Freesteel Blog » Take this job and shove it up Carl’s Bass
Take this job and shove it up Carl’s Bass
Monday, October 6th, 2014 at 4:07 pm
This CEO of Autodesk has taken everything I’ve made in the field of machine tool software in return for some stock options that I cannot cash and a crushing of my spirit. Nevermind the price; I need to get out before I lose my mind.
This is the time to create negative publicity for myself. The teflon was scraped off years ago. Burning your bridges is alive in the hackspace.
Is it inevitable that any large hierarchical organization will deteriorate into a pool of grease and bureaucracy around one exquisite bubble containing the CEO?
Since he possesses the sole discretionary power of patronage and the gift of money, the sapiens do gather round and stare as if at camp fire. No one is permitted to spit.
The first thing that happened when I became CEO was I got much funnier and smarter… I would say there’s a part of it that you can resist and resist and resist, but there is a part of it where there’s a whole organization or a world around you that looks out for you in a weird way.
Still, it must be tough at the top of a creaking ten billion dollar thirty year old software corporation, raking in the multi-millions of dollars that awarded during this post-financial crisis corporate CEO pay bubble era.
Meanwhile, paradigm-shifting software products are popping up left and right out of nowhere within miles of your downtown San Francisco offices, and nothing happens on your patch. The magic has gone. You can pay over the odds for any tech start-up you like, but you’re not fooling anyone. It’s simply retail therapy.
Occasionally, you accept invitations to give talks to your local TEDx or even at the super-exclusive Wired London event in your capacity as the esteemed CEO of Autodesk. But there’s nothing to show. You’ve got no wisdom to pass on to these young whippersnapper tech startups today for when they survive and age into 30 year old boring companies whose creativity is being ground down by the endless quarterly reports to “The Street”, always upbeat, always someone else’s money.
Quick! Get the speechwriter to Powerpoint up something hip and cool. He writes a presentation suitable for a twelfth-grade science teacher to inspire his students whom he knows are graduating into a wasted jobs market. The system is broken out there. Unless you aim to become the next tech billionaire, you’re career will be toast.
What’s gone wrong? Why does everything suck?
Maybe it’s the lack of INNOVATION.
Quick! Get the Innovation Strategist to review the last 2.6 million years of human innovation to come up with LUMIAMI, Look-Use-Move-Interconnect-Alter-Make-Imagine: the seven-fold path to true innovation.
I’m tired of this positive celebration of the inexorable advancement of the human condition.
In the real world there is war and plague. And the only way we learn is from mistakes. Let’s focus on those for a moment.
The standard mantra in tech innovation is “Fail fast, fail often”.
The part they don’t write down because it’s too damn obvious is where you learn everything you can from each mistake!
Let’s examine a spectacular one: Socialcam, the $60million acquisition by Autodesk in 2012 of the coolest, fastest, most exciting internet start-up on the block, which became a total and immediate failure.
Who knows what happened in management once they got control of this $60million dead turkey? I sure don’t. They seemed to want to pretend that it didn’t happen and shut everyone up who asked questions, and now this really cool video sharing site “done right” that was going to be the next Instagram hosts nothing but Bangkok housewives frying their evening dinner and hard-core porn:
[Update: Sadly, someone noticed the porn three days ago after three weeks of being on-line and replaced it with a video describing how to report inappropriate content]
Every red cent of this $60million was squandered. Imagine what I could have done with that kind of resource? If I or any other active member of a hackspace was given the job of making up sixty one million dollar projects in the next two years, at least one or two of them would kill. And every one of the others would have either improved the software development productivity within the company, or provided vital business information that was not known before.
For example, a million dollars spent on developing a successor to their solid modelling technology whose architecture was designed 30 years ago when computers were quite different to what they are now would be unlikely to result in an industry-grade product. (Who can possibly claim that something designed in 1986 on a 1970s architecture is the last word in this field?) However, there is no doubt that the knowledge gained by such an attempt would be extremely applicable to acquisition teams in search of a business that had a viable solution. Is there any evidence that these teams know the difference between Grabcad and Socialcam?
If there’s one thing a mature corporation is good at, it’s making sure that none of the money goes on mad-cat schemes dreamt up by plebs doing the technical work. All of it is dispensed and signed off by responsible boring people who don’t have a clue. why not put reserve some proper budgets for the teams doing the work (not their managers) and see what they decide to spend it on?
