A Conversation With Carl Bass – Part 2Featured, Interviews Sunday, December 5th, 2010
In my earlier post titled “A Conversation With Carl Bass – Part 1” I summarized my half an hour discussion with Carl on a number of topics. We had to cut short out conversation because we ran out of time and so we decided to meet up again after he was done with all his appointments for the day. We met up later in the evening and spoke for an hour and a half. This second conversation was far more interesting than the first one in the morning. There was no PR person sitting with us and we ended up speaking about a whole bunch of stuff that I cannot publish here. Here is some of the stuff that I can.
Deelip: Tell me more about your life before Autodesk.
Carl: I grew up in New York and went to a public school there. I went to college in Cornell. I was there for two years, left for five years and then came back and finished my degree.
Deelip: Did you leave college to start working?
Carl: Kind of (laughs). I wandered around and did a lot of interesting jobs. During those five years I learned how to build things – stuff like boats and furniture. Then I came back to school and realized that computers had turned from something that the Math Department wasn’t interested in at the time I left to something that was a requirement. So I took a bunch of computer classes. By coincidence a professor who I played basketball with was looking for someone who had a Math background to do some work during the summer. I had a summer job of picking rocks out of a corn field for a few dollars an hour and decided that working the lab on computer graphics would be a better idea. So that’s how I got involved in computer graphics. When I got out of school I continued to build stuff but was working on computer graphics as well. Then a friend and I started a company called “Flying Moose Systems and Graphics”. Eventually the company became knows as Ithaca Software. In 1990 we tried to raise capital and Autodesk bought about 20% of the company. Then later in 1993 Autodesk bought the remaining 80%. That’s how I went to work for Autodesk.
Deelip: So what was your position at Autodesk when you joined?
Carl: Well, I was somewhere between a programmer and chief troublemaker (laughs).
Deelip: And who was the CEO at that time?
Carl: Carol Bartz was the CEO. She had probably been on the job for around a year. When I joined the company was in the midst of AutoCAD R13 which was a bad release. It took a really long time. We did some work on it towards the end and then did a lot of work on R14. Later I left to start up Buzzsaw and joined Autodesk back when Autodesk acquired it.
Deelip: I have heard stories about you being fired by Carol. Tell me the stuff that you haven’t told anyone else.
Carl: When Autodesk bought my company in 1993 I agreed to stay for two years as part of the deal. It got to be 1995 and I found it a little bit frustrating working in a bigger company and at some point Carol got tired about me bitching about it. And then there was one day, somewhere between she fired me and I quit, it happened. At that time, there was a lot of stuff going on with my family. My father was sick. My wife was in the hospital with a difficult pregnancy of our first child. And so I didn’t even sign the paperwork. I just left to visit my dad and wife in their hospitals. One was in New York and the other was in Berkeley. I spend a lot of time in the hospitals for about three or four months. Then one day someone at Autodesk called me up and said, “We are starting R14. Would you like to come back and help run the project?” And I replied, “I’m not sure I can. I think I’m fired“. Then the person said, “How about I speak to Carol?” and Carol said, “Carl’s fine to work here if he has something to do. If not he causes too much trouble“. My son was going to be born very early. I knew that was coming in. In the US that’s very expensive. I didn’t want to lose my health insurance and so I thought it sounded like a good opportunity. So I went back to work on R14 and then 2000 and then in 1999 I left to start Buzzsaw.
Deelip: So were you the product manager of AutoCAD?
Carl: No Amar Hanspal and Tony Peach were the product managers. I was just one of the persons that had a leadership role in the team.
Deelip: So what was your position?
Carl: I didn’t have a position. Even if I did I don’t know what it was. I didn’t have an office. I actually sat in the hallway.
Carl: Yes, I didn’t. I found a table in the hallway and every day I would come and sit down there, start my computer and do my stuff. Everybody would walk by and I could easily access them.
Deelip: For how long?
Carl: A couple of years.
Deelip: Didn’t people look at you differently?
Carl: They would probably look at me differently anyhow (laughs). Actually, after about a year of me being in the hallway, one of the guys who runs the facility came by and put up my name tag above my desk in the hallway.
Deelip: No shit!
Carl: At some point later I did get an office. But the thing is I have never been particularly attached to my office. Even today I mostly wander around with my back pack (points to his back pack on the floor). I’m pretty self sufficient with what’s in there.
Deelip: OK, coming back to Buzzsaw…
Carl: Yes, Buzzsaw was an independent company for two years and then we got bought back by Autodesk in 2001.
Deelip: So your company got bought by Autodesk for the second time. I am assuming this time you came in with some kind of a position.
Carl: Yeah, I was more at the senior level. I did have an office then. I had the title of something like Chief Strategy Officer. It wasn’t really clear of what I was supposed to do. I managed a couple of small things and then about a year later Carol asked me to be in charge of the product divisions – AEC, Manufacturing, M&E.
