Bill O'Connor is one of our Corporate Strategists. I recently blogged about Bill's interview of our CEO Carl Bass. As part of his work on the Corporate Strategy and Engagement team, of which Shaan Hurley and I are also members, Bill publishes an internal newsletter called POV Dispatch. The Point of View newsletter is actually where the interview with Carl first surfaced. It's now time for round two. Jeff Kowalski is our reigning CTO who was promoted to this role when Scott Borduin left Autodesk. Now that Scott is back at Autodesk, Bill recently interviewed him about Autodesk today and Autodesk back then. Scott is now our Senior Director of Engineering in the Design, Lifecycle, and Simulation Division. Bill graciously granted me permission to share this POV interview with It's Alive in the Lab readers as well. I hope to feature selected POV Dispatch items regularly. Enjoy.
POV - Bill O'Connor
POV: Hi, Scott, and welcome back to Autodesk!
Scott: Thanks, glad to be back.
POV: Today we're going to be talking about your perspectives on how Autodesk has changed, or stayed the same, since you left the company in 2005. To get us started, why don't you give us a bit of background on your role at Autodesk, what you did when you left, and why you decided to come back.
Scott: Sure. I worked at Autodesk 1993 until 2005, and was CTO under Carol Bartz for the last 6 years of that span. I left to go do something completely different, working in the non-profit sector on government reform initiatives. But you know, government doesn't like being reformed (laughs). So it was time for me to do something more satisfying and intellectually stimulating again, and with what's happening with Autodesk and technology in general right now, it's a very exciting time to be back.
POV: So let's get to the intriguing question of how Autodesk is different, or the same, since you left. What's the first thing that comes to mind in terms of what's different?
Scott: I'd say we're a lot more product-focused today than we were back when I was last here.
POV: How so?
Scott: Back then, in the Carol Bartz days, we were a lot more focused on developing new ways to deliver products, and value to customers, than on products, per se We felt like we had a very robust portfolio - certainly the deepest and widest in the industry, just as we still have today - and that the critical thing to figure out was not necessarily what we would sell (products) but how we would sell them. There was a lot of opportunity to add value just by how we packaged and delivered our products.
POV: Like subscription?
Scott: Yes, subscription is a great example of this. Moving people from buying single products to subscribing to a product, and all its upgrades, was a big deal, and I think we made that transition very well.
POV: So would you say that today, by contrast, we're more focused on creating new products? And if so, why do you think that is?
Scott: I think part of it is the difference in focus between Carol and Carl as CEOs. Carol came from a technology background, but her own career was more focused on sales and business.
POV: Whereas Carl's background is more focused on technology and software development.
Scott: Right; Carl's background is different, not just because of the technology focus, but also because he's a "maker" who knows a lot about the process of designing and building things. The first time I met Carl, back in 1993, he must have spent an hour regaling me with stories about trying to make NC tool paths with our products at the time, and how hard it was. He's still very focused on product, kind of like Steve Jobs but without the misanthropy (laughs). And I think that shifting the company towards a greater focus on the creation of new products is very appropriate for this time in history, because of the game-changing shifts happening in platform technology.
POV: And these days, when we talk about "products," what we really mean, increasingly, is "services in the cloud." That's a whole new ballgame vs. delivering boxed software.
Scott: Right, and the potential of mobile, social, and the cloud is huge, for our customers and for Autodesk. It's a change every bit as important as the PC was in the 1980s, and it's turned computing into an extension of our lifestyle; it's become much more personal than it was even 5-7 years ago.
POV: What do you mean by more "personal?"
Scott: Today our relationship with technology and computers - specifically due to that combination of mobile, social, and cloud - is not only transactional, but also emotional, and it has an aesthetic aspect that it didn't have in the past. Technology has also become a major facilitator of social relationships - for many people, it's their primary vehicle for social interaction. All of that has profound effects on how we think about building software. The focus on User Experience is also a major part of this. I like to tell our team that we're no longer just "solving customer problems," but rather "creating or enhancing customer experiences," which means engaging them more deeply in the creative work that made them choose their profession to begin with. And in the professional context, the migration of our work, our files, our data, and our tools to the cloud is having a profound effect on how our customers work, and on the value we provide to them.
POV: It's funny that we're talking about the cloud as a kind of new thing, when even back in the dotcom era there was a lot of excited talk about "putting everything on the web."
Scott: Yes, only the difference now is that we can finally deliver on those promises, because now we have a more robust web. We've moved past the "Web 2.0" phase and now we're getting deep into the cloud era, which is letting us fulfill a lot of the promise of the first dotcom revolution. I stayed closely in touch with Web technology while I was gone, building several websites and Web Apps, and it's really remarkable how sophistication Web Apps are now compared even to just a couple of years ago. We're finally at the point of realizing much of that vision I was touting ten years ago.
