During its first 30 years, Autodesk focused on honing must-have software for design professionals. The Northern California company built a community of 10 million or so devotees–engineers, architects, carmakers, filmmakers and others–that used its 3-D modeling and visualization products to create everything from Oscar-winning visual effects in movies to the world’s tallest skyscrapers.
In a major strategic shift several years ago, Autodesk adapted its software for consumers. By courting the rapidly-growing maker community with easy-to-use apps, the company dramatically expanded its user base—to more than 250 million and counting.
According to Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk’s senior vice president of industry strategy, the company has thrived in a radically changing industry by being radically adaptable. In its latest technology shift, the $2.5 billion giant has embraced the cloud as a software delivery model, which he describes as "the most thrilling development of the past several years."
Autodesk’s ventures into new areas have paid off: Revenue has grown nearly 50% in the past five years.
How did Autodesk become the leader in 3-D modeling?
When I came here in the 1990s, the world of mechanical [2-D] design was moving to 3-D modeling. In that space, Autodesk was, frankly, way behind. But the company was hiring people to come aboard with the attitude that we’re not just going to get into the 3-D market; we’re going to lead it.
I had worked as an aeronautical engineer, I had a doctorate in computer science and I was eager to get involved. I knew that if we did it right, we could be the biggest 3-D modeling company in the world—which is exactly what happened.
Plenty of companies set wildly ambitious goals. What were the keys to actually getting there?
The key for us has been how we adapted to disruptive changes in the industry and the wider world. The first disruption, which actually drove the formation of the company, was the move off of mainframes to PCs. In the early 1980s, [company co-founder] John Walker saw that people were going to be able to do on PCs what they’d only been able to do on mainframes. That was the first big disruption that really made this company—the PC disruption.
The next big one that drove the company further was the 3-D revolution. The idea of moving from lines and arcs and basic shapes to full 3-D modeling was a huge step.
Now we’re in the heart of another disruption, the cloud. The reason the cloud is so incredibly exciting for us is because with the enormous amount of rich design information users can create in today’s 3-D models, it can be hard to get the right information to the right team members at the right time. The cloud lets you get that data to anybody, anywhere, on any kind of device—immediately.
If you’re able to adapt to massive changes like that, chances are good that revenue will keep pace. And it has.
See also: Andrew Anagnost on How to Think Like an Innovator
How do those cloud services stimulate further growth?
The cloud opens up many new opportunities for innovation. The more information a user gets about the requirements for a specific design, and the more timely that information is, the more innovative that user can be earlier on in the project.
The cloud has also allowed us to bring our software to devices that consumers use. We have gone from around 10 million professional users 10 years ago to more than 250 million users today, including professionals, makers, students and consumer hobbyists.
Moving our mainline business to cloud-based subscription models is helping us reach more and more professionals, while opening up new markets for us. We haven’t seen that kind of change in probably 15 or 20 years.
What have you learned about managing dramatic growth and serving such a diversified user base—professionals and consumers alike?
From a purely practical standpoint, we've learned how to scale a cloud infrastructure to support that kind of massive user base. But perhaps more importantly, we've learned a lot about user experience. Our professional tools pack in a lot of much-needed capabilities for engineers and designers who are working on huge and complex projects in automotive, aerospace, electronics and more.
Building consumer apps has demonstrated the need for simplicity and clarity in UI and UX. Even if there are hundreds or thousands of individual features in a given tool, the software still needs to be elegant and easy to navigate. Some of our newer professional tools, like Fusion 360, reflect this sensibility and learning.
This article was created and commissioned by Workday, and the views expressed are their own.