As a girl growing up on a farm in Alma, a Wisconsin town of 800, four decades ago, Carol A. Bartz had two career choices: nurse or teacher. With big feet for her age -- they stopped growing at size 11 -- she jokes that being a nurse was out: "These boats coming down in white? Can you imagine?" So Bartz dreamed of being a math teacher, even though it was more the math part than the teacher part that appealed to her. "At the time, that was all you could do," she shrugs.
All Bartz wound up doing was becoming one of the most important women in tech. As head of Autodesk Inc., the world's leading supplier of design software (ADSK ) with an $8.3 billion market cap, she turned an insular, narrowly focused company into a diversified player targeting industries ranging from automotive to entertainment. Autodesk, based in San Rafael, Calif., isn't a household name, but its software is behind a raft of everyday products, and is used to design buildings, cars, even movie icons like King Kong.
For a sense of how highly Bartz is regarded, listen to John Chambers, chief executive of Cisco Systems, where Bartz has had a board seat since 1994. Chambers ticks off her accomplishments -- going from a couple hundred million in sales to $1.5 billion, a market capitalization that's risen much faster than the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, a quality team.
Praise like that explains why shock and disappointment ran through techdom when Bartz, 57, announced on Jan. 17 that she would step down as CEO, effective May 1, to become executive chairman. She leaves Autodesk in top form. On Feb. 28, when yearend numbers are announced, revenue is expected to rise some 22%, to $1.5 billion. Profits are expected to top $315 million, up from $47 million in 2003. Such growth earned Autodesk the No. 25 spot on the BusinessWeek 50 list of best-performing large companies.
Neither Bartz's husband, Bill Marr, nor her CEO-in-waiting, Carl Bass, were sure she was serious about giving up the job until she actually told the board on Jan. 13. "Until she really did it -- until the moment -- I didn't know," Bass says.
Over the holidays Bartz wrestled with whether it was time to leave. Fourteen years as CEO was a marathon stint in Silicon Valley. Her husband was retired, and her youngest child, Layne, would go to college soon. Before, Bartz could see her daughter between business trips; now she'd have to travel to see her. She knew that if the business stalled again there'd be no way she could back off from a challenge. Also, Bass was getting job offers, and Bartz didn't want to spend another five years grooming a successor.
Bartz, who's unabashed about her almost maternal love for Autodesk, "cried her eyes out" at the thought of leaving. She never felt she had to choose one "child" over the other, but as a working mom she had to strike a balance between her real and her metaphorical child every day.
Consider this recent morning. She's in back-to-back meetings at a Starbucks near her home, dressed in jeans and an orange sweater, wearing no makeup. Earlier that morning Layne, who's anxiously awaiting responses from colleges, crawled into bed with her, something she hasn't done since she was a child. "She's more stressed than I've ever seen her," Bartz says. "I knew something was wrong and so I just hung." All the while, she knew the clock was ticking on a breakfast meeting she had scheduled. She comforted her daughter, threw on clothes, and raced out, already late. "The concept of balance is perfection," she says, miming a seesaw motion. "And that's crazy."
Bartz may have cried about moving on, but she's no softie. She prides herself on running a "real" tech company, bristling when put in the same camp as eBay Inc.'s (EBAY ) Meg Whitman, who some say runs a retailer. And she's blunt. "If she thinks you're stupid, she'll tell you," says Alfred S. Chuang, CEO of BEA Systems Inc. (BEAS ), who worked under Bartz at Sun Microsystems Inc. (SUNW ). Bartz doesn't mind being singled out as a top woman in tech: "Let's face it, I don't believe the CEO of Autodesk would be invited to be on the President's Science & Technology Council if she wasn't wearing a skirt."
What's next? Bartz won't allow her staff to even use the word "retirement." She's booked solid with Autodesk duties through next January, and begins teaching a Stanford Graduate School of Business class in March. Those close to her suspect her days as a CEO are not over. "If you told me that one day she'd be CEO of one of the largest tech companies, I wouldn't be surprised," says Chuang.
By Sarah Lacy