Autodesk University Report from 1051 Feet

11 Dec, 2007 By: Robert Green

IT and CAD manager positions meld, use of BIM tools increases, and of course, the pressure to increase production never yields.

It's become customary for me to write my Autodesk University (AU) summary while flying home to Atlanta from Las Vegas. But this year I took the overnight flight back, so I simply jotted down my themes, trends, and key conclusions prior to takeoff and then had a nap while flying. So although all my ideas were captured right after AU (who says everything stays in Vegas?), the details were fleshed out at 1051 feet above sea level in metro Atlanta. In fact, I've found that I like this method better because I still can capture ideas quickly yet have more time to analyze those ideas. Here goes.

Why AU Matters
"Why should I care about Autodesk University?" you might wonder. Users of SolidWorks or Bentley products, for example, may think AU has no bearing on their work because they aren't Autodesk customers. Fair enough question, to which I respond: How many opportunities do we CAD managers really have to collaborate with thousands of other CAD managers?

I've discovered that CAD managers are of like mind no matter what CAD products they manage. Problems like technology avoidance, budgeting, user training, and senior management communication are not specific to any software vendor, so I've found AU is a great place to take the pulse of the community. And to its credit, Autodesk has been very proactive in offering a wide range of CAD management classes and labs delivered by a variety of industry veterans.

Author's note: Autodesk doesn't have a monopoly on user-focused technology events. Other software vendors, SolidWorks specifically, also hold huge user conferences that you can take advantage of (see calendar events). The point is to hang around other smart users who are wrestling with similar problems and see what you learn.

Who Was There
It seemed like everybody was there. Bumping up against the 10,000 attendee mark, AU leapfrogged last year's 7,400 attendance by a big margin. Many attendees brought spouses, drawing the total higher. Every year that I attend AU, I think the event can't possibly grow larger, but it always does.

The demographics of the attendee base continue to be mainly engineers, architects, designers, CAD technicians, IT managers, and senior management who represent all possible disciplines, industries, countries, and backgrounds. Here are some of the CAD manager attendance trends I noted this year:

  • More IT managers were in CAD manager classes than ever -- I'd estimate 5-7%.
  • More CAD managers reported working for IT departments than ever -- I'd guess about 5%.
  • Many more CAD managers reported managing building information modeling (BIM) tools like Revit and Revit MEP than last year.
  • The number of CAD managers dealing with Civil 3D tools was about the same as last year.
  • The number of CAD managers from manufacturing industries seemed to have declined slightly from last year.
  • More CAD managers are learning programming (VBA and AutoLISP) than ever.

Let me explain why I think these trends are worth noting. I'll tackle each item separately.

IT managers. The fact that more IT managers are functioning as CAD managers generally means that the CAD manager is no longer reporting to engineering/architectural management and that the CAD manager position is seen as an overhead activity. I understand wanting to isolate overhead to the IT department, but I observed many IT managers who were confused about managing CAD tools. The sense I get is that IT managers are getting a baptism by fire when jumping into CAD management.

CAD managers reporting through IT. This situation is more desirable than the one noted above because the CAD manager knows how to manage CAD tools yet can be detached from the production pressure of reporting to engineering or architecture. I've actually come to believe this trend is positive for the part-time CAD manager who constantly faces the problem of being billable. I'll keep a close eye on this trend over the next year.

More BIM/Revit. The story here is that people are using more BIM tools, and consequently CAD managers have to implement and manage these new tools. The good news is the BIM ball seems to finally be rolling; the bad news is that nobody really knows how to manage these tools (not even the software companies, I might add). I also noticed that many BIM-focused CAD managers were from government agencies or big real estate management firms, and they are simply trying to figure out how they'll deal with BIM when it hits.

Civil 3D unchanged. I interpret the lack of change here as validation that those who made the leap to Civil 3D early are now tailing off, while the remaining companies still using Land Development Desktop or AutoCAD to manage their projects are simply waiting for the right time to leap.

