Software systems to innovate and grow

Episode 23

Mastering Innovation and Execution: Minette Norman with at Autodesk

Show Details

Today we have Minette Norman on the show. Minette is a Vice President of engineering practice at Autodesk. In today’s episode, we will discuss how engineering within large organizational functions. We’ll talk a little bit about Minette’s role and how it’s been vital in the company’s strategic goals and staying current, again with the competition and so forth.

It was really an honor to have Minette on the show, and I hope you guys enjoy.

Show Transcript

Carlos: Thank you for tuning to Tech People, where real life tech practitioners share their professional experiences.

Hello, everybody. Today we have Minette Norman on the show. Minette is a Vice President of engineering practice at Autodesk. In today’s episode, we will discuss how engineering within large organizational functions, but most importantly, how it stays current in today’s market, and how it actually has sustained current given that it’s a 30-year old company and it’s the forefront of the tools that we use to create content, whether it’s for architecture, for movies, for- anyways, there’s tons of media that is created with Autodesk’s product, and it’s one of the leading companies in that area. We’ll talk a little bit about Minette’s role and how it’s been vital in the company’s strategic goals and staying current, again with the competition and so forth. It was really an honor to have Minette on the show, and I hope you guys enjoy.

Hi, Minette. Thank you so much for coming on the show. How are you doing today?

Minette Norman: I’m doing well, thanks for having me, Carlos.

Carlos: It’s my pleasure. I’ve been really looking forward to this conversation today.

Minette Norman: Me too.

Carlos: All right, so Minette, for those who are listening in and they don’t know you, tell me a little bit about your background. How did you end up in tech?

Minette Norman: I have what is probably an unusual background for tech. As I told you when we first met, I studied drama and French as an undergraduate, and I didn’t plan a career in tech. I was led into tech sort of by accident. After I graduated from school, and I realized that acting was not going to be my full-time gig, I used my French skills and I got a job at the French Trade Commission in New York City. That’s when we started using PCs. It turned out I was pretty good at working with tech and explaining it to others. Based on that, I decided to go into technical writing. My first job in a tech company was at Adobe back in the late ’80s, and I ended up writing the Adobe Photoshop 1.1 tutorial.

Carlos: Wow, that’s really cool. Adobe at that time, I mean, it was right at the beginning of what we know as photoshop, essentially.

Minette Norman: Yes, in fact it was an interesting time because the guys who invented photoshop, the Knoll brothers, Thomas and John Knoll, they didn’t know that it was going to take off the way it did, and they didn’t know what people were going to do with it. I remember that challenge of writing the documentation and saying, well how will people use this? No one at Adobe really knew how people would use it because it was so new.

Carlos: This might be a little outside of our subject that we’re going to talk a little bit about in a second, but back then did that have layers and kind of the way that we understand photoshop today, or was it more, I mean, I’m guessing it was way more basic?

Minette Norman: It was much more basic. It didn’t have, you know, I don’t know what percentage of the functionality it has today it had back then, but it was much more of a color correction tool, color separation. I don’t believe layers were in the first version, and yeah, it was so much simpler. Pretty primitive, but it did something that had never been done before on a computer.

Carlos: Well now you’re working at Autodesk, which is also a company that has evolved and has been very close to the hearts of creative people all around the world, especially I think everybody who’s familiar with photoshop knows what Autodesk is, I mean, maybe have to, from everything architecture stuff, then there’s the 3D work. I think we talked a little bit about that, there’s the animation side, and then of course I’m only talking about a small segment of product that Autodesk is responsible for. We’ll talk about kind of the many, many, many. For those few, right, the 3 of them, that don’t know what Autodesk is, how would you describe it?

Minette Norman: Well first of all, I think what may be interesting to people is that it is as old as Adobe. It was founded in 1982. In fact, both companies are the same age, so that’s one interesting point. The other thing about Autodesk is that most people have heard of AutoCad. That was the flagship product back in the ’80s that really transformed Cad. Our portfolio today is well over 100 products, and we span industries as you mentioned: architecture and engineering, media and entertainment. The way we describe ourselves is that our software is for people who make things, and it can be anything from a high-performance car to a skyscraper, to a smart phone or to a movie. Really, we span multiple industries with our software.

