Autodesk’s Carl Bass on Craftsmanship, Work & the Future of Business


  • From left: David Kirkpatrick, Carl Bass

    From left: David Kirkpatrick, Carl Bass

  • Carl Bass, Autodesk

    Carl Bass, Autodesk

  • From left: David Kirkpatrick, Carl Bass

    From left: David Kirkpatrick, Carl Bass


Carl Bass
President and CEO, Autodesk


David Kirkpatrick
Founder and CEO, Techonomy

Craftsmanship, Work & the Future of Business
What a personal touch means for products, our economy and the ecosystem of cities.

Kirkpatrick:  Carl is CEO of Autodesk, and this is a company that really is taking some very creative moves in terms of rethinking what the future of society ought to be and the role that software can play in the future of society.

You know, for anybody who was at the reception last night, one of the things that was really striking to me, especially for a reception sponsored by a big tech company, there was a sense of play that was really pronounced: making fuzzy dice and, air fresheners,  and zucchini racers.  I was thinking about it, what an interesting thing it was. And in my career as a business journalist over the last 30, 35 years, you would never have gone to a corporate event that had that stuff.

I guess what I really wanted to ask you is—because you have a sense of play, you’re very involved in making things yourself and not letting the company and the world forget that, from the CEO on down, we’re makers. We’re here to have a good time and we’re here to make progress. I don’t know where the question is in that, but it seems like there’s a cultural thing that you have really tried to build at Autodesk under your leadership that is kind of magical, to be honest.

Bass: Well, thanks. You know, the interesting thing is, if you think about all of our customers, they make stuff. So they’re making automobiles, they’re making medical devices, they’re building buildings, they’re building civic infrastructure. And at heart, it’s all about taking some idea and turning it into something. And, you know, there’s the fun of it. And one of the things I was marveling at during that wonderful panel on cities is, in some ways, while the issues we deal with are technically really complex, they’re easy compared to cities. You know, we don’t have all those people to deal with. I mean there’s so many difficult issues that you wrestle with in a city. The problems we deal with are ones of design and engineering, and while technically very complicated, they do have some simplicity to it. But when you go back, what we’re really trying to do is help all these people who at heart are really trying to take their ideas and turn it into things that solve problems.

Kirkpatrick: Yes. It would probably be worth you just quickly describing what Autodesk does and why you’re interested in the maker movement and all this stuff. I think some people may not know the range of products.

Bass: What we do fundamentally is we make software, and it’s design and engineering software for people who build infrastructure and buildings, for people who build manufactured products like cars and airplanes. And the part that many people don’t know is we make software for people who make movies and videogames. So we’re in the business of making design, engineering, animation software. That’s what our business is. And when I think of the maker movement, I think the maker movement is just the tip. I think the maker movement’s incredibly interesting, but I also think when you start moving up the ladder in terms of scale—so makers great, and it’s mostly individual, and it’s about all of us in our home lives/personal lives. But then you look at what’s going up in the startup community, and now you look at hardware startups, all the way up to the largest manufacturers in the world, and in essence, many of the challenges they share are the same. It is this idea of, “How do I get my idea made, how do I”—

Kirkpatrick: It’s even making a better city, for that matter.

Bass: Absolutely. It’s just a different scale problem. And, you know, so it’s this idea of, “How do I turn this into a real thing?” and for many companies it’s, “How do I make it in a way that’s differentiated from the next?” You know, and Disney is as interested in making a different movie from someone as GM is in making a different car than BMW. And so we’re there as the tool providers for that, and really, you know, in some ways, the best part of my job is to work with all these wonderfully creative, imaginative people who are trying to get this done. And there’s a special relationship between a toolmaker and the people who are trying to get—you know, I sometimes think of the samurai sword maker and the samurai. Each one depends on the other, in the same way, as the toolmaker for most of the creative engineering community, that’s kind of a special role we have.

Kirkpatrick: It is a special role. I mean you started sort of with architectural software.

Bass: The first thing was this thing called AutoCAD, and it was to draft on a computer.

Kirkpatrick: That was, what, about 25 years ago?

Bass: Almost 30 years ago. The company started the same time as Microsoft and Adobe. As a matter of fact, we stuck with the name Autodesk because the idea was, at the time, they were going to build a suite of applications that looked like Microsoft Office. So we’re still called Autodesk, and there’s Dan’l talking about Microsoft. They got that a little bit wrong, but otherwise it’s okay.

