CAD Managers Seek Self-Improvement at Autodesk University 2009

9 Dec, 2009 By: Robert Green

CAD managers arrived at this year's AU determined to learn new skills and safeguard their careers.

Last week I attended Autodesk University 2009 (AU) at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas to teach some classes and gather information from the biggest gathering of CAD managers I'm aware of. I'm not writing a show report, however, because I think the real news was what I gathered from CAD managers in informal conversation. What follows is the information I think might be useful for you. Here goes.

Attendance and Mood

AU attendance was clearly down from past years, but not as much as I expected. Nearing the 10,000 mark in 2007 and 2008, attendees numbered 5,900 this year, according to Autodesk. That count seems accurate to me given that the Mandalay Bay Events Center arena seats 12,000 and was approximately half-full for Autodesk CEO Carl Bass's keynote speech.

The atmosphere at AU this year was not one of good cheer, but rather of silent resolve to learn new skills and recession-proof careers. The mood was not bad, but it was restrained and serious.

During open hours at the show floor, vendor booths were well attended. Several of the vendors I spoke to told me, "The people who are here are serious and are trying to get the most for their money."

Audience Polling

I've always informally polled CAD managers during my classes to gauge the economic stability of the companies we all work in. I usually conduct the survey by a show of hands and ask the following questions:

  • How many of you work in companies that have too much work to complete?
  • How many of you work in companies with good/normal workloads?
  • How many of you work in companies that are laying off?

The response to these questions has varied dramatically over the past few years.

In 2006, most companies had too much to do and nobody was laying off. 

In 2007, the "too much" companies slipped a little, but still, almost nobody was laying off.

In 2008, there were essentially zero "too much work" companies, and more than half were laying off.

In 2009, I asked my large CAD manager session (160 students) the same line of questions and got results that weren't as bad as last year, but were still disturbing. I counted just four hands in response to the "too busy" question and 22 hands (about 14%) in the "laying off" category. Roughly 30% of the room reported "good to normal" workloads, so I pushed on and asked how many companies were "just trying to get by and hoping for the best" — and that's when the remaining 50% of the room raised their hands.

From this year's show of hands, I've concluded that the worst of the layoffs are over — but only one-third of the CAD managers reported working for companies that have high-to-normal workloads. That still leaves two-thirds of companies laying off or just hanging in there, hoping for things to get busy. Even though the TV reporters are telling us the global recession is over, the informal CAD manager survey doesn't bear that out.

Coping Strategies

Throughout my time at AU, I asked everyone I could how they're handling the downturn and what their coping strategies are. Here are some recurring themes I heard:

Doing more production work. Being required to pitch in on production engineering, design, modeling, and drafting seems to be the norm for many more CAD managers now. With staffing levels minimal, CAD managers need to pinch hit during production crunches. I sensed no resentment, but rather an attitude of "I'd rather do production work than be laid off."

Doing less development work. CAD managers are performing less work on standards and less programming, and they're spending less time brainstorming future CAD trends in favor of production assistance. Here I did sense frustration, along the lines of "How can I make things better for my company if they won't let me work on the very things that would help us improve?"

Staying billable. The CAD managers who were able to address development-type tasks were largely doing so by making those tasks billable to a job. So rather than a generic routine to automate drawing sheet creation for all users, the task would be undertaken for a specific project.

Informal training only. I heard very few CAD managers talking about their company's training program; instead, I heard most talking about having no training program. I sensed an attitude of mild despair at the lack of training opportunities, but many CAD managers are making the best of the situation by using lunch-and-learn sessions to keep training costs down. I continue to believe that any training is better than none.

The Ambidextrous CAD Manager

My father used to say, "If you're going to live hand-to-mouth, be ambidextrous." It seems many CAD managers are taking that advice to heart in this down economy. I spoke with more CAD managers who are learning IT skills, expanding into programming, beefing up their design skills, learning new software, etc., than at any other time I can remember.

The bad news: Business is down.

The good news: When business comes back, the new breed of ambidextrous CAD manager will have many employment options to choose from.

So don't despair — tackle new challenges and be ready for the upturn!

BIM and 3D CAD

The news in this area of CAD was a mixed bag at best. Although I observed much more interest in 3D CAD, many CAD managers admitted that they won't have the money to implement these new technologies when they get back home. The pervasive attitude seemed to be "Learn everything you can about new technology and plan for its eventual implementation after business picks up."

BIM classes were quite full, and civil engineering and mechanical design classes were well attended, as they have been in past years. Classes on advanced topics, such as programming for 3D CAD platforms, were also well attended. Clearly, there is still a lot of interest in advanced 3D CAD applications.

Summing Up

I came away from Autodesk University with mixed feelings. On one hand, I'm really enthused to see so many smart, capable CAD managers expanding their skill sets and serving their companies so well. On the other hand, I hate that the poor business environment makes it so hard to apply the skills that CAD managers can bring to the table.

My conclusion is that even though we may be in for more rough times in the near future, CAD managers are still needed, and the job is becoming even tougher. Those CAD managers that continue to learn new things and push through the tough times should be in a great position to profit when business comes back. And that alone is reason enough to be optimistic.

See you at next year's AU!

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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Re: CAD Managers Seek Self-Improvement at Autodesk Uni...
by: svenjacob
December 9, 2009 - 3:59pm
I just read Andrew Roe who said that of the 5900 people at AU 2009, 3000 were adsk employees or resellers... what do you think robert? SJ

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