Carlos: What is your role at Autodesk? I mean, not only… I know you’re basically the VP of engineering, this is going to be all of the titles here, but what does a VP of engineering do at Autodesk?

Minette Norman: Well, I’ll add one nuance to my title, which is that the full title is vice president of engineering practice. I do know other VPs of engineering, and my job is somewhat different from theirs, so I’ll try to describe what I do. I took over this job a couple years ago, and when I took over the job I was asked in one sentence to transform engineering at Autodesk. Really what I am tasked with doing, what I’m in charge of doing, is modernizing the way we do practice engineering, how we develop software at Autodesk. There are several things that I can talk about that I’m leaving, but I am not in charge of a product line. I am in charge of engineering across Autodesk, but the engineers don’t all report to me. It’s sort of a matrix, an influencing job. I can fill you in on any more that you’d like to know about that, but that’s the short version of what engineering practice VP is.

Carlos: It sounds like your particular role within, basically transforms the way that other engineers work. It impacts their work, or their day-to-day, is that a correct assumption?

Minette Norman: Yeah, true.

Carlos: One of the things that I know from the conversations that I have with you is you work at a very macro level. For those who have not done that, it’s very hard to understand how that works, right? They’re probably used to seeing their work, whether they’re managing this group of people or they’re managing a project, or they’re writing the code or something, that’s how they see their work. It’s really hard for those who have never worked in such large company as you to understand the work at that macro level. Can you give us an example of how you affect the organization and at that macro level, maybe a brief explanation from all the way to the top to all the way down?

Minette Norman: I sit under the SVP of product. Pretty much all of the products will roll up to him, and then he reports to our CEO, so that just sort of shows you where I am in the hierarchy. As I said, not all of the products do roll up to me. I do work across engineering, and there are approximately 3500 to 4000 engineers at Autodesk, depending on how you count. Yes, you’re right, very macro. I sort of laugh when I get this question because I don’t do any real work, you know, you could say I don’t do engineering, I don’t code. What I’m doing is really trying to influence our engineering culture, above all, and to describe a little bit of where we were and the journey we’re on is that we, since 1982, largely grown through aquisition.

We have, as I said, over 100 products. Each product group sort of has its own identity and a little bit of its own autonomy, and that’s part of the problem that I’m trying to deal with today, which is that because everyone had so much autonomy, everyone went out and did their own thing. They developed their own processes, they picked their own tool stack, and now we’re trying to be a much more cohesive cloud-oriented company. We just can’t have these product silos with everyone doing their own thing. I am trying to get a cohesive engineering organization across Autodesk, whether those engineers report to me or not.

A lot of what I do is a lot of broad communication, working with other VPs in the company to get them to prioritize the work that we’re trying to do, and I would say- we can get to this when we talk about challenges- but one of the challenges I do face in my job is that there are pressing product priorities and features that need to get out, and we’re trying to balance this overcoming technical debt and changing our practices in a modern way. Those are some of the things that I’m struggling with today.

Carlos: You briefly touched on the cadence of the work that you do, when you’re talking specifically about products, but this is more in line with the macro thinking. A lot of the, say, the people listening to this show are probably thinking of their timeline in sprints, while they’re talking about day-to-day sprint, maybe they know that they’re working in a project, so whatever time duration that project has. What are some of your cycles of time, are we talking quarter to quarter, maybe are you talking year to year? How far ahead do you have to look at, and how far back do you also have to keep track of?

Minette Norman: Yeah, it’s interesting because our product groups, as you say, are on sprints, usually on 2-week sprints. There’s not a standard yet across the company. We have this mix right now at Autodesk of desktop products that have traditionally come out once a year, and now we’re trying to come out more frequently with releases. Then we have cloud products that we are releasing often. In terms of the initiatives that I’m driving, they are longer. I would say they’re not sprints, and they are more like quarter to quarter. There are things that are taking multiple years.