Kirkpatrick: Well, you know, there’s so many things that Autodesk does that I find fascinating. One of the things that I think this audience might find striking—although, I want to talk about anything that you think is relevant to Detroit and civic innovation and the future of business in society. But you said at one recent conversation, “The future is biological.” And you’re very interested, at Autodesk, in what’s happening with synthetic biology and genomics, which is not intuitive. A lot of people might think, wait, this is a company that’s helping architects and people designing cars. Why biology? What interests you about biology so much right now?

Bass: I think there’s a couple of things going on, and I’d say synthetic biology and kind of building at the nanoscale I think is one of the big next frontiers. So I’m interested in exploring places where we can take the knowledge we have from how do we design in the inert world, the stuff that’s all around us, and how do we apply it to biological stuff. So let’s give some examples of biological, because I think the future of manufacturing is going to have a large component which is biological. So we’re shipping a 3-D printer right now. The packaging for that is all mycelium. It’s all mushroom.

Kirkpatrick: Mushrooms?

Bass: You put mushrooms into—

Kirkpatrick: Instead of Styrofoam peanuts?

Bass: Absolutely. And then when you get this thing, you take out your printer and you take the mycelium and the box and it’s all compostable.

Kirkpatrick: Compostable? Wow. That’s better than recyclable.

Bass: Yes. It’s perfect. So you look at something like that—there’s been many companies that have been able to make jet fuel from algae. So when you start thinking of the scale of problems, you have to come up with solutions that scale equally well. So for example, in the news, and certainly in the maker movement, there’s a huge amount of talk about things like 3-D printing. 3-D printing has one terrible problem: It’s fighting the power of three. And what I mean by that is, if you have something that you 3-D printed and you wanted to make it twice as big, it takes eight times as long.

Kirkpatrick: And it goes exponentially up. So making really big things is super hard.

Bass: Super hard. So you’ve got to look for things that scale exponentially as well. Biology is one of those.

I’ll tell you one other biological thing. We’re working with a group, George Church and a bunch of researchers at Harvard. They’re building nanoscale robots that deliver payload of drugs inside the body. So imagine putting something in, it targets the particular cell and when it reaches, it opens and delivers a payload locally.

Kirkpatrick: So what is Autodesk doing with them?

Bass: In order to design these things, you need software. So that was an example where we looked and we said we understand some of these ideas of how to design and engineer things, and you need tools in order to do this. So if you’re going to design a nanoscale robot—in this case, it’s made out of strands of DNA that self-assemble—you need tools to figure out what that thing’s going to look like, how it’s going to operate. You know, at a nanoscale, it has hinges. It has many of the things mechanical components in the real world have.

So when you tie it back to things like cities, I mean my interest is—we have two trends that are going on, one that I’m terribly afraid of, which is, you know, what are we all going to do when the robots take our jobs? You know, we look and we will see autonomous vehicles. There’s a number of things that will make having a healthy, robust middleclass around the world difficult.

On the other hand, the way we’ve stayed ahead of this is by developing new opportunities. And I think we have to look at those opportunities, the entrepreneurial opportunities where we can go and find new industries where there are problems that need to be solved. And we know there’s no shortage of problems. I look at biological things as one of the ways to do it. But even when I look at the maker movement, hardware startups, for me it’s how do we take all the ingenuity and how do we turn it around so people get good jobs? How do they make healthy communities as a result of building good businesses?

Kirkpatrick: So you come down sort of in the middle on this dystopian versus optimistic point of view.

Bass: I’m a New Yorker. I’m not Danish.

Kirkpatrick: Well, New Yorkers aren’t in the middle of anything. What are you talking about.

Bass: Exactly.

Kirkpatrick: But how worried are you about this jobs thing? I mean, you know, factories are increasingly automating, right? Detroit’s maybe going to get back the auto industry in its full blossom, but there will never be the jobs as before, right?

Bass: Right. So my thing is, if you look at Detroit, or any of the industrialized cities, as being about the factory, that’s the mistake. That was a means of production. You know, it was an appropriate one at the time. You’re right, factories are—you know, you go to the plants around here, they’re almost all completely automated. The parking lots, when they’re still running three shifts, you go outside and the parking lot has 20% of the cars as it did when it was at its peak. We’re not going to create those kind of jobs. The question is, can we create other and even better jobs. And I think the strength of places like Detroit is the expertise of the people. In some ways, I think it’s crazy—you know, my adopted home in San Francisco, where they’re talking about hardware startups, you know, you go to a meetup and there’s a thousand companies that are building hardware.

Kirkpatrick: Hardware, yes.

