Looking Back at Autodesk University 2012 Reveals What's Ahead for CAD Managers

11 Dec, 2012 By: Robert Green

Conversations at the annual user conference indicate that priorities are shifting to project profitability.

I always spend the week after Thanksgiving teaching at the annual Autodesk University (AU) conference, which in recent years has been held in Las Vegas, Nevada. This year I taught a variety of CAD management and programming classes, participated in the Leadership Forum senior management conference, and moderated a number of roundtable discussion sessions. I met with a variety of CAD managers and users and, as usual, I learned a great deal.

Whether or not you use Autodesk tools, AU can be a great indicator of trends in the broader CAD market. I invariably come away from AU with a better idea of what the coming year may bring, and I start formulating an action plan. What I want to pass along to you, the working CAD manager, are some impressions I drew from my AU 2012 experience and my forecast for 2013, so that you can do the same. Here goes.

Who Was There

AU attendance was 8,400 this year, according to Autodesk. Compared with attendees in previous years, I'd categorize this year’s crowd as follows:

  • More senior and managerial. I talked to far more CAD managers, BIM managers, digital design directors, company owners, and senior management attendees than in years past. I noted fewer non-supervisory CAD operators, and more super-users who often operate as junior CAD managers.
  • More focused on building information modeling (BIM) than ever before. After last year, I didn't think BIM could garner any more hype, but I was wrong. And it's not all hype: The BIM managers I talked to this year were far more likely to be knee-deep in BIM implementation and production use than in years past. I also noticed BIM managers really focusing on project management and work team coordination; classes about Revit Server and best practices were the hot ticket.
  • More practical, less theoretical. I noted far fewer "How might this work?" questions this year, and far more of the "How do I solve these particular problems?" variety. I attribute this focus on practical software implementation topics to increased pressure to manage CAD with minimal man-hours. Because CAD managers are under more time pressure than ever, they're focusing on nuts-and-bolts software issues and worrying less about abstract topics.
  • More financially aware. I participated in more conversations about pressure to reduce overhead, increase project margins, decrease training time, and lower software/IT costs than I can ever remember. It is clear that senior management teams and company owners finally expect software to save them money — something I've been preaching about for years.

The Mood

I would summarize the mood at AU as one of cautious financial optimism combined with a keen desire to make technology work better. Comments I heard from attendees included the following:

"We expect our project load to remain about the same, but we have to compete more in a wider geographic area to get those projects." — CAD manager, California

"Of the projects we do have we are seeing lower profit margins. We really have to control costs to stay in the game." — CAD manager, British Columbia, Canada

"My management makes me do much more analysis on budgets than they used to. Every quid is looked after closely." — CAD manager, London, U.K.

"I spend more time with my CAD manager and IT manager these days because they help me run fast and lean." — Business owner, Utah

"We try to solve problems immediately rather than wait for meetings. We are in the solutions business." — Senior IT director, Jyväskylä, Finland

Drawing on the overall tone of these comments, I conclude the following about the current state of affairs:

  • Competition is tough.
  • It is harder to make a profit.
  • Companies need to move faster.
  • Everyone needs to solve problems.

So although the overall mood was generally positive, there was plenty of recognition that CAD managers work in a faster-paced, more financially pressured environment than ever. I have to say that the comments I heard from international attendees were right in line with what I hear from my U.S. clients. Isn't it reassuring to know we all have the same problems?

The Spin — and the Disconnect

Every big technical conference like AU also includes press events and main-stage presentations, where the sponsoring company tries to disseminate its message and persuade attendees to see things its way.

Autodesk's message this year centered on the following concepts:

  • Cloud, cloud, and more cloud.
  • Create better designs with new tools.
  • Embrace new methods.
  • Use more visualization and simulation.

The first thing I'd note is that these messages are not much different than they were last year. I did note more emphasis on cloud applications, but I was surprised by how little material was truly new. New versions of products? Yes. Radically new visions of how to use CAD? Not so much.

