Autodesk University was, as always, overwhelming. Perhaps nine or ten thousand people
at the Las Vegas Venetian Resort’s convention center, attending any one of several dozen
sessions going at any one time. I tried to hit as many as sessions possible, but could
only get to a tiny fraction of the offerings, and talked to an even tinier proportion of the
attendees. But I learned a LOT:

AutoCAD is WAY more capable than I had realized. My world tends to revolve around 3D design tools, and I had long ago decided that AutoCAD was a 2D tool. Totally wrong. It’s a very versatile tool for 3D design of parts (probably not assemblies, but no one I spoke to was trying to do assemblies in AutoCAD) and ties nicely into a lot of more advanced functions like producing output for rapid prototypes.

Carl Bass is a rock star. The stage for the opening keynotes (Bass, Autodesk CEO; Tom
Kelley, motivational speaker on innovation and Jeff Kowalski, Autodesk CTO) was a long
rectangle set amid a sea of chairs. Screens were suspended from the ceiling along the
length and width of the stage. Pretty cool, all in all. The speakers roamed the stage,
talking to all sides of the audience. It must have been tough to carry off, but all did it well.
Bass’ key point was that design software often gets in the way of the design process, but
fulfills the need to help all stakeholders understand the problem and try out many
alternatives. Autodesk’s goal: to make the software usable as a part of a company’s
design process rather than forcing design to happen in a certain way. CTO Kowalski
showed some breathtaking new technology – a 3D/2D city flythrough, something that
looked a lot hologram interacting with a design… Only missing elements: smoke and a
laser show. Next year?

There’s a lot going on at AU. I managed to make it to most of three industry keynotes:
manufacturing, plant design and civil as well as a bunch of sessions. The manufacturing
keynote reinforced much of what was presented at the recent analyst day. Two things:
check out inventorfusion.com to see cool, coming stuff and then go to Autodesks’s main
website to look up Inventor’s coming “documentation” capabilities – the latter looks a lot
like advanced visualization, with exploded views and fancy renderings. The audience
reaction was very, very positive to both of these. OK, one more thing: Burt Rutan (the
motivational speaker at the manufacturing keynote session) has a lot of interesting ideas
about why the US is falling behind, technologically. He makes a compelling argument that
the factors that excited him and the generation before him about space and flight are
missing now; he says we’re “boring our kids” and that the harm will be irreversible if we
don’t find some way to create energy and excitement around engineering and science.

The civil engineering keynote session included a customer describing the implementation
of Civil 3D at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The main takeaways: the long
lead-times of governmental civil engineering projects and the approvals needed from every
possible stakeholder (community groups, environmental agencies, etc.) make the
advisability of using a 3D model almost insanely obvious – but it’s a hard sell, given
budget problems in all levels of government and the entrenched mindset of many involved.

The plant keynote was very interesting. Recall that Autodesk is likely the largest installed
design software vendor at EPCs, OOs and construction firms, either as the underlying
technology to a plant design-specific app or as pure AutoCAD. A few years ago,
Autodesk decided to leverage this presence and build an application set of its own atop
AutoCAD, the first of which was AutoCAD P&ID. Ever since P&ID came out, people have
been asking for a 3D plant design package – which is now in Beta. The keynote
presentation highlighted how Autodesk plans to integrate with enterprise systems for plant
operations and maintenance, focusing all the while on the ease of use for which Autodesk
is known. I am told that you can sign up to participate in the Beta (code-named Stella) at
http://myfeedback.autodesk.com/ .

Autodesk takes the whole sustainability/green movement seriously. The conference
give-away this year was a messenger bag made with recycled vinyl banners from previous
events. I spent way too much time trying to figure out why my bag had a red strip and
others had green, blue, yellow – turns out the strips come in a rainbow of colors from the
various banner across the years. I hear people were trading bags to get their favorite color
;-) Other giveaways included steel water bottles and reusable plastic coffee travel mugs.
The convention center wasn’t helpful in the “green” messaging, though, handing out
endless paper cups for coffee, plastic bottles of water and the like. Small steps …

Carl Bass held a press conference one evening and graciously answered all questions put
to him. Of most interest to me was his comment that the review of underperforming
products he spoke about during his earnings conference call (the 80/20 comment: 80% of
revenue from 20% of products) would be bundled and priced to sell more readily. No
mention of product “retirements”.

AU is a true user conference. People attend to hear tips for building title blocks,
configuring layers, and the like, right from people who develop the software. One Autodesk
exec told me that he was meeting with a significant account and had thought that all
attendees from that company would come to the meeting, to hear strategy and provide
feedback. Nope – a few met with him while the rest attended the classes they were there
for. Strategy is too far into the future right now: these attendees were in Vegas to sharpen
skills to make it through this economic crisis, either at their present employer or
somewhere else.

There’s lots more to write about – after all, 10,000 people have at least ten times that
many stories. But while I was in Vegas, the world continued to swirl around us, and
there’s a lot to catch up on. Autodesk University was terrific – try to go next year, if you
can.