I’ll give you an example of something, which is that last year we decided that we wanted to move all of our source code out of various source code management systems that we had into GitHub, and really standardize on GitHub. We would’ve loved to have said that was a one-year effort and we would be done by now, but given the huge legacy code bases and competing priorities, that’s a multi-year project. That’s an example of some of the things that take much longer than we’d like them to, that I’m driving, so there’s sort of longevity to many of the projects that I lead.

Carlos: Another question that I think goes right in line with it is how does an initiative flow, like for example, this one changing to… You know, did this change? How did that come about, and how do other initiatives that you shape end up being prioritized in your plate?

Minette Norman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I would say there are different answers to that one. The GitHub one is an anomaly for Autodesk, so we are not a particularly top-down company. We rarely get mandates that come from C-staff, and that are just mandates that come down. GitHub was one of those, and that was interesting. It was our CTO, Jack Kowalski, last year got up and basically said, I don’t care what you’re using, I don’t care how hard it is, we all need to get out of these silos where we can’t see each others’ code. We need to collaborate, and we’re going to move to GitHub as a forcing function. That one, in some ways, really helped my cause. It was easier because our CTO said that it has to happen, and our CEO agreed. That was one of the few mandates we get. That’s one extreme.

The other extreme is some of the things that we’re driving, where, for example, we are trying to put standards in place, and process standards in place around Agile, for example, or getting product teams to properly internationalize their software. That is more done by my team, just going out and working with various product teams and influencing. I would say where we get the most success is where we get early adopters who say this makes sense and I want to try it. Then once we get some wins, then we get a critical mass and we can really declare a standard. It’s sort of a bottoms-up, and then there’s a top-down, and there’s some things that start in the middle.

We had one initiative this year that was really interesting, which was that people had started using Slack as a communication tool. It was not officially standard term by IT. We didn’t have an enterprise license, but it had really gotten a ground swell, sort of community ground swell. I took that over in my team, and just said, let’s get an enterprise deal. That has been a huge success, because everyone wanted it already. All I did was get the licensing and get it all combined into one Slack instance, instead of multiple. That has really helped change the culture of the openness around things here. There’s no one way that things take off.

Carlos: Right. It is a living organism, so there’s a lot of that. You gave us 2 examples about in ways in which you’re fulfilling your mission of modernizing the entire organization. How do you impact more technical areas of engineering in the organization? By that I mean, let’s say, architectural stuff. Something that used to belong to the future, right, and it’s now in the present very much is this whole thing of the monolithic to micro-services concept. Is that an example of something that you might be in your plate now, or might be part of your focus?

Minette Norman: Well I have a peer who is in charge of architecture, and he is very technical. He is our group CTO, and they are- he and a team of other software architects, are working on establishing a reference micro-services architectural that we will use at Autodesk. It’s definitely on my radar. It’s not specifically in my responsibility, but very much aware of it because we acquired a company, I believe last year, called Magoa, and they had a really nice micro-services architecture. We’re using that as a reference. That team is trying to now scale it for use across Autodesk. My team works with the architects to make sure that we can support what they’re doing, that we have the tools to support what they’re trying to put in place. We help communicate as sort of a joint effort around this. The architecture itself doesn’t fall under my organization. More of the dev ops stuff does, however, like how we do continuous integration, continuous delivery, that’s more on my side.

Carlos: Got you, so things like switching over to containers, to Docker and all that is part of that. Another question that seems to be in line with what we’re talking about, you mentioned a CTO, but when I hear you talk about your role, you sound to me like a CTO in many-

Minette Norman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Carlos: You said that there’s also a CTO, like a company-wide CTO.

Minette Norman: Yes.

Carlos: How does a CTO role differ from your role, specifically at Autodesk?

Minette Norman: Yeah, I think ours is quite unique. I do know other people who have the CTO title at other companies and their job is a lot more like what mine is, but our CTO Jeff Kowalski I think is unusual. His team is really a future-oriented team. I think he likes to say he’s looking at 5 and 10 years at things we don’t even know we should be looking at yet. He has a fairly significant research team that is looking at new technologies, new trends, and things that may impact us or that we should get on top of. He also does some incubation of technologies that are not yet products, and eventually some of them do move into the product teams and get taken over and become real. Really, he’s very much more future-oriented. It was actually somewhat unusual for him to get involved in a tool decision like GitHub, but he saw that as a catalyst for really helping change the mindset and change the culture. Mostly he’s looking at way out there stuff in the future.