I also noted that in a time when CAD managers are pressured to get more done, be more financially aware, and execute projects more profitably, there isn't a lot of time to spend on sorting through vague marketing spin. It seemed to me that the hype of "do more things in the cloud" was disconnected from the reality of "just get the project done" that most CAD managers are facing right now. I asked around, and most I spoke to agreed with me on this subject.

Action Items for CAD Managers

All told, the fact is that we're not seeing radical changes in our CAD tools, but we are seeing increasing expectations from our senior management teams regarding what we have to produce with these new tools. No excuses; it’s time to produce!

Taking into account these new realities and challenges, where should CAD managers focus their efforts in the coming year? Here are some ideas that got a positive response from CAD managers I spoke with privately at AU:

  • Manage production. When timelines and profit margins are tight, it pays to control CAD production as much as you can. Therefore I'll be spending less time on theoretical thinking and more time measuring CAD user efficiencies, project rework, and schedule adherence. After all, no CAD manager ever got yelled at because his or her users were efficient, accurate, and on time.
  • Cut wasted effort. If Benjamin Franklin were a CAD manager, he might have said, "A wasted step saved is time and money earned." This year, I'll be spending more time looking at company processes and ruthlessly ferreting out the wasted motions. Once I've found those inevitable instances of redundancy and busywork, I'll push hard to eliminate them, using the logic that anything we streamline can save us money.
  • Standardize for speed. When I think of standards, I'm going to think of only those that will speed production and cut wasted effort. Big learning curves for standards will go out the window, replaced by highly automated, easy-to-demonstrate standards. After all, why waste my time on big standards initiatives that I don't have time for and that management won't support?
  • Train to cement in savings. What little training time I do have will be spent on teaching users the "standardize for speed" approach outlined above. Training time will have to pay for itself in higher productivity.
  • Learn independently. Given that training budgets will largely be consumed by training to achieve savings, I'll be preparing my users to learn more software features independently. I anticipate more self-directed video training resources (produced by myself or by a commercial vendor) will be used in lieu of face-to-face staff training. I also anticipate that CAD managers will have to find our own learning resources for new software technologies. Bottom line: We're all going to be more responsible for the ongoing education of our users and ourselves.
  • Ask the boss for help. As CAD managers are pushed more and more toward project-management roles, it will pay to ask your boss for help in becoming a better manager. Want great ideas for coordinating work teams, planning a great job kickoff meeting, measuring user efficiency, and so forth? Ask! Most of us weren't trained as project managers, so we're going to need some help — and our bosses are the logical place to start finding it.
  • Cut overhead and keep your hours billable. Make sure to track the work you're doing to make projects work and charge that time as a project-billable expense. If it isn't billable, it is most likely overhead. When in doubt, spend your time on project-billable activities and resist overhead tasks — trust me on this one. For details about how to make this work, see my recent "CAD Manager" column from Cadalyst magazine, "The Amazing Billable CAD Manager."

Summing Up

After some time to reflect on what I learned at Autodesk University 2012, I'm convinced that CAD managers must focus on efficiency, time savings, and project profitability in the coming year, even if it means slowing down on new technology implementation in the near term. With ever more pressure to get more done with fewer people, I can draw no other conclusion. I hope my suggested action items will help you focus your efforts to deal with this new reality.

But no matter what else may happen, I continue to draw inspiration from the sharp, savvy CAD managers I meet at AU each year. And I continue to believe that those CAD managers who find better ways to serve their companies will always be in demand, with nothing but bright futures ahead.


About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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Re: Looking Back at Autodesk University 2012 Reveals W...
by: Longplay
December 13, 2012 - 11:02am
I agree that the AU major stage talk was nothing new and didn't directly relate to the practical needs of those in attendence. The cloud emphasis was predictable because it's a service Autodesk wants to sell, yet without a clear pricing structure, it seemed somewhat like vaporware. The real cloud interest I and others I spoke with appeared to share was realted to Revit Server, though not focused on it alone. As Revit use advances, people seem to be looking for ways to concurrently work on single files rather than pass copies of those files backa and forth.