Putting a Face on Autodesk

4 Feb, 2007 By: AIA ,H. Edward Goldberg

Cadalyst's Ed Goldberg discovers how Carl Bass, a self-proclaimed bad high school student, became CEO of one of the world's leading software companies.

What qualifies an individual to head the leading creative software company in the world? Should that person have an MBA in marketing or finance from one of the top universities? Perhaps he or she should have a background as an early achiever, driven by a desire to get ahead. Or maybe you think a detached executive-type is the best choice.

None of these characteristics describes the president and CEO of Autodesk. Carl Bass is a renaissance man: street-smart, self-made and very creative.

Carl Bass
I met Bass at Autodesk University 2005 in Orlando, Florida, when he was the company's chief operating officer. I talked with him briefly at a luncheon and recall being so impressed that I mentioned the conversation later to my wife. The following May, Carol Bartz retired as Autodesk CEO and Bass took over.

I didn't ask Bass for an interview right away, wanting to give him time to become acclimated to his new post. We finally talked shortly before the Christmas holiday. This portrait of Bass is both personal and professional, an attempt to gain insight into the man and understand how he defines his role at Autodesk.

Carl Bass, 49, is a native of Brooklyn, New York. His stature makes it easy to visualize the basketball-loving kid he was. He attended high school in Bayside, New York. When I asked about his high school days, he said, "I was a jock and a bad student." When he told me he went to college at Cornell University, I commented that Cornell has a reputation of excellence, especially in architecture, math and computer graphics. "I got in by the seat of my pants," he replied.

After only two years at Cornell, Bass took a break to build houses and boats, and then to become a cabinet maker. That break turned into five years, but Bass eventually returned to Cornell to complete his degree in mathematics, specializing in computational geometry and algebra.

After graduation, Bass and a partner started a software engineering company in Ithaca, New York, called Flying Moose Systems and Graphics Company. Around that time, he became acquainted with Donald Greenberg, a professor at Cornell, through their mutual participation in basketball. As a result of their friendship, Greenberg, a pioneer in the field of computer graphics, began to work periodically for the new company. It was Greenberg who led Bass to become interested in 3D computer graphics.

Five years later, Flying Moose Systems was producing 3D graphics products -- tools sold to Autodesk, PTC and other "finite element" developers. In 1990, Bass and his partner, realizing they needed to grow the enterprise, went in search of venture capital. They contacted Autodesk. Instead of a capital investment, Autodesk decided to buy 20% of the company. In 1993 Autodesk purchased the entire company, with Bass and his partner included in the deal. The partner eventually retired, but Bass continued to build his career. In 1999, he became CEO of the Autodesk spin-off company, Buzzsaw, which he ran for two years. When Autodesk bought Buzzsaw, Bass returned to the company and worked in various roles before being appointed COO in charge of sales, marketing and product development.

I asked Bass if he thought his lack of an MBA was a problem in his position as CEO of a major company, and he replied, "Not for what we do." That response might puzzle some; however, I sense that Bass sees himself as a facilitator of creativity. He mentioned that a favorite part of his job is the design and development of good software -- he likes "building stuff" -- and competence in this area is his most important asset.


My impression is that being creative is what Bass likes to do most -- and this new position gives him the opportunity to do that. He also continues to exercise his creativity through his hobby, woodworking -- and his work is very handsome.

Bass does understand that running a company such as Autodesk also requires strong management skills. How does one acquire these skills? Bass replied that he believes there are two qualities that make a good manager: on-the-job experience and street smarts. "This last factor is innate, and it is very hard to learn. It often makes the difference between managers people listen to and managers they don't."

In his leisure time, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass designs and creates amazing works of wood.

When asked if he would like to be CEO of any other type of corporation, Bass replied, "I'm not interested in being the CEO of a company that develops a relational database or helps prepare tax returns -- I would have no interest in it. And I am not interested in being CEO of a company for the sake of being a CEO. Building a software company that helps people build things is a perfect combination for me."

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