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‘The next half a dozen years will be very exciting for the industry’

Carl Bass, CEO, Autodesk
Carl Bass
CEO, Autodesk

A big believer in democratisation of design, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass has made it almost a household commodity. Yet, Bass believes that the consumer side of Autodesk’s business has received more media attention than the professional aspect of it

You have often said that design is more of a problem solving tool rather than graphics. How do you see the evolution of design as an industry in itself?
There are two sides to this question. On one side, our job is that of a tool provider. So we can’t really shape the industry which has several strong forces. But on the other side, our ability to use our tools does not only distinguish us from other species; tools have actually influenced the development of human beings as species — of our hands, brains… In the end, tools define just how much humans can accomplish. And I don’t mean software tools, but physical tools here. Tools provide one of the boundaries of what we are capable of. So it is one of the important roles of the toolmaker to recognise that we are not only going to set the boundaries but we will also influence the development of our species.

Your recent business strategy has expanded the scope of design, making it a household commodity. Has the entire business direction of Autodesk also changed towards consumers?
The vast majority of our business is selling professional tools to our professional customers. That’s where our business is and that’s what we do every day.

However, a few years ago we noticed that a lot of consumers have an interest in design and design tools. There are more people casually interested in design than the number of design and engineering professionals. I am a big believer in democratisation of design as I believe it’s a human impulse to create or change. One of the biggest things we have done at Autodesk is to make available for everybody some tools for 3D design, digital art and photography. We recognised that the use of casual design tools would be evolving very differently from the professional [segment]. So the first thing we did was made all those designs easily accessible. Another thing we did was to make all our tools free for students.

An interesting thing is we seem to be getting a lot of media attention for what we have been doing for consumers. This is simply because some of the things we do for our professional customers — how you design a city or a dam or a subway — is not what people take on as a hobby. So for the press, it doesn’t make much sense. But when they see design tools that can be used by themselves or even their kids, there is a lot of attention to it. I would say our press coverage for what we are doing for the consumers is more than what we are actually doing for our professional customers. That said, we as a company have learned a tremendous amount from our work with consumers and that is impacting how we develop software and technology for professionals.

Do you think your strategy of democratisation of design is similar to what Google has done to geospatial content?
Absolutely. Over the past two years, over 100 million people have used Autodesk design tools. Previously, we had about 10-12 million users in our 30-year history even though through AutoCAD we had one of the most widely used design tools in the world. The growth in this consumer use of design tools is enormous and exploding. So it’s something like the Google Earth. But the fact that you can Google up and look at directions or the fact that you can see this building before you got here today doesn’t make someone necessarily a professional cartographer or a professional civil engineer or a professional photographer. It’s just means you have more information available to you or you have a few more tools to do your work. Similarly, access to design tools doesn’t make someone a professional designer. But we want to give access to design to a much wider set of people because as we have seen with Google, when people have access to information, amazing things happen.

Do you potentially see a conflict between your consumer strategy and your partner network given that Autodesk has been known as a great partner company?
Our partners provide tools to professionals. And what they tend to do is build on our platform and add specific knowledge — domain or geographic. It could be something they do around civil infrastructure [at the local level]. That’s where I see our partners contributing. The consumer tools are for the casual user, which taps into the basic human quality of wanting to change your environment — to build or make something. What our partners do — almost every one of them — is dedicated to providing professional tools. It’s far away from the consumer business.

Autodesk announced job cuts some time back owing to restructuring. How do you see your HR strategy supporting your change in business direction?
The big changes that we see in our business are what are going on in the computing world — in terms of cloud, mobile and social. We are big believers that all three trends will have a big impact on the world of design. All our HR efforts are centred on making sure that we have all the skills needed to market and sell these new-generation design tools.

Autodesk has grown significantly despite the economic slowdown. What is your revenue forecast for 2015?
We have given a long-term forecast of about 10% growth. This year we will do around $2.2 billion in revenues; 99% of that comes from professional segment and 1% from consumers. I don’t think that will change too dramatically going forward; possibly 2 to 3%.

