Observations from Autodesk University 2010

7 Dec, 2010 By: Robert Green

Conference attendance improved this year, as did the mood, but CAD managers reported that many companies are still struggling.

Last week I was in Las Vegas at Autodesk University (AU), where I taught CAD management and programming classes, co-hosted the Design Technology Manager's Summit, and networked with other CAD managers. As is usually the case, I learned a great deal by talking with other CAD managers while roaming the halls and the show floor.

Rather than write a broad-spectrum show report, I'd like to pass along the information that I think will be specifically useful for CAD managers. Here goes.

The Crowd and the Mood

AU attendance is still down from where it was prior to the recession, but was clearly up from 2009. The information I received was about 7,000 total attendees, up from last year's approximately 6,000. Higher attendance correlates with a sunnier economic mood, since companies send more employees to attend AU when business is better.

The atmosphere at the conference this year was one of cautious optimism, in stark contrast to last year's gloom and doom. I heard a lot of comments like "We think things are getting better — but we'll have to see if our workload really does increase," from attendees and vendors alike. The exhibit hall was well attended; the vendors I met with said they were talking to "serious shoppers" who were trying to position their firms to implement new technologies (with a clear allusion to more BIM [building information modeling] adoption).

Audience Polling

I've always conducted informal polling of CAD managers at AU, in an effort to gauge the economic stability of the companies we all work in. I asked for a show of hands in response to the following questions:

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

In 2008 — clearly the doomsday year in terms of layoffs — there were essentially zero "too much" companies, and over half were laying off.

In 2009, 2.5% reported "too much work," 13% were in the "laying off" category, and 30% were in the "good-to-normal" category. That means the remainder — more than half — were somewhere between laying off and having a good project load.

In 2010, I asked my business-focused CAD manager session (130 students) the same line of questions, and got results that were a bit better than 2009. I counted seven hands (5%) in the "too busy" category and 15 (about 12%) in the "laying off" category. Roughly 40% of the room reported "good-to-normal" workloads, so I pushed on and asked how many companies were "just trying to survive until things get better" — and that's when the remaining 40% of the room raised their hands.

In conclusion, it seems that more companies have reached a point of good-to-stable workloads (45% versus 33% in 2009), but the number of companies still suffering layoffs has only decreased very slightly (12% versus 13% in 2009). So while things may be good for 50% of companies, the other half is laying off or just surviving.

Juggling Priorities

The CAD managers I talked with continue to report wearing many hats and juggling multiple tasks. It seems more of us are doubling as IT support agents, trainers, rendering experts, and production supervisors. And as companies have kept their staffing on the lean side, successful CAD managers have expanded their skill set to fill in the gaps that layoffs have created.

The good news is that many of us still have jobs. The bad news is, we're having to work harder, with a wider palette of responsibilities, in order to keep those jobs. However, knowing more is always a good thing in the end, so learn what you can, when you can.

Coping Strategies

So if we're being pushed to perform more tasks in less time, how are CAD managers coping? Throughout my stay at AU, I asked everyone I could how they're adapting to the new CAD management job market. Here are some pointers that emerged from those discussions:

Production wins: If your company needs you to do production CAD work to get jobs out the door, then by all means do so. After all, if projects don't get done, nobody has a job. The reality is that staffs will likely stay lean for the foreseeable future, so the production-ready CAD manager will be viewed as a more valuable resource than the one who can't do production work. Besides, there's no better way to build rapport with your CAD users than by showing them you can pound out CAD work too.

Learn at home: If you have less time to work on standards, programming, or learning new CAD trends at the office, you'll have to do the work at home. The good news is, more and more computer resources are available to help you learn on your own time. After all, the only alternative is to quit learning — and we all know that isn't a winning career strategy.

Cut the overhead: Find ways to bill CAD management tasks like project startup training and standards creation to job accounts rather than overhead. The only way to do CAD management without overhead time is to make your job invaluable to project execution, so work with project managers to help them understand the value of CAD management.

Train smaller: Use lunch-and-learn sessions, peer training (see my tip in today's CAD Manager's Toolbox), and short-format lessons to keep training time down and remain sharply focused on speeding task completion. If training doesn't take much time, yet makes users more productive, it will be hard to argue against your training program.

BIM, 3D, and Point Clouds

The news in these three areas (especially BIM) wasn't a whole lot different than last year, but there was more interest in these 3D technologies than there was at previous AU conferences. I also observed fewer questions like "What is BIM?" or "What is a point cloud?" and more queries along the lines of, "Show me how I can work with these tools to get my work done." Although BIM and point clouds aren't in use everywhere, it does seem that everyone feels certain that their jobs will be impacted by these technologies.

Classes on BIM were very popular this year, as were more advanced classes on traditional 3D applications like Civil 3D, mechanical CAD, and rendering. And even though a lot of AutoCAD classes still passed along 2D tips and tricks, it is pretty clear that 3D technologies are what the savvy CAD managers were exploring during AU.

I also noticed a large uptick in attendance at programming topics classes, such as AutoLISP, .NET, and ARX development. It seems that more and more CAD managers are programming!

Summing Up

I came away from Autodesk University 2010 feeling a little more optimistic than when I arrived, but still far from certain that CAD managers are fully on the road to recovery. On one hand, I'm enthused to see so many CAD managers still striving to learn and serve their companies. On the other, I continue to believe that with so many CAD managers lacking the time to fully apply their skills, CAD management is a field whose influence is waning.

My overall conclusion is that we're probably in for another year of having to simply do what we must to retain our jobs before things start to get better. But no matter what, the CAD managers who learn new technologies, build their skill sets, and push to make things better will always have bright futures.

See you in the New Year!

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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Re: Observations from Autodesk University 2010
by: gbat
December 9, 2010 - 11:05am
"Train smaller" is certainly a trend that we've been seeing as a reseller and ATC. During the worst of the recession there were a large number of dislocated workers taking advantage of state aid programs to get classroom training to improve their employment prospects. Now that things have started to pick up a bit and many of these individuals have found employment, companies are looking for for efficient ways to train their current workforce. In addition to the lunch and learn and after hours seminars mentioned, many companies are taking advantage of online training that their employees can take on their own time or during lunch. Our online training at has seen a definite pickup as firms get more work and need to train in extra staff quickly without the drop in productivity. Thanks for the AU recap - couldn't attend this year but hopefully I'll be in Vegas in 2011!
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