Bass: Yes, physical products. But you look here and you go, this is where the expertise is. You know, so some days I feel like we’re all pretending in San Francisco that we know how to machine and we know how to mold and weld. This is a place where people are raised on those skills. There’s a huge expertise throughout the Midwest, and I think that’s what needs to be tapped into. We’re not going to reinvent factories where there’s tens of thousands of people who go into these factories every day.

I think you just have to write it off. And I think if you want to be forward looking in some way, you have to admit—like if you look at the number of people in the US economy who drive vehicles, I believe in my lifetime we will hit a place where we will not drive our cars. We will have autonomous vehicles. I even believe our grandkids are going to look at us and say, “You can’t believe this, my grandparents used to drive their own car. Can you believe how crazy that was?”

Kirkpatrick: This may be borderline apostasy in Detroit. I mean even for me, you know, driving cars is kind of fun, you know?

Bass: I think the fun part—so the fun part of it is—

Kirkpatrick: It’s not always fun, but it’s fun a lot of the time.

Bass: Yes. No, I just went through this funny thing. My son and I had built this electric go-kart a couple of years ago, and then this summer we took the guts of a drone and we transplanted it to make an autonomous go-kart. And the first thing everybody said to me is, “Why the heck would you make an autonomous go kart? Isn’t the whole point of a go kart to drive it?”

Kirkpatrick: Right.

Bass: I said, “Absolutely.” But what we started to do was we let the thing drive autonomously and then you race against it and see if you can be faster.

Kirkpatrick: I see. So that’s what we’re going to have people doing on the streets.

Bass: This is going to be so scary. I don’t even want to talk to the mayor about this. Right now the mayor of Berkeley doesn’t even like me driving the go-kart down the street.

Kirkpatrick: Well, I spent some time in the country outside of New York and, you know, all these people in their F150, you know, Ford, big pickups, you know, those people do not want to get out from behind the wheel. They love driving that powerful monster, right? I don’t think they’re going to all get into a, you know, Tesla-ized pickup truck.

Bass: But think of cruise control. It’s not saying you have to do this. I think what we’re going to find out is that there are times when—you know, just as we now all do parallel processing, we sit on our phone, we do our email, we talk on the phone, I think people are going to get in their car—I mean if you talk to some of the folks who work at Google who have now driven autonomous vehicles for a long time, they get in the car and they start going to work. They take out their laptop and they do email.

Kirkpatrick: Yeah, really.

Bass: You know, so it’s one of these choices—I’m not trying to say this is the way the world has to work, but you’re going to give people these options. And I think we’re mistaken if we want to try to figure out how to kind of put the genie back in the bottle and say we’re not going to have autonomous vehicles, the factories—you know, we’re going to try to make full employment. You know, we’ll end up with some of the jobs that they have in places like Japan, where you go, “What is that job?” You know, this is a made up job, 17 people on the train platform to watch, just so it’s full employment. I think that’s the saddest—

Kirkpatrick: We don’t want that. But we do want employment.

Bass: We want good employment. I think it’s the saddest state of affairs to make jobs just for the sake of having jobs.

Kirkpatrick: Yes. And there’s great stuff, like just this week, the federal government basically said they’re going to require all cars—no, actually, it was the auto industry got together and said pretty much all cars are going to have collision avoidance systems that automatically apply the brakes to help people avoid killing themselves.

Bass: Yes. And I look at it and say—

Kirkpatrick: So there’s a lot of movement on the good side.

Bass: I think it will be demonstrable that the computer is better at driving cars than we are.

Kirkpatrick: Okay. Since we’re on cars—

Bass: Despite all of us who love being behind our F150.

Kirkpatrick: Since we’re on cars and we’re in Detroit, how do you—and you’re a manufacturing thinker. Where do you see the future of the auto industry? Is Tesla going to take over? I just saw today that Apple has over a thousand employees on their auto thing and they hired the CEO of Hyundai America yesterday, so Apple’s clearly pushing forward. Is Apple or Tesla going to be the next Ford or GM?

Bass: Well, you’re talking about all my best customers, so this is going to get awkward.

Kirkpatrick: You mean all four of them?

Bass: No, there’s about 20 worldwide.

Kirkpatrick: Yes. All automakers are giant customers of yours.

