CAD Manager's Newsletter (#119)

8 Dec, 2004 By: Robert Green

Autodesk University from 33,000 Feet

A look at what CAD Managers were Doing and Saying at the annual learning and networking event

As has become my tradition, I'm writing my report on Autodesk University during my flight home, in the midst of choppy air and high tailwinds. I'm getting home faster, but the ride is bumpy.

Autodesk University, which the company bills as "the premier Autodesk learning and networking event," took place last week at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada. Every AU I've attended — and that's been every one since 1994 — has been a unique mix of technology, camaraderie, and cross-pollination of ideas among CAD managers from every sort of industry, location, and background. I continue to believe that Autodesk University is the largest single gathering of CAD managers in North America — maybe the world — in any given year.

I taught several CAD management classes and met with hundreds of CAD managers this year. I really savor the time I get to spend with CAD managers — the exchange of experiences and ideas is invaluable.

So, in no particular order, I present the trends and interesting tidbits I took away from Autodesk University this past week.

Who’s at AU?
You couldn't help but notice how large AU was this year. Attendance was much higher than last year, with a reported 4,400 attending vs. about 3,300 last year. The attendee demographic cut across all disciplines, industries, and geographic locations.

The largest single demographic I observed was actually the CAD manager, or the power user who functions as de facto CAD manager. Though many folks I talked with were designers, engineers, architects, or IT pros, it seemed that almost everybody at AU had a CAD management component to his/her job.

Is AU Worth It?
I know it is very hard to get your company management to send you to a week-long educational symposium, especially when you factor in airfare and hotel costs. Management will ask, and rightly so, if the time and expense required to send you to AU will really yield any results.

Believe me when I say that I've attended all the trade shows and have struggled to justify expenses as well. I've cut down radically on trade show attendance over the past five years, but I can't envision not attending AU. I can't think of a better learning environment for CAD managers anywhere. Where else can you talk to 4,000 of your peers, as well as major Autodesk-related software vendors, in an environment designed for learning? In my opinion, if you're not learning something valuable at AU, you're simply not trying.

Note: AU 2005 will be in Orlando, Florida, rather than Las Vegas!

Actify's .3D "Share a Model" Competition

With Actify's .3D "Share a Model" Competition, it's easy to enter to win up to $1,000 for something you use every day! Now you have the opportunity to showcase your talent and display the power of SpinFire Professional.
Visit to sign up.

CAD Managers Under More Stress
I've observed two trends in my CAD Manager's Survey over the past four years. One is more part-time CAD management and the other is more 3D systems in use in combination with traditional 2D systems such as AutoCAD. These trends were clearly validated by a show of hands in the CAD management classes I taught at AU. My conclusions are as follows:
  • Companies need to be profitable, and the way to achieve profit is to make all employees charge more to projects and less to overhead. In other words, you need to be billable. When the competing priority of managing technology collides with creating billable work, the billable work wins every time, even if technology management suffers for it.
  • Increasingly, AutoCAD simply isn't adequate to get the design job done. 3D-optimized tools for machine design, construction, and civil engineering add another layer of technical management to the CAD manager's plate. These more complex 3D packages require more training and implementation work than plain AutoCAD or AutoCAD LT, yet the trend toward part-time CAD management makes the time you dedicate to mastering these tools harder to come by.
  • Taken together, these trends point toward the CAD manager spending more personal time to master high-end software tools. Because fewer companies are paying CAD managers to learn, there will eventually be an even more acute shortage of CAD manager-level expertise than already exists today.
  • Many CAD managers I spoke with fear partial or total outsourcing of their CAD department. Clearly, today's CAD managers are experiencing much more stress than ever before; however, those managers seem to be tolerating the situation because they fear job loss could be the alternative.

It's clear that the CAD manager's responsibilities can't continue to grow in complexity while taking up less time. At some point, the unavoidable consequences of postponing or ignoring CAD management problems will show up as errors or lost productivity. The only real question is when, not if, this will happen. I'll be addressing this issue more fully in my January CAD Manager's column in Cadalyst magazine.

