Founder John Walker is a very interesting guy. He, like Riddle (read more about him in my previous post
), is a brilliant programmer and by some accounts a bit of a wacko—not my words. (PC Week
columnist Jesse Berst once described Walker as “the most brilliant and the most bizarre person I’ve ever met.”) Where Riddle was nearly obsessed with efficient code and architecture, Walker, though less disciplined with his code, had a better view of the big picture. Both men are brilliant, but in very different ways. Walker not only could write code, he could manage other programmers in a manner of speaking…they were a headstrong bunch. Riddle found Walker a bit too controlling, but then how else do you manage 18 coders, all very expressive, with their own ideas about how things should be done?
Walker is also infamous for designing one of the first computer viruses. For the record, he wasn’t trying to hack into the US Government’s secret computers. He wrote ANIMAL, a self-replicating bit of code. I love that program and still do…it is brilliant. It would ask you to think of an animal and then would ask you a series of questions. It would eventually “guess” what animal you were thinking of, like those plastic “20 Questions” handheld toys you can now buy on Amazon. At the time, ANIMAL was the kind of artificial intelligence that was very impressive to experience. The virus part was an associated subroutine called PERVADE, which copied ANIMAL into every sub-directory that the user had access to. This was not a malicious program, but it is
credited with being the very first Trojan Horse! Walker’s ANIMAL was part of my inspiration to go on and develop Sylvie, the first intelligent animated virtual human, with my team at Virtual Personalities, Inc.
Walker, a man of very strong political views, made his beliefs quite public with an infamous bumper sticker
and many published tidbits. In 1991 he moved to Switzerland, where he founded Fourmilab, to pursue all sorts of interesting projects, including taking the palindrome to one million places. Among other things Walker wrote a diet book, an engineer’s approach to dieting called The Hacker’s Diet
. All the while he was exercising influence over Autodesk.
Walker has been quoted as saying he never really wanted to run a major US corporation. He claims it was a means to an end for him, a way to achieve his technological visions. In 1986 he gave up the top spot to Alvar Green, who had been CFO at Autodesk. Nevertheless, Walker still liked to control things and allegedly ruled from behind the scenes; he could do this because he was still the company’s largest shareholder. Autodesk had become a bit difficult to manage because of all the deeply expressive individualistic personalities involved (I’m being highly euphemistic here). Green was an odd choice from the start. He wasn’t into computers at all and didn’t even keep one on his desk. When he needed to send an email, he had his secretary do it. He didn’t “get” programmers…he was more of an accountant type. Green was publicly blasted by Walker for his poor handling of the company, particularly for not using the company’s heavy cash reserves to acquire smaller companies to broaden the product base.
Green eventually lost credibility and gave up his seat to Carol Bartz, who came over from Sun Microsystems to run Autodesk. She and Walker shared many views on how to run a company and started out with Walker’s full support. Walker had left his beloved Switzerland to come back to the US for three months and straighten things out at Autodesk. With Bartz onboard he went back to Switzerland, pledging to give her a reasonably free hand. Under Bartz’s 14-year leadership, Autodesk’s gross annual revenue grew from $285 million to over $1.5 billion. She became Chairman of the Board in 2006 and the company kept growing. She left in 2009, and after a few months rest, she was approached to become CEO of Yahoo, another wildly successful and creative company where her strong leadership ruffled more than a few feathers. But that’s another story.
Carl Bass took the reins from her as CEO in 2006. Bass is a man of broad interests and abilities. His brilliance shines a wide swath and he “gets” Autodesk. He’s a Cornell graduate and has done everything from cabinet making to designing and building boats. While a Math major at Cornell, he was offered a summer job using his mathematical skills to design some early graphics programs. At ten bucks an hour it was better than doing farm labor at $3/hr! After graduating with his BS in Math, Carl kept his day job as a cabinetmaker and started a computer graphics company called “Flying Moose Systems,” which eventually became Ithaca Software. Interestingly, Ithaca Software was one of Autodesk’s early acquisitions and Bass moved to San Rafael.
Another interesting side story is that Bartz fired Bass in 1995 because she found him to be a “pain in the ass.” Bartz, who was always outspoken, decided to invite Bass back to Autodesk to help out on a project that was stuck, and needed his unique expertise. Bass stayed, achieving a number of top executive positions at Autodesk, including COO, CTO and EVP of Product Development.
To date, Bass has contributed his unique vision born of his business shrewdness, artistic sensibility and technical acumen to every area of the company’s growth. Bass has proved himself to be a tireless CEO rising early in the morning and working long hours. Well past the million mile club, Bass travels the globe throughout the year keeping on top of Autodesk’s vast empire.
Though I’ve not met him, I share many personal interests with Bass, so forgive me if mention a few of his outside interests. They include serving on the boards of E2open, the Art Center College of Design, and the Rocky Mountain Institute, which is headquartered about a mile from my home. A member of the Executive Advisory Boards of Cornell Computing and Information Science, and UC Berkeley School of Information, he gives generously of what little time he has for himself.
Autodesk has fascinating past and a bright future. It is keeping its customers happy and so far, I’d have to give them an enthusiastic thumbs up.
(If you missed Part 1, read it here