Designing for the times

Autodesk is evolving with its customers, creating design suites that feature cloud, mobile, and social technology

April 4, 2014

Autodesk CEO Carl Bass

Autodesk CEO Carl Bass

Carl Bass, president and CEO of Autodesk, a multinational software company, can walk through any parking lot knowing that every car in it was designed with Autodesk software.

Many people may not have heard of the $2.5 billion Autodesk, best known for its computer-aided design (CAD) software. But the work of the company’s customers is all around: in movie special effects and animation, and in roads, bridges, and buildings, including standouts like the Shanghai Tower.

“Everything around us was designed by someone,” said Bass, a recent speaker in the Dean’s Innovative Leader Series. “And most everything in the world today uses software to turn that [design] into something real.”

Noting the rapid advances in software development and CAD, Bass cited MIT Sloan professor Erik Brynjolfsson and researcher Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age , which examines the dramatic spread of digital technology and its impact on the work force.

“Anyone who says the economy of the world is not structurally changing in fundamental ways doesn’t realize what an auto factory looks like today and what an auto factory looked like 10 years ago,” Bass said.

Bass related the story of a recent visit to an Audi factory in Germany that comprised three stories of robots churning out 1,600 cars a day. “What’s amazing is that you can walk around, and you don’t need a hard hat,” he said. Bass mentioned this to his German host, remarking that in the United States, there might be safety concerns about “parts flying off the robots.”

His host responded, “We did not program the robots to throw the parts.”

The story provides a lens into how the economy is changing, Bass said. “Medium-income” and “medium-skill jobs” are disappearing at a faster and faster rate, as more skills become automated. “We will continue to see the hollowing out of the middle class, and I think it has profound implications for society,” he said.

Autodesk, which has been around for 30 years, is also changing with the times. The company has developed a host of cloud-based products created to allow collaboration, an important feature of much team-oriented design and engineering work, Bass said.

“We’ve built in ways for people to share information about their projects so they can share ideas, do it online, and access it from anywhere. All these things that we’ve become accustomed to in our personal lives, we are now doing for our professional software,” he said.

In response to student questions, Bass shared thoughts on leadership. He cautioned that leaders need to remember that their actions and words are magnified. “Employee populations will hear your words, but they see what you do,” he said.

Bass also said that there’s no one particular skill he seeks out in potential employees. “I want people who are passionate and care about solving customer problems. The most important thing is people who can get stuff done.”