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Technological Leadership


After I escaped from day-to-day management, I had time to think about Autodesk's strategy and direction. What I found was disquieting. In August of 1988, I wrote this memo to Al Green to attempt to define the issues on the technological side of the company which needed addressing. The roots of most of the problems which were eventually brought to a much wider audience two and a half years later in Information Letter 14 (see page [Ref]) can be seen here in embryonic form. Those who believe me a renegade leader of a ``cabal'' or ``theocracy of hackers'' may find the analysis and recommendations herein rather surprising.

To: Al Green
From: John Walker
Subject: Technological Leadership
Date: August 23rd, 1988

No person who has lived through Autodesk's growth over the last six years, or even a significant part of it, could cling to the fantasy that the process has been a well-planned, steady march to success, regardless of how much our financial results may support that view. Instead, the company has encountered and survived almost all of the crises that befall rapidly growing companies in turbulent markets and has emerged stronger and better positioned for having done so. This process of maturation and tempering can be viewed, however, as lurching from one potential disaster to another, hoping to fix each problem before catastrophe befalls our venture--and that is precisely what we've done, always managing to recognise each crisis in time and act decisively to resolve it.

I am writing this memo because I believe that Autodesk is presently facing one of the most serious crises in its history, a crisis of technological leadership calling for changes in the technical structure, direction, management, and leadership which must occur if Autodesk is to continue its success in the marketplace. This crisis is particularly acute because its resolution will involve restructuring an area of the company which has to date been the least affected by the imposition of structure and professional management as the company has grown, and in many ways is still run as it was in 1983. Consequently, imposing changes in this area inevitably will affect the relationship of founders to the company, the software development group's perception of its role in the company, and the very process by which Autodesk products are conceived, implemented, enhanced, and supported. These changes cannot be made without creating stress and some disruption, but I believe that deferring them will place at risk all of what we have worked for to date, and the great potential which I continue to believe this company possesses for the future.

I believe that Autodesk has long outgrown the kind of passive, caretaker management which has characterised software development since the company's inception. I believe that there is an almost total lack of technological direction to the company's software development efforts, that no overall design is being applied to achieve our publicly-stated goals of product line integration, that resources are being misapplied to company priorities, that a pattern of abandonment of products once launched[Footnote] is contributing to product line stagnation and exposing Autodesk to serious competitive threats, and that all of these are symptoms of inadequate technological vision, leadership to implement that vision, and competent professional management to accomplish the tasks required to reach our common goals. Addressing these problems before they cause even more serious damage must be one of the company's highest priorities.

In what follows I will survey the state of the company's product line, focusing on how product design, development, and support are managed. Most of the comments regarding market position and competition, and all of the sales results, are drawn from the August 1988 Marketing and Sales Plan.

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Editor: John Walker