Carlos: It seems to me like that initiative was big because it solves some of the big issues that you mentioned initially. Probably this is a good time to ask that, what is the toughest part of your job, and what is the best thing about your job?

Minette Norman: Initially, sometimes the toughest thing is overcoming resistance, where people just say no, this is how we do things and we’re not changing. I’ve seen that shift a lot in the last year, where people are open to change and they understand that we really need to make some fundamental changes. Once you overcome the resistance, I’d say the second part that’s quite challenging is these competing priorities, and I alluded to it a little bit earlier, if we have products that need to go out and there’s competition and therefore we have to match features, but how do you get teams to prioritize some of this seemingly not as interesting work, but very important work which may be technical re-architecting? We are conducting their products that can go into something like GitHub. Those are some of the challenges.

I would say really the toughest challenge is shifting a company like Autodesk, that is 30+ years old and has been really siloed, to becoming a company that is more cohesive, that is more willing to work together, and that engineers don’t feel that they have to be the one to invent something new, but that they’re willing to reuse something that has been created by another team and contribute to it, not just be doing an open source. We’re really trying to get this idea of inter-source rolling at Autodesk, so that you don’t have to invent it, but you can reuse, you can contribute, you can improve. You don’t have to be the inventor. That’s a big shift for a company like Autodesk, so that’s one of my big challenges.

Carlos: Are there any initiatives that you can share with us and that are on your radar for, say, the next year?

Minette Norman: Yeah, we have several initiatives. One of them is getting everyone on a common, as opposed to doing your own thing, a common CICD workflow. That is in my team’s responsibility right now. One thing that we’re doing that I haven’t seen, I’d love to know if other companies are doing it but we haven’t found any yet. We are introducing into the whole CI, continuous integration and continuous delivery, another C, which is CL- continuous localization. Our customers are largely outside the US, more than 70% of our revenue is non-US revenue. Therefore, we need to translate our software into many languages. We need to deliver all of that software at the same time continuously.

We’re doing a very automated localization workflow so that can be, we integrate, we localize, and we deliver all at the same time. That’s one of the big initiatives we’re working on. Other things that we’re driving through my team is agile transformation, so agile is a little old, but at Autodesk there are teams that are still very wonderful, there are some that are quite agile and would really like to get everyone into a much more agile framework. I have agile coaches on my team who are working across the product teams. I also have technical training as part of my responsibility, so as we try to modernize Autodesk, we try to modernize our workforce. People who’ve been traditional desktop developers we’re now training cloud technology so they can do more local development, full-stack development. Those are some of the initiatives that I’m driving.

Carlos: Well, they sound like a handful.

Minette Norman: That was just the start. I could go on, but I don’t want to go on any longer.

Carlos: One of the things that kind of pop out of this is that it seems to be a decentralized engineer organization. Do you think that, first of all, is that true? Is it decentralized or centralized, and how do you think that that affects some of these issues, or how is it better for some of the goals that you have?

Minette Norman: It is very decentralized. I am the only central engineering organization and as I said, I don’t have product under me. I’m not really a full engineering organization. Very decentralized, each product team has its own engineering organization. I would say the positives of that were more in our past, in that people could really go fast and do what they needed to do and do their own thing. I don’t think that the decentralization is serving us well anymore, because we are trying to have products that look more like each other, that inter-operate better, so they’re trying to bring them all together. It would be, I’m not saying that we should reorg because when you take 3500 engineers and put them into one organization you still need to break it down, so I don’t think that’s the solution. I think the solution is really getting them to take on those initiatives whole-heartedly in terms of working together, reusing, getting into a common technology stack, getting into common practices. That’s why my group is here, that’s what we’re here for, this sort of practice organization as opposed to a product organization.

Carlos: For engineering leaders who might need tasks with similar missions or have some of the same problems that you’re facing, what would you give as some advice? What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned that is general enough that you think could apply to other people?

