Friday, February 3, 2012

Back to the blog...and Autodesk turns 30!

Been taking a break from posting for a while, it's been a busy winter...had a few thoughts on the last several years...

Autodesk turned 30 a few days ago, and it's amazing the impact they've had on the design industry. It's definitely been an evolution. Who wouldn't miss the Carol Bartz days of ready, fire, aim...but that was part of the creative spirit that they needed to make the product as popular as it is.

And today, it's been run more like a solid business than most software companies and start ups. While some software companies (like facebook, google, etc. ) are all about the personal information, Autodesk has become the holder of the real world data for the places we live, work and play in. From the part design in Inventor, to the BIM models in Revit and ACAD Arch/MEP, right down to Navisworks and beyond...the early concept of the AutoCAD centric model has evolved into an optimum design platform.

And there's both good and bad in it - the early days of Autodesk fed the creation of many businesses, especially in the reseller channel. In my earlier days, there were over 400 resellers - from loss leaders just pushing boxes to true consultative businesses, like CADre - which I'm still proud to have been a part of and gave me my platform to grow. Unfortunately, businesses evolve...and things change. You don't hear a lot about companies selling drafting tables, triangles and t-squares anymore. And in the near future, I would expect Autodesk to change the reseller relationship even more. With today's internet and the evolving business model, it doesn't make sense for Autodesk to continue to push a part of their revenue into the channel.

Because of this, I expect to see more of the "new business" model - companies that are analyzing the data external to the design firm and owner, and working to make the designs more efficient. Companies like IES, and products like Vasari - these will help push new forms of business that become the support structure of the design world. It's no longer about the tool itself, but instead about the results generated from the tool.

And the channel has changed - we realized a long time ago that 30-40% margins weren't going to be the case forever, and worked hard to develop consulting services. In the future, even implementation services are going to become more scarce as the design industry learns that a) it's better to have an expert on staff and b) the methods used by applications like BIM become more common and expected.

So where does that leave that industry? I expect you'll continue to see them evolve into service providers for modeling, such as conversion from 2D to 3D models. The point cloud technology is pushing this as well, but sometimes, you just gotta model it. I'm still on the fence about the accuracy and overhead of that technology, but I could be wrong. Personally, I expect most to go the way of the Bentley reseller channel - a few service providers, but most going away - if the owners don't have the future goggles on, and evolve into the new business model, they've got no one to blame but themselves.

Training has evolved as well - the internet based training materials are becoming even more popular. I've been working with my buddies at CADLearning, and reviewing what they have coming - the level of detail, quality of materials, and relevance to the design industry is better than ever. In my day, we all learned best with 3-4 day classes - but today's generation doesn't need that. They are leveraging the internet, videos and over the shoulder mentoring - that's what's really working now. Even in the college environment, it's amazing how many online programs are out there - that's the future.

The users have to bone up on their education as well. Anyone who is planning on taking drafting courses or certifications - stop it. You're wasting your time and money. At minimum, a 2 year associates will be required to work in this industry. In fact, if I could wave a magic wand, I'd change most of those programs to focus on specialities - like energy modeling, sustainable material design, lighting analyst, etc. Just knowing how to put lines on paper just doesn't cut it anymore. We've seen it start in the rendering and animation field, but there's got to be more emphasis on today's technical tasks. I'm a firm believer that people are responsible for educating themselves - and it kills me to see good people resting and relying on what they did 20-30 years ago, instead of staying current with their skills and knowledge. Blame yourselves if you become one of the "no longer looking for work"...the opportunities are out there for employees that want to stay relevant in the industry, you've just got to put in the work. It sure ain't going to be just handed to you anymore...and anyone who wants to guarantee wages and work using old methodology is just milking the system.

The one thing I'm pretty certain about is that the return to 2D CAD days are gone. We still have some old-schooler's hanging on, but when I see guys like my intern in Harrisburg finish the tasks in BIM in a fraction of the time the CAD-based designer is taking, I'm convinced we're on the right path. If anything, Autodesk needs to take away one important piece of advice - get it all working together and working right.

We're going to still continue to have construction documentation going out in a similar fashion over the next generation or so, so paper will still be there (although it was really cool to see all the tablets at AU this year taking the place of paper handouts - the first real progress towards a paperless society). The model and data has to be ale to easily make the progression from part design, into the building and site, to the contractor for the build, and to the owner for operations and maintenance. It's better, but it's not there yet. The cloud is coming into its own, taking the place of FTP, email, etc. as the main portal where project data is stored, so companies like ours have to learn how to live and play in this world.

I remember some of my first experiences on CAD - watch VersaCAD on a mainframe draw a line - it took forever, and was on a 6" screen. I remember being amazed at the Bentley mainframe, working on big dual monitors (black and white, of course) with a drafting table sized digitizer, converting paper drawings to CAD files stored on tape. I remember paying $5000 for a 486 computer, taking out a loan from a benevolent business owner that helped me get my start.

And I look at where we are today. The design industry is on the brink of the chasm, and is preparing to leap across. The paradigm has shifted, and now we're all along for the ride. And guess what - it's going to be a blast. We won't need government regulations forcing us to be more efficient - our dads taught us well, but now we have the technology to really design better, smarter and more efficient structures and systems than ever before. It's expected now and accepted as common practice. And I get back to Autodesk - and I say thanks...and Happy Birthday. You've made a lot of this possible, and have been the catalyst to real change (sorry, federal government, but it's private industry that makes this really happen - in spite of all the posturing and regs that only serve to drive business costs only politcal soapbox comment for today) don't stop - keep pushing the envelope, and keep helping us make this a better built world for all.

Have a great day - David B.

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