Bass: Yes. You know what I think the interesting thing is—so if we just look broadly at manufacturing, if I go back ten years, the question that manufacturers used to talk to us about, as the toolmakers, was all about quality. It was six sigma, you know, “How do I get good quality?” Today, quality is assumed to be, in every automobile, but every product. The questions that manufacturers are asking today are really two things. One is how do I get this kind of intangible that many would label innovation, and what I translate to, after hearing this conversation many times, is, “How do I make a product better than my competitors, and if I’m really lucky, in a sustainable way,” so, “What’s my sustainable competitive advantage over my competitors?” And the second thing they’re concerned with is, “How do I get that product to market more quickly?” So I have this great idea of a thing called a minivan, or a whatever; right now it takes me three or four years before I can bring that to market. So in four years, lots of things change.

Those are the things that manufacturers are dealing with. I think the most interesting thing about Tesla, in some ways, is despite the hundreds of millions of dollars of R&D in Germany and Detroit and other places, it took an outsider to throw off the industry. I remember three or four years ago, I was at an unnamed German manufacturer of automobiles, and we had this interesting conversation. I said, you know, around me—and I live in Berkeley and work in San Francisco—Teslas are everywhere. You go to a parking lot and, other than Prius, there’s Teslas, and that looks like the future. And in a very dramatic way, they kind of told me that this whole thing about electric cars is very Californian. Nobody wants an electric car. And, you know, you’re wondering how industries miss these trends. They have people they hire to do this. They have R&D labs. They spend hundreds of millions. And I said, “So why do you think it’s California? As a matter of fact, it seems kind of the opposite. You guys seem to live in cities with limited road space, commute 10, 20, 30 miles each way. It seems perfect for electric vehicles. It doesn’t do a great weekend drive for the Autobahn, but other than that, electric vehicles”—“No, this is California. It’ll never take over.” “Are you guys building an electric”—“No, we’re not building an electric car. We have no interest.”

And so you look at this and you go—you know, there’s a lot of talk about how industries get disrupted, and there’s sense that they come out of nowhere. But my observation, after years of doing this, is that disruption comes really slowly and that you see the thing, you know, like a tidal wave in the distance, and for whatever reason, economic or otherwise, you choose to put your head in the sand.

Kirkpatrick: Well, do you think the future of autos is going to be even newer Teslas, like startups that are—you know, you live in startup land, and this is startup land too. Is that going to be where we’re going to see the next car makers?

Bass: Yes. But I would not underestimate the power of the entrenched automakers.

Kirkpatrick: Except the one you visited in Germany. But even they probably have an electric car by now.

Bass: I think they’ll eventually come around. And I think the thing is, people forget that the design of an automobile is one of the things, but the sale, marketing, and production of that—you know, for example, we get all amazed by the Tesla factory. There are factories in Germany that are producing 10,000 cars a day with a handful of robots. I mean the scale at which the big auto companies do this and do it very well is something to marvel at.

Kirkpatrick: It’s ironic. You’d think if they understood the robotics in their factories, they’d understand the automobile also, right?

Bass: Exactly. But I was reading the newspaper this morning, you know, and just the difficulty that Tesla is having in scaling this. So I think they’ve done an absolutely wonderful job of giving a jolt to the industry. But just as in every industry we’ve watched, even in IT, I would not write off the people who are already there and have a lot of the other things needed.

Kirkpatrick: Okay. Let’s get the house lights up, because I want to hear people who have comments or questions for Carl. But I have a question for you, as we’re moving in that direction. You know, software, which is what you do, is a transformative phenomenon societally, and you had an interesting way of describing that when we were talking about the phone, you know, about—shall I prompt you—about knowledge and the sort of leveling quality that software has. Could you just talk about that a little bit?

Bass: I mean this goes back to my slightly dystopian view of the future, which is—I mean it’s mixed. So one thing that’s wonderful is that software done well can embed lots of knowledge and can enable people to do things. So the thing that I think is most interesting going on in manufacturing today is the idea that we’ve been able to embed this knowledge. We can use microprocessors for the design, we can microprocessors for the manufacturing, and we can make the machinist anywhere in the world as good as anywhere else.

Kirkpatrick: With software that’s instantiated the state of the art knowledge and capability.

Bass: Exactly.

Kirkpatrick: And they can use that in literally any distant corner—

Bass: Right. And I think one of the interesting things that’s going on right now is the reversal of some of the things that made the Industrial Revolution. You know, the Industrial Revolution was based on we’re going to make lots of something, and by making lots of it, we will make it well and we will make it cheaply. We will be able to lower the cost by raising the volume. Now all of the sudden you do not need to make things in huge volume to have those kind of economies of scale, and one of the enablers of that is that we have software that embeds this knowledge. And the other thing—and, you know, it’s taken the form in people’s minds of 3-D printing, but if you look more generically, most manufacturing is done with computers today. So sometimes it’s in the form of a robot, sometimes it’s a 3-D printer or CNC machine or laser cutter. All of this is really brought about by the microprocessor. And I think it’s this thing that all of the sudden now what reverses that trend of the Industrial Revolution is I can make really high quality things in small quantities at reasonably affordable prices. And that’s different, and that’s where I think this is an incredible opportunity for people to create businesses.

