AU 2012: Everyone is a designer

Photo courtesy of Autodesk

Another Autodesk University has come and gone, with its share of announcements and glitz. Around 8,000 of the Autodesk faithful converged on the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas to be inspired, learn about the latest developments in the software they rely on and generally have a good time. Rather then trying to recap all of the announcements (which you can read about in an earlier blog post and on the Autodesk website), here are my own personal highlights of AU2012:

  • Autodesk serves manufacturers, architects, designers, visual effects people who work in the movies and more. They are school children, high school students and professionals. They come from around the world. This diversity leads to some cool moments: seeing someone walking though the convention center with a blinking blue Mohawk haircut. CEO Carl Bass taking the stage after a very precocious 12-year old — a kid who will someday run the world. Conversations that start with “So, what do you do?” and wind up dissecting the computational fluid dynamics of smoke. What Autodesk does with this diversity is equally cool: it uses what it learns from consumers who buy iPad sketching apps to inform the design for the user interface for its new cloud-based 3D CAD product. The CFD tools used by engineers for “serious work” can be used by the visual effects smoke team for the next Hollywood blockbuster. The company’s strategy may sometime seem random but there is a master plan.
  • Autodesk held a press session at which CFO Mark Hawkins took questions. Mr. Hawkins sees the transition to the cloud happening over time, as more customers take advantage of the cloud-based components of the suites they are already buying. He didn’t really address the question of how Autodesk’s business model would withstand the move to the cloud, other than to say that cloud subscriptions aren’t necessarily going to be less expensive than desktop equivalents. I was hoping he’d be more forthcoming about that and also talk about the company’s plans to turn its consumer offerings into real revenue.
  • Every single Autodesk executive at AU made clear that its cloud products will exist alongside its desktop products for the forseeable future. Autodesk will create licensing and other incentives to move people towards the cloud, but the ultimate decision will be up to the consumer: what to do where. That said, almost every user I spoke with at AU is at least intrigued by the idea of doing things in the cloud, and isn’t all that worried about uptime or security, figuring that both are Autodesk’s problems to solve. Being intrigued and actually trying aren’t the same, though, and I ran into just a few people who had actually used a cloud-based Autodesk product.
  • Speaking of clouds, smaller companies seem to have no problems with the public cloud. It’s a bit different for larger enterprise like Bechtel, whose  manager of Enterprise Systems, Scott Zimmerman, spoke in one of the Innovation Forum sessions. Mr. Zimmerman talked about Bechtel’s history with  cloud solutions and services, and said that it was likely that Bechtel will cherry-pick what applications and data to put where. He sees Bechtel having a hybrid public/private cloud environment for the foreseeable future.
  • I went to a roundtable session by and for CAD managers, mainly in AEC but with applicability to all verticals. They talked about the cloud (definitely, but not yet), managing installations around the world (technology helps but doesn’t solve every problem) and the difficulty of getting people to do what you want. What came through most clearly is that CAD managers feel a bit powerless: responsible for much but without the authority to actually change what they see as inefficient. The second lesson: Autodesk risks getting too far ahead of its customers with some of its inspiration/aspirational conference content and could stand to do more sessions on very tactical topics for these attendees.
  • The plant design session I attended was standing-room only, as Autodesk’s Ian Matthew ran the audience through a simulated project using the Plant Design Suite. He showed how to set up a project, create a P&ID, use that to interact with a 3D model, threw in a bit of visualization … It was a lot of content in 90 minutes, but the audience seemed to keep up. This product set has come a long way in the last couple of years.
  • The infrastructure design and construction sessions I went to were fascinating. Many in the audience are, apparently, relying 2D solutions and making the occasional foray into 3D — but they are fascinated by the potential benefits of creating an information asset (3D + underlying attribute information) for their airports, bridges and roads. Better collaboration, construction, operations — most of the questions were still of a “how do I get there?” nature, but a shift is definitely coming.

In retrospect, I think my favorite session was the Design Slam, usually a contest between senior managers to see who can best use Autodesk solutions to meet a design challenge. In the past, Mr. Bass has gone up against Manufacturing VP Robert (Buzz) Kross and AEC VP Phil Bernstein. This year, Mr. Kross led a team of “old timers” against VP Marketing, Manufacturing, Brenda Discher’s team of “young ‘uns”. All contenders, including Ms. Discher, wore fake handlebar mustaches in honor of Movember. The teams used Autodesk Fusion 360 to design headphones, a James Bond-style martini shaker and then any object of their choice. The young ‘uns won, but it was kind of irrelevant but that point. Think about it: Several hundred of Autodesk’s key customers are watching. The designers are using a product not even in Beta yet — and, as a result, each team suffered a couple of crashes. Everyone in the hot seat was a relatively new user of Fusion 360 (although had probably been practicing hard all week). In combination, it was a lighthearted way to get the crowd on their side, show off Fusion 360 (warts and all), and make Autodesk the “fun” CAD company.

Autodesk wants to lead its customers through the coming technology minefield. The “consumerization” of IT, where we expect to use our personal tech in the office and have it all seamlessly work together, with attractive and intuitive user interfaces, means much more complex IT environments for companies that try to manage all of this themselves. The cloud, ever present, is really three separate-but-connected “clouds”: computational resource, storage space and Internet-based connectivity. Autodesk believes its customers will eventually want to partake of all three flavors, and that it can smooth the way. Lastly, the maker movement (personified by young Schuyler, above) changes almost everything: more people than ever before want to be creative, involved in even the simplest design decisions and connected into projects in new ways. Autodesk intends to be out in front on all three.

AU attracts a very interesting crowd, much different from what it was just five years ago. It feels younger, a little less interested in the “help me navigate the UI” sessions and more into creating cool stuff — whether that be movies, process plants, cars or flying motorcycles (no, really). The other user conferences I attend feel a lot more homogeneous – I’m looking forward to how this diverse customer base moves Autodesk forward.

Note: Autodesk graciously covered expenses and registration for the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.

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