POV: These days it's getting much easier for customers to run their entire companies in the cloud.
Scott: And that's why we're becoming more of a back office/process/workflow online player, doing for design software what Salesforce did for CRM.
POV: And of course, these process and workflow changes are reshaping the way people work.
Scott: Yes, it's offering us a whole new way of working, especially when you add open innovation and crowdsourcing to the mix. For example, even a few years ago, the idea that you could look for project team members via a social network site would have been considered crazy.
POV: But today you can do it.
Scott: With all of the hyperconnectivity we have, today you can do it that way: you can follow people, and see their credentials and contributions to forums and blogs. The cloud and the crowd gives you various opinions on them, shows you questions they've answered, problems they've solved, and you think, I'd like to work with that person.
POV: And chances are they can offer more to your current project than the guy sitting next to you.
Scott: It's like that old Internet idea, "No one is as smart as everyone." I think going forward we're going to see more virtual teams, assembled quickly, doing projects that were once done by people with years of history together. And of course this change is having an impact on our customers, and in turn on us.
POV: I think another big change for you must be all of the new consumer products we're been releasing.
Scott: Absolutely. We've started addressing this new market, the consumer market, and of course that means we're going to be developing new products for that market, like SketchBook Mobile and 123D Catch.
POV: Even someone who hasn't left the company and come back can see how our consumer business is changing the company; and it's expanding the Autodesk brand, as well
Scott: It's definitely helped us kill that "Autodesk is only AutoCAD" reputation we used to fight against.
POV: Right, because it's changing what we mean when we talk about "an Autodesk customer." Today that can mean an eight-year-old using SketchBook Mobile for a school project, or some septuagenarian uploading an instructable.
Scott: It's the same thing about democratizing design that we've always done at Autodesk. I also think all this consumer work is leading us to set a higher quality bar in terms of products.
POV: How so?
Scott: We used to talk about "product parity," which meant just keeping up with our competitors, or staying a little bit ahead of them. But now from what I've seen we're often explicitly trying for "best in the world" technology, which is exciting, and a big change. With some of the technology now in our simulation products, our visualization products, our BIM products, our consumer products - we're the company pushing the technology boundaries in quite a number of areas.
POV: It's less reactive than just tracking competitors.
Scott: Yes, but that's critical in a world where things are changing so quickly. In the old days it often seemed that our competitors were trying to disrupt us, but these days, I think we're trying to be the disruptor. I know that Carl thinks that's important, Autodesk as disruptor, and I can see that throughout the company, as well.
POV: And that kind of disruption requires innovation...
Scott: Yes, and I definitely see a lot of innovation with our consumer products today.
POV: Suites would be another example of a different approach to products. What's your take on how suites have changed Autodesk?
Scott: Suites are great because they reflect the way our customers want to use Autodesk tools. They want them to work well together, and they want greater flexibility in the way they use them.
POV: So we've talked about a lot of ways Autodesk has changed since you left. Now let's talk about some of the ways Autodesk hasn't changed. What things are the same since you've returned?
Scott: Well, we're still all about democratizing design -- expanding the number and types of people who can do design and experience its benefits. And we're still thought of as a great place to work, and a good corporate citizen.
POV: What about any downsides to Autodesk that have stayed the same?
Scott: It's funny, because I still see some of that libertarian ethos here, where people are sometimes focused on doing their own thing, even if someone else is doing a pretty similar "thing" right down the hall, or somewhere else in the world.
POV: So reinventing the wheel hasn't disappeared from our culture.
Scott: No, it's still here. I still see a tendency for people to think that their problems are the hardest in the company, but teams are starting to recognize that others outside their group could understand/help/solve those tough problems. So collaboration is replacing reinvention.
POV: That's interesting because it's at odds with the growing "open" approach to creativity, innovation, design, business, etc. that we see in the outside world.
Scott: And that's why I think even this aspect of Autodesk will change over time, because as more tools and concepts about sharing and collaboration spring up in the outside world, I think we'll naturally start doing things more openly inside the company. If we're going to be a company that delivers industry-leading cloud technologies, we have to build software like a cloud company, with more transparency, communication, and collaboration across our development organizations.
POV: Final question: What are you most excited about, now that you're back at Autodesk?
Scott: As we discussed, I'd say the potential of the cloud to change the way our customers work, and to change Autodesk, would have to be near the top of the list. I'm also excited about all of that social/mobile stuff, like mashups, open innovation, and social coding. And I find the Maker movement and 3D printing really interesting; I think that's going to be a big part of Autodesk moving forward.
POV: Thanks, Scott, and again, welcome back.
Scott: Thanks, Bill.
Thanks Scott. Thanks Bill.
Recognizing that "we've come a long way baby" is alive in the lab.