The POV Dispatch is our Autodesk internal newsletter, published monthly, where we discuss the big ideas that are important to us and our customers. It is published by our Corporate Strategy & Engagement team of which Autodesk Labs is a part. Bill O'Connor is a Corporate Strategist. I first met Yuan-Yu Kristy Liao when she was an intern. Now she is a full-time Visual Experience Designer. Bill recently interviewed Kristy for the POV Dispatch, and with their permission, I thought I would share it with you.
Hello From Out of the Box: A Look at Autodesk's Culture
an interview with Visual Experience Designer, Yuan-Yu Kristy Liao by Bill O'Connor, Corporate Strategist
Bill: Hi, Kristy, thanks for agreeing to talk with us today.
Kristy: You're welcome.
Bill: You know, in POV we've written a lot about Autodesk's culture — what it is, how it's strong, and how it needs to improve. And in thinking about other ways to look at this culture, we thought it would be good to talk with you because of your unique perspective as a young Asian woman — which we thought would give you three interesting lenses through which to view Autodesk's culture.
Kristy: I think it's a good topic, because there have been a lot of things that have come as a surprise to me working for Autodesk!
Bill: Okay, but before we start on that interesting subject, let's give our readers a little background about you, how you came to work at Autodesk, what you're doing now, and what your experience has been like.
Kristy: I come from Taiwan originally, and as an undergrad I studied architecture. I was also a lifelong Autodesk customer, using AutoCAD, 3dx Max, and Maya, so I knew about the company's products, but not much about the company itself. I came to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in architecture at UC Berkeley. During that time I joined the IDEAS studio, and worked with a team on a project building a virtual hospital, which eventually resulted in a paper being written. Then I left the Ph.D. program to focus more on design, did a project with Autodesk as a consultant, and then became an intern here, and eventually a full-time employee.
Bill: Okay, so here is where I think we can start talking about the Autodesk culture: what was it like when you first started working with Autodesk people, and how was it different from what you were used to, both from Taiwan and from Berkeley?
Kristy: The first thing was that I noticed was that the company was very different than what I thought when I was just a customer — much cooler really! — especially when I saw the work in the Autodesk Gallery. And I thought the people were pretty cool, too — smart and open to all kinds of ideas. I also noticed that most of the people in the meetings were older than me, so that was a change from being in school.
Bill: Was there anything about the working culture of Autodesk that surprised you?
Kristy: Yes, I remember one thing... Initially I was told that we young people were hired to help take design into the future, but while designing I was often told that, "Well, that's not really corporate enough..." or "That's too playful..."
Bill: And what would you think of that?
Kristy: To me it was very different because I was being asked to be "creative," and I would bring something that coming from design school I considered creative, but they didn't want to deviate from current trends.
Bill: Can you give an example?
Kristy: Sure, I worked with another colleague on this amazing video which took weeks, but at the end I was told to take out all the artistic parts. On another project, we were trying to do a logo for a team, and one of the designs I brought in was an image interconnected with the letters of the team's acronym, but that was deemed off-brand.
Bill: Kind of like the octopus that we have in our OCTO (Office of the CTO) logo.
Kristy: Right. And I thought my design might be pretty cool, but again, it was seen as not being Autodesk's style.
Bill: That's interesting; so you kind of ran into the "that's not how we do things here" concept! As someone who's been at Autodesk 11 years now, I'm sure I've played that card in meetings many times, even if I haven't always been aware of it. What else do you remember about your early days at Autodesk?
Kristy: Well, first I want to say something about how I ended up at Autodesk at all...
Experience Required. Young People Need Not Apply.
Kristy: I really think if I hadn't had the UC/Berkeley connection, it would have been really hard for me to get a job at Autodesk, because so many of the jobs, even the relatively lower-level ones, require "5-10 years of experience." That means, basically, that you're not hiring people right out of college, and that means you're not getting their very young, very different perspective on the work we're doing.
Bill: So we could be missing a lot of good people because of the emphasis on a certain level of "experience."
Kristy: I think so.
Bill: The other problem when you focus so much on certain kinds or amounts of experience is that there's always a kind of "group think" in any field or function — a "way we do things."
Kristy: And sometimes people can do a job well even though they haven't done that exact job before. For example, at one point when I was still doing creative work, Amar asked my manager, Dan Ahern, what I wanted to do eventually. He told him I wanted to work on product design, and even though I had never done that professionally, Amar said, let's give her a try. And it's all worked out great.
It's a Matter of Trust
Bill: Now that you're on the AutoCAD design team, what's your experience like these days?
Kristy: It's funny: the AutoCAD design team is considered by many people as the "fun" team, always noisy, having celebrations, playing music, etc.
Bill: I should come hang out with you guys... Actually our OCTO team is a little like that, too. It's funny, as I'm hearing you talk about this stuff, the word that keeps popping into my head as we talk is "osmosis," like cultural osmosis. I know that people who have worked with OCTO say that as the project goes along, they find themselves getting into a looser, more improvisational mode, just from working that closely with us. Does the same thing happen with people working with your team?
Kristy: I think maybe, but I think whether or not your group's style affects other groups is based a lot on trust. Because if I'm going to try to convince you to do something new, something different, maybe something a little risky, if you trust me, if you've seen me do good work and have good judgment in the past, you're more likely to give this new idea a chance.
Bill: So we could say that creativity, and innovation, require trust — otherwise it's easy to revert back to doing things "the way we always have."
Kristy: Right. And sometimes I think we should have more faith in our senior executives, trust that they will be open to different, new ideas. Like Amar has been, with the idea of me doing design work for AutoCAD.
Bill: Maybe sometimes the people below the very senior people are more worried about taking a risk than the senior people themselves; I guess that's human nature, to want to impress the boss, but maybe we should all remember that impressing the boss can also mean wow-ing the boss with a wild new idea.
Kristy: I think that's actually part of the San Francisco, Silicon Valley culture — always wanting to do something new, pushing boundaries, and Autodesk definitely has a lot of that these days.
Bill: And we could have even more if we hired more "out-of-the-box" rebels like you, right?
Bill: Thanks for talking to us today.
Kristy: Thank you, Bill.
Thanks Bill. Thanks Kristy.
Exuberant teamwork is alive in the lab.