Way back in May 2013 there was an internal blogpost by Corporate Strategy explaining why the acquisition of Socialcam was such a great deal. I took this as an invitation and posted a follow-up article demolishing every one of its claims in detail point-by-point. Then I went underground for a long caving trip and came back to find the whole world blowing up. A lot of well-paid and presumably professional managers were really hurt and upset. By way the hierarchical system, all their pain and discomfort was channeled down to me anonymously via line management who had decided not stand up for me. You have got to stop this now, Julian! they yelled.
I was humiliated.
Of course, you could ask why did no one click the “Flag this comment as inappropriate” button and take my post offline for moderation until things had cooled down? Well, that’s because no such button existed! Autodesk had paid $26million for their lovely new proprietary CMS, which was so underdeveloped that it lacked even this basic innovation. That’s entirely my fault is it? What’s going to happen when this A360 social network gets deployed in customer sites without this feature and you cause people to lose their jobs because they couldn’t predict exactly who was going to read every post and how they were going to respond, eh?
Clearly, this company has a cultural problem facing up to its acquisition blunders. There’s a lot that could be done about it.
For example, if I were on the Board of Directors I’d routinely commission reports from McKinsey & Company into every acquisition valued at $10million or more between one and two years after the event, and instruct them to be as brutal as possible in their criticism about all aspects of the process, from the initial decision to purchase the company, to the way they handled the talent post-acquisition. And then I’d ensure that as much of its contents were published as possible inside the company so it was safe for people to talk about it and learn from it. This hiding of problems and shutting-up anyone who mentions them in the context of a learning experience is utterly counter-productive, particularly if you are running a business based on continually taking over new companies.
[P.S. the porn is back on Socialcam, if you scroll down far enough. If someone had listened to me last year when I was picking holes in it, instead of giving me a hard time, maybe this site could have been sold off to a phone company tycoon in Thailand months ago before it degenerated into this embarrassing mess]
According to corporate lore, the most successful businesses are structured around customer service.
To celebrate Autodesk’s entry into the CAM market with its acquisition of HSMWorks, they invested millions of dollars into Pier 9, San Francisco and kitted it out with every kind of machine tool under the sun.
Great, I thought. Here is a fine opportunity to subject all my CAM algorithms to some hard experimental R&D in order to make the cutting strategies on which the customers depend more efficient and informed by their needs. None of the algorithms HSMWorks have been subjected to systematic experimentation, because we’ve never had the time or access to the machines.
In many forward thinking corporations, the magic phrase:
“Doing this could really help our customers”
would get someone’s attention pretty quickly. Not in Autodesk. To my horror, they installed an Artist-in-residence in their top-of-the range vanity establishment rather than someone more useful, like an Engineer-in-residence. Particularly one who had some strong opinions about the crappiness of the software whom I could argue with.
Testing your Computer-aided Manufacturing solutions against physical experiments is not exactly a radical idea. An earlier Autodesk acquisition called Moldflow, which simulates the plastic flowing and cooling in an injection mold, systematically compares their calculations against experimental data. There’s course material as well as a book about it.
But somehow its success wasn’t recognized and applied to other relevant areas of the business which are, in a sense, reality simulations. What exactly is the point of corporate management if they can neither recognize nor move successful applicable methods from one part of the organization to another?
This is the M for Move in Mr O’Connor’s LUMIAMI innovation moniker. See? Maybe he can spend the next three years investigating why specific innovations like this one are not happening in Autodesk.
After he has conducted his investigation of this case, the answer had better not be: “Because Julian didn’t use the right tone when he explained his ideas.” …As if these ideas are merely personal favours to me that have nothing to do with helping the company and its customers.
Eventually, when the company finally decides to get its act together and use the Pier 9 facility to improve the lives of their customers, they should start by sending a delegation 70 miles up the road to the University of California Davis where Professor Kazou Yamazaki runs his Intelligent Manufacturing Systems & Mechatronics Laboratory which has been entirely sponsored by the gigantic Japanese-German machine tool manufacturer DMG Mori Seiki for the last 14 years.