Technicality Pays
As CAD managers handle more software in less time, they're increasingly taking productivity matters into their own hands. The percentages of CAD managers I talked to who use AutoLISP or Visual Basic was at an all-time high of about 70%. Technical classes at AU that emphasized programming and power-user configuration were packed. In fact, many hands-on classes that emphasized programming were repeated due to this elevated demand.

In uncertain work environments, the knowledge you gain is your key to job security, and this conclusion seems to be hitting home with CAD managers. I continue to believe that the more technical you are, the brighter your future is. This year's AU simply reinforced my opinion on this matter.

Note: And because multiple CAD system management is becoming more the norm, those technologists who can customize multiple CAD systems can write their own ticket!

Economic Forecast: Positive
As I fielded questions from stressed CAD managers in my classes at AU, I made a point to ask those attending about the financial outlook for their companies. In three different classes, the percentage of students saying things looked bright exceeded 80%. I found this response at odds with the fact that so many CAD managers were concerned about outsourcing and cramming more work into fewer hours.

The following conclusions took a while to reach. They are the only way I can reconcile the contradictory trends of a better economic outlook with the increasingly stressful position of the CAD manager:

  • Companies want to increase the business they do without increasing the size of their staffs. This explains the drive for higher staff utilization with less managerial overhead (such as CAD management charged to overhead).

  • Companies are willing to outsource to grow their business instead of hiring more in-house staff. This explains the palpable fear of job outsourcing observed from CAD managers, and makes sense given that outsourcing arrangements can be more easily severed should the economy go bad.

So rather than thinking negatively about economic conditions, I actually feel pretty optimistic about the next few years in North American markets. As CAD managers, we can play an integral role in making our companies more efficient so they can do more work with the same staff. I believe that by increasing efficiency we'll also see more companies keeping their operations in-house rather than outsourcing. Could it be that CAD managers are actually in a unique position over the next few years? We'll see.

More CAD managers emphasized productivity issues at this AU than in any other year I can recall. It seems that everyone was interested in automating redundant tasks, targeting new releases to solve specific problems, and justifying the cost of everything in terms of labor savings. I think this is great news.

I've always viewed CAD management as a way to apply what I know about CAD in ways that make sense for the companies that employ me. When productivity becomes the key metric, we simply have to make sure that everything we do in CAD management pushes the productivity envelope. The savvy CAD manager will spend some time observing and measuring how CAD users work and where they waste time to get better productivity-enhancing ideas. Those CAD managers who can increase productivity will have a very bright future.

Note: I noticed that my most popular presentations this year had less to do with technology than with productivity and business metrics.

Software Trends?
Autodesk spent a lot of time at AU talking about how much attention you need to pay to managing your CAD files and sharing them with everyone. The buzz phrase of “create, manage, share” was in every Autodesk presentation I saw. And while Autodesk did report that it will continue to develop “great new AutoCAD products,” it was clear that the company's real passion is advanced design software and the Web-based products it wants you to use to share your designs.

In the coming year, be prepared to hear a lot more from Autodesk marketing about Buzzsaw (for AEC markets) and Product Stream and Vault (for mechanical products) — all designed for Web-based data management and downstream project collaboration. It's really hard to say if 2005 will be the year when Web-driven sharing of product designs really gathers critical mass, but Autodesk is clearly pushing the issue through its marketing and sales channels.

Wrapping Up
This year's trip to Autodesk University has me convinced that 2005 will be a year of hard work and high opportunity for CAD managers. We may all be busier than we might like, but I do believe we'll have a unique chance to impact the companies we work for. I'm looking forward to chronicling the developments throughout the next year of the CAD Manager's Newsletter.

I'd like to thank everyone who introduced themselves to me and attended my classes at AU this year. It's great to know that the CAD Manager's Newsletter is read by so many smart, capable people, and gratifying to hear how readers have been able to apply concepts from the CAD Manager's Newsletter to enhance their careers.

As I wrap up this, my last CAD Manager's Newsletter for 2004, please know that I appreciate your interest in the newsletter, and I really value your input. And please feel free to e-mail me your take on industry trends you observe in your local markets. Until next time.