Deelip: But I thought the heads of those divisions reported directly to the CEO.
Carl: Yeah, but at that time they started reporting to me. Then the sales team started reporting to me as well.
Deelip: So in effect you were the COO.
Carl: Actually, a couple of years later I eventually got the title of COO which I was for a number of years and then when Carol left about five years ago I became the CEO.
Deelip: So while you were COO I assume you started making less trouble.
Carl: Yeah, I had to grow up a little (laughs).
Deelip: Help me understand something here. A few years ago Carol didn’t like you…
Carl: She liked me and she wanted to fire me. You can like a person but still not think they are constructively contributing to the company and vice versa. I guess back then she thought that my criticism of her company was no longer constructive and was merely for the point of criticizing. But once I came back from Buzzsaw we had a good relationship and there was about a three year long transition wherein I was the COO with the intention that at some point I would become the CEO.
Deelip: What is the single most thing that you want to do with the company today?
Carl: Here is now I often phrase it inside the company. I say we want to be great, good and important. To me in order to be a great company you need to be financially successful. I mean at the end of the day Autodesk and other public companies are not a hobby. They are a business and no company can consider itself to be great if it does not fulfill its first obligation. The good part is along the lines of the company being a contributor to the communities and societies that it does business in. Much of the work we do, whether its the support of education, what we do around sustainability or wherever we can take a leadership position in design, I think those are all important things that help define how good a company is. And the third thing is about being important. The thing I find particularly appealing about Autodesk is that our customers do some of the most interesting things in the world. They build buildings and create cities, they build interesting products, they create movies and games that we all enjoy. We don’t pretend to do any of that. What we do is that we give them tools to do that better. So I want Autodesk to be an part of people doing important things which change the world. You can ask me about individual products and what I want to do with them, but at the end of the day, if we are doing something that does not fit in one of those three things I don’t think we should do it.
Deelip: How easy or difficult is it to be the CEO of a company as large as Autodesk?
Carl: Actually I have no way of answering that question. Its like I ask you, “How easy is it to walk?” I mean, some days its easy, some days its difficult. Its certainly demanding of your time. I’m sure there are less stressful jobs. Its also a rewarding job. Its just something that I have decided to do at this point in my life.
Deelip: When you retire what will you miss the most?
Carl: I love the ability to do be in some part a contributor to people who do stuff that change the shape of the world. I think when you retire you lose that. You still have a great impact on your family and friends. And you can still have an impact on your community. But that is different. Now I get to make crucial decisions about which areas are important and which are not. On the other hand, one of the things of being a CEO is that it is incredibly demanding of your time. So one of the things I will appreciate is all the free time.
Deelip: Where do you see Autodesk ten years from now?
Carl: I hope its financially strong and continues on the mission that I was talking about. This is not marketing hype, but I do think that we are on the verge of something very important going on with computing. It has been going on for a while. We have this incredible technology to harness that is allowing people to do things, not only differently, but also things that they couldn’t do before.
Deelip: I guess you are talking about cloud computing. Some people have likened it to how the internet changed everything, this could change things as well. Well, maybe not as much but…
Carl: It may very well be. I just see it like we are able to make a huge change in the world in a very short amount of time.
Deelip: You have run two small companies and now you are running a large company. If you were given the chance now would you prefer running a small or a large company?
Carl: I’ll give you an example. When you run a small company, its like having a small hammer. You can move it really quickly but having a lot of impact is hard. When you are in a bigger company with a big ecosystem around you getting anything done in a day is hard. But if you are able to marshal all the right forces in the right direction its like a sledge hammer. Its hard to move a sledge hammer. But if you move it, stuff happens. So to answer your question, at this point of time in my career, I think I would prefer the bigger company mainly because of the ability to have a bigger impact.
Deelip: What is the one thing in Autodesk that you want to do and you can’t or have been stopped?
Carl: I think there are a couple of things I want to do, one internal and the other external. The external thing is there are things that I want to do that I know are important and I am impatient to get done more quickly. You know, its that sledge hammer thing that I was mentioning earlier.
Deelip: But is that something that is in your hands?
Carl: I think there are somethings that you can change. The internal thing is being mindful of striking the right balance between what we need to do for our business today and what we need to do for our business tomorrow.
Deelip: So how far into the future do you look into when taking decisions?
Carl: There are two aspects to it. Sometimes we are working with a customer that needs something special done quickly and then sometimes we need to ask ourselves the question, “How is the world going to work five years from now?“.
Deelip: So I am curious to know where the buck stops. I mean in a large company like Autodesk where you have people in charge of different industries and brands, do you still have to do the forward thinking?
Carl: I think you still have to it but I don’t think you need to do it alone. I think it would be a huge mistake to assume that in a company of 7000 people and an ecosystem of tens of thousands of people, that it all relies on me. Moreover, that would be a very unhealthy thing. I think the higher up in the organization you are you need to spend more time thinking on the forward looking things and less on the day to day stuff.