Kirkpatrick: And software is a fundamental enabler.

Bass: Yes. Software is fundamental, and the hardware is changing, and you have this nice coming together where you have access to markets, access to funding, and access to knowledge. You know, I was visiting a handful of startups yesterday in Detroit and every one is doing half their business online. Many of them were funded by things like Kickstarter. So by having crowdfunding, access to information about it, access to their market, reasonably priced software, and hardware that allows them to compete with larger scale manufacturers, that’s where you have real opportunity. And I’d much rather see people pursuing their passions and creating businesses around the things they love than trying to fill up factories with more people.

And to get further down that line, I still think one of the biggest things we need to do is reform the American education system, where if you really look at the history of it, it was to take an agrarian population and make us all suitable, you know, to tame us so we could work in the factory. And so we’re educating people in some ways for a future that doesn’t exist anymore, and I think that’s a real crime that we’re perpetrating on our children. The future is going to be in taking their knowledge and creativity and passion and turning it into interesting things, not for us to stand there all day and turn the same screw 10,000 times.

Kirkpatrick: Yes, that’s a great point. Who has a comment or a question?

Adelkhani: I’m Nima from Idea Market in California. So I have a Volt. But if it wasn’t for the carpool stickers and the tax credits, would they be selling even in California? Because ultimately, I think the CEO of Fiat famously said, “Please don’t buy the electric Fiats. We’re losing like $6,000 dollars on each of them.”

So my question is, you say in California, but they’re still not able to sell these cars, even with these incentives, so what are your thoughts on that?

Bass: I think, you know, in many of the places we’re at some transition period where the pricing is getting even. Electric cars and gas cars are there. If you look at solar in California versus other means of generating power, we’re getting at the breakeven point. In some cases, we’ve exceeded it. And there are some built-in things in the system that are retarding the growth of it. But I think we will get there.

You know, I often don’t say this too publicly because of all the car companies, but I was recently reading this thing that came from Argonne National Labs and it was a whitepaper that basically said the embedded energy cost of making an automobile exceeds the lifetime energy of the fuel. And so if you really want to do anything really good for the environment, it’s actually not buying a Volt or a Prius. It’s actually driving your car longer, or finding ways that that car gets more use per time around, so things like sharing automobiles.

Kirkpatrick: That might not be the greatest for the economy.

Bass: It’s not the greatest for the economy.

Kirkpatrick: Quick question, and then we’re going to wrap.

Humphrey: Thank you very much. Andrew Humphrey, WDIV, Detroit, and “TechTime with Andrew Humphrey.” Facebook yesterday announced that they’re making a significant investment in 360-degree spherical views and virtual reality.  What’s your take on that sort of space, virtual reality, 360-degree view, and also getting more directly into the consumer market?

Bass: So my slightly cynical view, when Facebook started with Oculus, was why did the company that started the social networking thing buy the most antisocial device on the planet?

Kirkpatrick: That is slightly cynical.

Bass: It’s slightly cynical. What I really think is I am less enthused about virtual reality and going into a made-up space, because I think there’s all kinds of limitations. I’m much more interested in the class of applications called augmented reality, where we take things that already exist in the world and we supplement them with information that’s in the computer. You know, so in the context of cities, if I’m walking down and I have a device on—you know, so you watch them digging up the streets, you know, the call before you dig is immediate. I can walk and I can see the infrastructure underneath as I’m walking. You can think of thousands of applications. And I think this augmented reality set of applications will be the thing that in many ways is much more interesting than virtual reality.

Kirkpatrick: That’s great. You’ve said some fantastic things. And by the way, Mark Zuckerberg I think more or less thinks that too. It’s just the technology that they’re using at Oculus for virtual is going to—

Bass: Yes, and by the way, the Oculus, it’s actually a great device. It’s a great technical achievement. They’ve actually gotten rid of a lot of the problems with these kinds of devices.

Kirkpatrick: But not all of them.

Bass: Not all. But they’re on their way.

Kirkpatrick: We’ve got to wrap. But you are doing so many great things, and thank you again for the reception last night.

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