The professor will have lots of ideas and experience in organizing systematic cutting trials in ways that feed-back into observable improvements to the products. There is an unbelievable amount of stuff to learn. Autodesk should get rid of its CTO, who isn’t particularly interested in technology (from what I could tell when I asked for help with GPUs), and replace him with a Chief Learning Officer. Then we’d know who to contact whenever spotted a golden opportunity for the company like this to learn something. He or she should have the budget and authority to act on it.
Autodesk is unusual in that it experiences very little free open source software competition in its markets. Free software is a tactic that customers and competitors can use to gang up on a monopolistic industry leader in a particular field. So IBM and HP went after Microsoft with Linux, Google and Samsung targeted the Apple with Android, and Sun Microsystems paid less to fund the development of OpenOffice than they were spending on all their Word/Office licenses to Microsoft.
Why has this not happened to AutoCAD? The closest thing to a conglomerate competitor is the Intellicad consortium where companies can sign up and get access to the source code. But this is not free software, and in itself shows there is a mysterious exception here. Every other sector, from compilers, to databases, data warehouses, operating systems, web-servers, to web-browsers, each of these sectors has been entirely turned over by free open source software in the last two decades.
You’d think someone in the corporate strategy would be interested in finding out why. But, of course, they already know everything. The explanations I’ve heard from managers whom I’ve asked range from: “Our software is so much more complex and cutting edge than any open source application could ever be,” to: “Companies only make their software open source when they are in their death throes.”
For sure, Autodesk has had to swallow some LGPL libraries in the course of its business. But, as you can see from the official webpage referred to in the product licenses, their lawyers have taken pride in compliance to the minimum extent of the law:
This is rubbish!
At the bare minimum these projects should be maintained as a set of public forked repositories on Github/Bitbucket from which Autodesk programmers could easily pull the latest updates, as well as correspond with programmers out in the rest of the world as well as those in the same company.
To say that the management and the legal brains within this company don’t understand software development in this modern age would be an understatement.
As has been disclosed in the new court case Autodesk v. ZWCAD Software:
Yes, you only get to see the source code on a need-to-know basis. Searching for already-written geometric algorithms or potential colleagues on the basis of their recent code commits is not possible. There is no librarian or expert to help you decide which Perforce repository to waste three days applying for access to. So, as always, everyone just keeps rewriting the same functions again and again, not very well, because they know that no one is ever going to find and reuse them anyway in the future.
It’s obvious that this generation of managers graduated back in the 80’s and 90’s before the internet and user friendly version control systems existed, and their vision of how coding is done is basically limited and out of date.
This would not be a problem if it was possible for change to come from within the organization.
But it is not possible, because change can happen only if:
(a) There are enough independent committees/people in the company (other than just the CEO) who have the necessary attention span to comprehend the issue and the power to act.
(b) There is a forum where people can propose, discuss, argue and agitate for creative changes to be made and see to it that they are properly considered.
In my two years here, involving quite a lot of harassing and pissing people off left, right and centre, I have not even come close to finding out who, what or where the policy of source code management is formulated or decided — if it is at all. So we fail at part (a). Change cannot be made, and so we are stuck with this ludicrous situation forever. The company was an early adopter of Salesforce technology which massively improved the coordination and the agility of the worldwide sales process. Why is it such a hard concept to grasp that software developers should get the same deal?
Ask your Corporate Innovation Strategist why all that sexy advanced computer games 3D code exhibited in autodeskresearch.com isn’t being ported wholesale into the engineering software sector to do, say, the mechanical collision checking? Could I find anyone in the company who understands the significance of Bezos’s big mandate as they were developing their architecture for the cloud?
To be sure, this company will continue to make shedloads of money, and I will be somewhat broke. (To some simple minds, this means that I am stupid and they are clever by definition.) It will get there eventually. Software in this sector is extremely sticky. Engineers do not change tools once they are used to them. Autodesk has enough money and size, and its competitors are not sufficiently ahead enough to tempt the customers to leave them.
But this is simply too slow and pointless for me. There is absolutely nothing I can do inside this organization to speed it up that doesn’t depend on me first being promoted to a senior management position before anyone takes any notice. It’s therefore a complete waste of my time being here.
As Tom Peters says:
The situation is hopeless. Might as well go and do something interesting.