Title     Working Paper


How to begin to tell the story of Autodesk? The company was so unusual in its origin, so unconventional in its growth, and so eventful has been the road that started with a small group of programmers sitting around talking about building a company and has led, so far, to a multinational company which is the undisputed leader in its market, that it's tempting just to shrug your shoulders and say “you had to be there”.

Because Autodesk started out as a very decentralised organisation and has remained one to some extent, and also because of the prolix proclivities of its founders, who would rather write a book than talk on a telephone for ten minutes, the genesis, evolution, and history of Autodesk has generated a large volume of paper.

Unlike many companies, whose history can be recovered, if at all, only by a major oral history effort, one can watch Autodesk develop by reading the documents that were, during the company's development, the primary means of communication between the people involved. Reading these documents lets you see how assumptions we seldom question today got cast into concrete, how many blind alleys we had to explore to find answers which seem, in retrospect, utterly obvious, and how throughout the history of the company, when a major effort was called for to advance the company, Autodesk people have always responded with the energy, creativity, responsibility, and dedication which are the largest reasons for Autodesk's great success in the market.

Too many business books, like histories of science, tend to tell the story as a straightforward progression from start to finish. Reality is never that easy. Decisions are made in the face of incomplete and unreliable information because they must be made. There's no way to tell a promising avenue of success from a blind alley when you turn onto it—you only find out much later. As you read through these documents, you'll be seeing it all, and if it seems tedious and repetitious, it's because the process of building a company is often tedious and repetitious. But it's also rewarding, and I hope that these documents also convey the feeling of exhilaration, challenge, and accomplishment that everybody felt as we built this company into what it is today.

When you read these documents, you're opening time capsules buried as Autodesk developed. The documents are presented with essentially no editing other than that required to convert them from the variety of document processors in which they were written into TeX. some irrelevant material, such as five-year-old name and address lists, has been deleted but no elisions have been made which rewrite history, cover up errors, or otherwise alter the record. Where appropriate, I've added footnotes to explain matters which might not be clear at several years remove and to call out important items mentioned in passing in the text.

Since this is a history in documents, the picture of the company it presents is unavoidably coloured by the documents available when this history was prepared. The resulting collection weights my contribution heavier than it was because I write prolifically and keep everything I write. It covers AutoCAD-80 far out of proportion to its importance because the AutoCAD-80 logs exist in machine-readable form and the AutoCAD-86 logs do not. There is little coverage of the rich history of CAD/camera, and little of the development of Autodesk's marketing and sales organisation. The history is also weighted toward the early days of the company because as the company has grown business has come to be transacted far more in meetings and via ephemeral memoranda than in explicit status reports. As a result, nothing of the second public stock offering has been included, nor anything of the development of AutoCAD AEC or of AutoSketch. The absence of documents in this history is simply the effect of what has been preserved, not an attempt on my part to emphasise or diminish the importance of any aspect of the company's development or any individual's contribution.

I don't know whether these documents show how to start and run a company that assures success in a treacherous market or whether they simply chronicle the education of a group who was in the right place at the right time. Probably nobody ever will know. But from a sample size of one, it's the only way I know to start a wildly successful company, and improbable as it may seem, this is how it really happened.[Footnote]

Notes to the second[Footnote] edition.

This second edition was made possible by the work of many people in digging up and in some cases typing in numerous documents which were not available when the first edition was prepared. In addition, the eagle-eyed proofreading of several people found many egregious errors and omissions in the first edition which, thanks to their efforts, have been corrected herein. For their exertions, special thanks are due to Peter Barnett, David Ciari, Lew Goldklang, Duff Kurland, Valerie Lowe, Steve McCall, and Lars Åke Moureau.

While many errors have been corrected and additional documents added, this volume remains a woefully incomplete account of the rich experience that living through these times has been. Perhaps in some placid period in the future I'll find the time to adequately relate such stories as “The XOR Patent”,[Footnote] “April 31, 1985”, “Random Vectors”, and “Get me to the SEC on time”. For the moment these stories of the Hungry Rats of Autodesk must slumber alongside the Giant Rat of Sumatra, tantalising yet untold.

Notes to the fourth[Footnote] edition.

In a way, all the earlier editions of The Autodesk File were incomplete. They chronicled the exhilarating and frequently exasperating experience of starting a company from nothing and seeing it grow into a leader of an industry it helped to create, but, written in the midst of ongoing runaway success, gave the impression that continued success was merely a matter of doing the same things as before, that entrepreneurship and leadership of an industry were one and the same. Indeed, in 1989, when the third edition of The Autodesk File (the New Riders “Purple Paper Eater” book) appeared, many people at Autodesk, myself included, did believe these things.

How naïve we were.

I originally began assembling this edition to commemorate Autodesk's tenth anniversary. I guess it's only appropriate, given the history you're about to read, that the tenth anniversary edition of The Autodesk File show up two years late and much, much larger than originally anticipated. The book has just about doubled in size from the 1988 edition, but then the company is twice as old today and a great many things have happened since then. A great, great many things…. Legally, corporations are people, but in reality they're very different from you and me. They don't get wrinkles in their brows from worrying, ulcers from stress, or go bald from ripping their corporate hair out in frustration. They age and become set in their ways, but rejuvenation is as close as the next person they hire, given the wisdom to listen and the courage to change. This is a story of birth, growth, maturity, aging, and rejuvenation. All of it is a story of change. The story remains incomplete. I hope it will remain forever incomplete, for the last word of the final chapter of a complete history must chronicle the end of this venture born with such hope in 1982. Corporations aren't people; with wisdom and courage, and yes the luck to find the right people at the right time, immortality can be theirs. Let us hope that is Autodesk's destiny, and strive to make it so.

John Walker
Neuchâtel, Switzerland
February, 1994

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