Who is your closest competitor in design business?
There are a dozen if not hundreds of design companies who all specialise in some or other areas. So on one hand, we have geospatial companies like Esri. They are our part competitors but many of them are also people we cooperate with. We have customers all over the world and they use many tools to get the job done. It is a heterogeneous environment where there are use of these tools for many. So it is very common for somebody to use infrastructure pointing tools from us, GIS tools from Esri and hardware from Trimble. That’s the customer habit worldwide and that’s how we imagine them to be.

The fabric of geospatial industry is changing. There is Esri which is into GIS analysis, while there is also Hexagon and Trimble which are using measurement technology in construction and information modelling. In view of the acquisition of SkethchUp by Trimble, how do you see these companies coming into the domain of design solutions?
I see companies like Trimble primarily as a hardware provider. I think every hardware company at some point toys around with the idea of software components. They see software as a more profitable business model. Hardware gets into commodity pricing over time. So I think you always see hardware companies getting into software and I don’t think we are seeing anything different in the broadly defined geospatial area.

We are interested in infrastructure and the built environment, more than Googling. We are not Google maps. We intend to stick to tools, a complete suite of desktop tools that are used for building almost anything that exists in the world. Inserting geographic information into that process is becoming increasingly important across many of the industries we work in.

You have been talking about a technological, cultural and social revolution called infinite computing. How do you think the design industry can leverage the power of infinite computing?
Infinite computing is all about computing getting cheaper, more scalable, more powerful and ubiquitous. Computing is becoming virtually free and defining how we approach a problem. From my definition of design, as a both problem-defining and problem-solving technique, even the bare minimum dose of infinite computing allows us to explore alternatives on a computer before we actually commit to a design. So if you want to know how energy-efficient or how sustainable a city is, we do not have to speculate anymore; we can measure these things by building digital prototypes and simulating on a computer. Over the next couple of decades, these tools are going to get more powerful. We can better understand things before building them than we were able to do before.

How do you see the future business environment evolving?
The big move that we see is the move to cloud and social mobile. The two things we see on the cloud are infinite computing and also the ability to collaborate, coordinate and cooperate in our job. That is an incredibly important aspect in order to make sure jobs are done well and efficiently. The mobile component is huge because most of this work by definition is done on the field. There are devices which make sense [for workers] to be on the field unlike earlier when there was always a limitation on the field.

As the projects get more complex, they get more collaborative by nature. And the people you work with on these projects are becoming increasingly important. So we have a lot of social component in terms of how we collaborate and coordinate, and how we work with the people we need to in order to get a job done. We kind of have a unique perspective on this.

I think the next half a dozen years are going to be increasingly exciting for the industry. You are going to see some amazing technology from Autodesk that takes advantage of the cloud, mobile and social which will change the way the world designs, builds and manage infrastructure.

What are your expansion plans for the emerging markets?
We continue to expand into all the emerging markets we have represented. There is a big market growing quickly for us as these are the places where people are building and we help people in designing engineering projects. So we tend to be present wherever there are big buildings and constructions going on. From helping in things like [procuring] natural resources in Russia, to building roads, highways and buildings in China, to the complete infrastructure in Brazil, to delivering clean water in India… those are the kind of projects we are involved in.

The revenue share from emerging markets like the BRICS is growing about twice as fast as our other business. It is about 10-15% of our revenue at present.

How much localisation of technology is required for these markets?
A fair amount of it. The first part and possibly the simplest is language — we translate our products into more than 20 languages in over 100 countries. The second part is we have to adapt to local customs, policies and regulations. That is what I think is more important. It is time-consuming and expensive for us but more valuable for the people using it. For example, if you have to conform to the local standards of a highway, you need specific domain knowledge about the roads of that particular country and the rules that have been set there. And that requires a fair amount of work.

Some of these countries offer not only a market but also a source for technology. How do you look at a country like India?
We are very diverse in terms of our development. Autodesk has more than 25 offices around the world and we are making development across the globe. And we try to tap into the local expertise. Last year we acquired a company in Bangalore [in India] so we now have a number of development centres in the country.