Mechanical CAD unchanged. The mechanical attendees I spoke with again didn't express any particular "wish list" or "have to have" needs. What I continue to hear is interest in optimizing the use of mechanical CAD tools and in investigating add-on programs to facilitate manufacturing, molding, 3D printing, or analysis.

Programming interest. Each year I've seen more CAD managers getting involved with programming. As an example, I taught three AutoLISP classes with a combined attendance of 600 people! It seems CAD managers understand that they can do more to help their companies if they can customize the CAD tools they work with.

The Keynote
Autodesk did an "in the round" presentation at AU, which showed a cityscape displayed around the audience via an array of large, flat panels. The visual effect really was breathtaking. But I wonder how many of us will ever be able to use such a tool? After all, I think the Holodeck on Star Trek is very cool, but I doubt I'll ever own one.

Autodesk CEO Carl Bass was no longer the new guy on the main stage, after having taken over from Carol Bartz last year, but a natural part of the Autodesk landscape. I continue to admire Bass for taking technical risks and putting Autodesk's technology concepts out there for everyone to see. It is evident that Bass is a technophile, not a Wall Street guy, which I think comes across to the audience. And even if the technology demonstrated is futuristic and not available for consumption, it is refreshing to see new ideas and ponder the possibilities.

As in years past Autodesk wants to talk about highly integrated 3D digital design environments and virtual prototyping. Not much talk about AutoCAD or pesky little things like 2D drafting to be heard, even though Autodesk is currently rolling out 2D centric tools for Process and Instrumentation (P&ID) tasks in the plant design space. AutoCAD continues to be the program that brings in the bucks but doesn't get much respect -- the Rodney Dangerfield of Autodesk's software offerings.

The skeptic in me continues to react to AU keynotes with thoughts of "Who's smart enough in the organization to absorb this technology?" or even "Who's going to model all this stuff?" But as CAD managers we know the answer to both questions. (Hint: The CAD manager will!)

CAD Managers Under Pressure
I spent a lot of time speaking with CAD managers regarding what I see as the unrelenting drive to deliver more productivity on more software platforms with less CAD management overhead time. Once again, it isn't just me who sees the trend; everyone I spoke with at AU feels the same pressures.

I like to view the production pressure problem from an optimist's viewpoint, which I'll outline here:

  • If companies want productivity, then the CAD manager can go into business as an internal efficiency expert. Want to get rid of those pesky useless clerical tasks? Simply explain to your management that your time is better spent where you can increase work output.
  • CAD management isn't so much about software platforms, versions, and formats; it's about getting work done! CAD managers who focus on this reality will be more promotable and better compensated.
  • Being a CAD manager now means that the technology you understand is a given. The question is how well can you implement the technology to get work output. For most of us, the emphasis is now more on manager than on CAD.
  • Embrace these trends and you'll do well.

Economic Forecast from the AU Barometer: Pretty Good
In all the CAD management classes I taught, I asked how many companies were laying off workers versus how many would love to hire qualified people if they could find them. I received about 20 responses out of roughly 1000 attendees who reported layoffs and at least 700 reported wanting to hire good staff. No matter what any other economic indicator may say, this looks like good news to me. When companies have trouble hiring good people, it means that good people are working, right?

I also observed a continued trend in favor of making employees smarter and faster to gain productivity as opposed to outsourcing the work to a lower-labor-cost country. Three years ago the fear of outsourcing was palpable at AU, but this year the CAD managers I spoke with didn't even mention it.

I believe that CAD power users and CAD managers who know their stuff will be fully employed and, in fact, increasingly in demand.

Wrapping Up
This year's trip to Autodesk University has convinced me that 2008 will be a year of cautious software adoption tempered with a fierce drive for more productivity. It's going to be a challenging year but ultimately a satisfying one. I believe CAD managers will have some concrete accomplishments to look back at.

I'd like to thank the 1600 attendees who took my classes and labs at AU this year as well as all of you newsletter readers who introduced yourselves. It's a privilege to collaborate with so many smart people! Until next year.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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