From The Doghouse To The Corner Office

Following Carol A. Bartz won't be easy, but at least Autodesk Inc. (ADSK ) employees know that incoming Chief Executive Carl Bass has the technical chops for the job. He founded a company that was acquired by Autodesk in 1993, and he quickly became one of the company's top engineers.

Employees can also be sure he won't shy away from confrontation. Bass, 48, used to roam the Autodesk halls in Birkenstocks and shorts, criticizing the company for not moving fast enough.

That attitude led Bartz to fire him in 1995, prompting a panicked call by the head of engineering. "He said, 'You can't fire Carl,' and I said, 'Excuse me? I can do whatever the hell I want. With that attitude we don't need him here,"' Bartz recalls. A few months later, however, Bass was back, having promised he would change his ways. "She said she was happy to have me, but I had to have a real job, because if I didn't have enough to do I'd cause too much trouble," Bass says.

So he kept busy, and in 1997 wrote a version of the signature AutoCAD design software that helped the company bounce back after the ho-hum reception to an earlier release.

Bartz leaves Bass with a company that has solidified its position as the industry-standard design software for engineers and architects. His task is to continue Autodesk's push from the two-dimensional world of blueprints and floor plans to the 3D realm. New iterations of software allow customers to see a virtual model, rather than looking at overlapping lines on a computer and having to visualize in one's head how, say, a piece of machinery would work in three dimensions. The software cuts down on time, mistakes, and costs, say customers like William L. Harrison, manager of engineering R&D at Cincinnati-based manufacturer Planet Products Corp. He's using Autodesk's software for a $3 million project to build a machine that will sort and package White Castle hamburgers at the torrid speed of 20,000 burgers per hour. "I'll never go back to 2D," he says.

The secret to Autodesk's success isn't bleeding-edge technology -- it's bringing new software to the masses at a low price point, and bringing it to them when they're ready. So while competitors have had 3D software on the market longer than Autodesk, its products are about a tenth of the cost and are easier to use. So far, less than 15% of customers have made the upgrade to 3D, which Bass says is fine with him. He expects the migration to its 3D product to proceed at a steady pace over the next five years.

In an earlier incarnation, that pace might have frustrated Bass. But in the five years that Bartz has spent grooming him for the top job, she has helped him develop a CEO's polish as well as the discipline.

"I used to think Autodesk felt like a big company and moved slowly, and it was frustrating," he says. "But I've learned the idea of patience."

By Sarah Lacy in San Mateo, Calif.

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