I've always believed in weaving life and work together. Work is a component of your life. I see it like the ying-yang concept, where work and home fit together for a complete whole.

I've never understood the practice of coming home from work and shutting down. Work is not the enemy of your life. If you're at work and something happens at home you've got to take care of it, and vice versa.

Geomagic software is based on patented computational geometry technologies. What is it about computational geometry that appeals to you?

I was raised in China working with my hands in factories and in the countryside. I didn't sit behind computers or books when growing up. I always liked to create tangible things.

I think of computer geometry as a digital version of real-world objects. Mathematically, that appeals to me. It's a technology you can use to make all kinds of things. I realized from the beginning that this technology can revolutionize how we make products, especially personalized products, and that really excites me.

You have a rare skill: The ability to understand technology at the programming level, while seeing the bigger picture of its potential in the business world. How did that come about?

It probably comes from my childhood and not being able to go to school. The ability to imagine things—pretty things, beautiful things, useful things—became overly developed.

Your mind develops rapidly from eight to 18, but if you're not able to go to school what do you do? You imagine things. At the same time, my daily life was practical. I made things. I was living in both imaginary and practical worlds. Almost anytime I could imagine something nice, I could make it happen. I'm not happy thinking just about a concept. I'm constantly asking: Where will this lead? How can I make this useful? Why would people want this? How could it improve people's lives?

I realized from the beginning that this technology can revolutionize how we make products, especially personalized products.

I have a long attention span, and can visualize things from start to end. It could be my literary background. If you're trained in literature, you think about designing a complete piece—you think about the reader, the components to put in place, the point you want to make, and the flow you want to achieve. It's not discrete, single-problem solving. I had the ability to combine conceptual with practical problem-solving from early on, and was able to put it to good use in computer science.

At the end of 2000, four years after you founded Geomagic, you faced a financial crisis that you overcame within a year. What challenges do you now face as a growing company with more than 100 employees worldwide?

The challenges are quite different now. In 2000, the challenge was to survive and build a viable company. We survived and have thrived. Now the challenge is to build a company that will not run out of momentum. It seems simple, but the things you think about when your goal is not to run out of money are very different than when your goal is not to run out of momentum.

This stage is much harder. Despite recent events, the concept of not spending more money than you make is not difficult to understand. But to not run out of momentum you have to continue growing at a rapid pace when the risk is higher. That's a daunting job. Each stage of growth for a company is like climbing a mountain that is 10 times higher than the one you've scaled. And, you have to go down before you go up. When you go down, you're not sure if you're going to go up again.

Then, there's the people aspect. How can you educate people in good times to change? It's easier to motivate people in bad times. Nothing I've done in the past 10 years is useful for the next 10. I need to continue to learn new things and face the unknown again and again. I also need to bring the whole team along. It is a difficult task to be a leader in unknown territories and to provide clear directions for others to follow.

I believe the 21st century is the century for customization, where we'll see the end of mass manufacturing.

Many entrepreneurs sell their companies at this stage, typically too early. When you reach this point, the easiest thing to do is to sell and go back to a situation where you know what to do. That's why there are so many serial entrepreneurs. If you start another company, you know how to do it better than before; you have experience and more money. It's a lot harder to take a company to the next level: one bad thing happens and you can fail because the monthly burn rate is so high. You can't put a second mortgage on your house or use your own savings to save the company anymore. It's a different game. The challenge for Geomagic is to constantly transform itself for sustainable growth.

How do you do that? Is there some kind of blueprint out there?

No, there's no blueprint. You can't apply the principles that you have learned and your friends know. You're going through a no-man's land, where the company is too large to be small and too small to be large. This is the stage where more companies die than survive, and they die for different reasons. It's not like start-ups, which typically die because they don't have a good concept or enough money. This is the stage where you already have a proven concept and are making money. If you continue to thrive, you'll go on to have a very good company. But, no one knows why one company dies and one survives.

The technologies Geomagic is developing are having a profound effect on the way goods are designed, engineered, and made. How do you see design and manufacturing evolving over the next five to 10 years?

I believe the 21st century is the century for customization, where we'll see the end of mass manufacturing. We have the technology to do that today. The bigger changes are behavior and process changes, not technology. It will be the ecosystem enabled by technology that will drive change. Technology by itself is overrated. It enables less than 1% of what needs to happen before your vision becomes realized.

Customization in the 21st century will be less about hits and more about fit. In the last century, you could have a massive hit product with little or no customization. Now it's becoming harder to simply throw things on the wall and see what sticks. We'll be seeing more variety of customized products, and organizations becoming more decentralized. Conglomerates will downsize, and there will be more small-to medium-sized companies.

It sounds a bit like pre-Industrial Revolution

The difference is that we will have boutique-sized companies with global distribution channels enabled by digital technologies. Before the 20th century, there were a lot of handmade, boutique products but no way to disseminate them widely. If you have a boutique business in today's world you can support it within a huge, worldwide ecosystem. I call it "digitally enabled cottage industry."

What effect will this have on outsourcing?

It will completely change the concept of outsourcing. We now outsource for cheap labor. In the future, outsourcing will be a way to infuse products with local culture; to get authentically made products. We'll not outsource for cost, but for variety, sharing of knowledge, and authenticity.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2009 ACM, Inc.


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