For better or worse, my old office was a tourist attraction.
Massachusetts Hall was one of the first buildings in Harvard Yard, built in 1718. General George Washington quartered troops there during the Revolutionary War. It later became Harvard University’s administration building, with every office having a fireplace and hardwood floors. My address, if you wanted to mail me something, was “Dan Shore, Mass Hall, Cambridge, Massachusetts.” Everyone at the Post Office knows where that is.
My new “office” at Onshape is considerably less glamorous: a seven-foot open-space workstation indistinguishable from my co-workers’ desks, located in a functional but generic office park. We get no tourists. And needless to say, no one here has their own fireplace.
When I decided to step down as CFO of Harvard University to become the CFO of Onshape, many of my friends and colleagues had one simple question: “Why?”
Why would I ever want to leave one of the most prestigious and famous institutions in the world to work for a brand new and by definition, unproven, startup? Even more stark, I was leaving a place with $4.4 billion in annual revenue to a company that, when I joined, had zero revenue.
The truth is, I wasn’t actively looking to leave Massachusetts Hall at all – and Onshape and Harvard have a lot more in common than you might imagine.
ONSHAPE'S INTRIGUING BACKSTORY
Life is filled with coincidences. One of Onshape’s board members is a college friend of mine who introduced me back in 2013 to founder Jon Hirschtick and CEO John McEleney. I walked over to their office near the Alewife T station – only a couple of miles away from Harvard Yard – and we spent a couple of hours swapping war stories. From this first conversation, I was intrigued. They had built an iconic and transformative business, SolidWorks, which became the industry leader in the CAD world. And now they were trying to transform the very same industry – again – as outsiders.
This story had a special attraction to me. It would be like the founders of Harvard realizing that they had missed something important along the way, and deciding to start a new educational provider trying to be the next Harvard! This would have been plenty complicated in the 1600s, let alone in 2015.
I liked the idea of seeing life from the other side of the looking glass. And trying to learn about business dynamics, strategy and execution from that upstart position rather than as the entrenched industry leader. This would be another set of experiences to learn and grow from. Equally important, Jon and John already had proven their ability to build a successful team and business the right way and with the right values – and that’s where the harmony started to come together.
I’m a huge believer that everyone’s career has chapters. During my 12 years at Harvard, I had two very distinct chapters. I had the time before becoming CFO when I helped professionalize the capabilities and talent within Harvard’s financial management community. And then as CFO, I had the opportunity to activate that community to help Harvard get through the global financial crisis and establish a strong foundation for the future. As that second chapter began to close, I began to think about what the next set of rewarding experiences might look like.
WHERE EVERYBODY BRINGS THEIR A-GAME
Like most of us, I like being surrounded by smart, motivated people. At Harvard, I had access to people who achieved such incredible heights in their areas of discipline – not just among the faculty but among the alumni as well. One of the ways I was able to boost my own learning was to sit down with top finance professors, other faculty, and business leaders and be their “student” whenever I needed advice or expertise.
Being able to enlist a community of really thoughtful people around a problem is much more powerful than trying to solve it in isolation. Amazingly, Onshape has already assembled a similar level of elite talent spanning multiple disciplines and the company’s culture embodies the same collaborative philosophy. I am so impressed by the way they leverage customer knowledge, and tap so deeply into customer experiences to help build a better CAD system. After all, the customers are the ultimate experts.
It is a very cool thing to be around people who are always bringing their “A-Game” to the office. You can definitely tell when people are leading thinkers in their areas of expertise. You just feel a sense of energy and confidence around them – in the way that they carry themselves, the way they generate ideas, and the passion with which they engage. Onshape feels every bit like Harvard on that dimension.
Someone from the outside looking in might think that going from Harvard to Onshape would constitute a quantum leap into a completely different world. And yet, when I’ve come into work everyday for the last six months, it hasn’t felt all that different.
ONSHAPE'S LEARNING CULTURE
NEW DIGS: Onshape CFO Dan Shore’s new “office” doesn’t have its own fireplace.
My title here may be CFO, but there are plenty of moments when I feel like I’m a student again.
One of the fascinating things about Onshape is the maturity of the company. It hasn’t been around all that long, but there’s an instinctive sense that it’s important for every employee to appreciate the context in which we are building this business; and to appreciate the small victories we are achieving along the way.
Every Friday, the entire company gathers in the cafeteria for Demo Day to watch our engineers demonstrate the latest product feature or how they solved a critical problem. It doesn’t matter whether you are the office manager, a marketing person, an intern, or the VP of R&D, we’re all learning about – and celebrating – the development of Onshape as it happens.
While we’re all enjoying blueberry pie (or while we are in the midst of our own “Biggest Loser” competition, healthier vegetable platters), Onshapers are becoming aware of the bigger picture as it comes together. We can all see how we’re building a full-cloud CAD system from the ground up – and the leadership team helps everyone understand the overarching industry problems that the system is trying to solve. We all have a strong and shared sense of what we’re trying to accomplish, which is invaluable in enabling all of us to make the day-to-day judgments that will get us there.
I’m so excited about the future. Onshape is improving the way products are designed and manufactured – and making professional 3D CAD accessible to more people in the world than ever before. We’re leveling the playing field for many engineers and entrepreneurs who would otherwise be much more challenged in turning their dreams into reality. And we are building and cultivating a team that is as talented, focused and passionate as any in our industry, or any industry.
I left Harvard on great terms and with wonderful memories – I’ll always look back very fondly at my time there, and what we were able to accomplish. But now I have the best of both worlds, which is having that continued connection to the Harvard community, as well as planting both feet squarely into something new, different, important and ambitious. As a bonus, I never even had to leave the neighborhood!