Minette Norman: I would say 2 things. One is that the technology is always changing, so you can never say we’ve got it figured out. It’s always changing. I would say the lesson I’ve learned is really look outside your own company to see what other people have done, and borrow what you can, don’t reinvent the wheel as much as possible. From a technology perspective, I try not to do home-grown things as much as possible. Sometimes you have to, but it’s really great if you can use open source or a commercial solution so you’re not forever investing in a custom solution.

That’s not the most interesting thing in terms of advice. What I’ve learned is that the technology is constantly changing, you have to stay up to speed, but the real challenge and the real thing you need to pay attention to, as any leader, not just an engineering leader, is the people and the culture, and the environment that you’re creating for your engineers. I think too often in engineering, we focus only on technology and we forget about how important the culture and the people are. You really can’t get anything innovative or revolutionary done unless you have amazing people who are engaged, who feel comfortable speaking and debating, and having those sort of uncomfortable discussions, and really leading to great results. I find unless you can create that environment you’re not going to get the best real company. That’s my biggest lesson. That would be a whole other podcast to talk about how you create that environment, it’s not easy, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading about that and really trying to make a mark in a positive way on Autodesk.

Carlos: All right, so I have 3 last questions for you. This is what I think I didn’t prepare you for, but I think it’s going to be fun to answer. If you ran into yourself, right, and maybe you went to a time machine and you ran into yourself 20 years ago, what advice would you give yourself, based on the trajectory your life, or say, your career has taken?

Minette Norman: That’s a cool question. I would have told my 20 year younger self that you don’t know half as much as you think you do. Back then, I was so sure I knew what I was doing, and to really expand your horizons in terms of what you might be interested in, read more, do more research. That’s a lot of what I do now, a lot of reading, a lot of research. I think I’m always expanding my horizons, but I think if I had done that 20 years ago, who knows what I would be doing?

Carlos: Talking about reading, what’s a book you would recommend? These subjects we discussed today or any book you’d like to recommend?

Minette Norman: I recently in the last 6 months read a book that has been really powerful for me. That is, it’s called Radical Collaboration by James Tamm. It talks about what is really required for human beings to collaborate and the number one lesson from that is that you have to overcome your defensiveness. It’s a great read; I recommend that book. There’s another book that I found very useful and that I manage very global teams that are all over the world with lots of different cultures, and the book is called the Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. It really helped me understand different cultures and how to engage with people from different cultures.

Carlos: Those sound fascinating, and I will check them out. Those, the links to those books will be on the show notes.

Minette Norman: Oh great.

Carlos: Now, the most important question, how can people find you and find your work? Also if you want to, if people are interested in working with you or at Autodesk, how can they apply and all that good stuff?

Minette Norman: Yes, you can find me on LinkedIn, Minette Norman on LinkedIn. I’m happy to connect. I also am on Twitter, although I don’t tweet very often. I occasionally do. It’s MinetteNorman, all one word, on Twitter. Then for Autodesk, if you’re interested in jobs here, we have an active career site. I believe the URL is Autodesk.com/careers. There are always lots of openings. I’d be happy to talk to people who want to learn more about what we do, what I do, et cetera.

Carlos: Just a quick last question, about people that are interested in working, give us a hint. If somebody who wants to get in, wants to work at Autodesk, what route is best for them to draw somebody’s attention instead of just sending in a cold email with a resume? How do they provide, how do they get hired?

Minette Norman: Yeah. You know, like any company I think the easiest way is through a personal connection, because then someone can vouch for you. I would say actively look on LinkedIn to see if you know someone at Autodesk, because I have found that people will sometimes reach out to me and say, can you refer me? Then all I can say is, I can but I can’t vouch for you. I can certainly send on your resume to a hiring manager, but I will have to disclose that I don’t know you. It certainly helps if you know anyone who actually works here. Otherwise, it’s fine to reach out to someone blindly and see if they’ll connect with you, but you know, just put together a great resume that’s maybe a bit unconventional, and if possible, try to find someone you know who knows someone at Autodesk who might be able to get you in.

Carlos: That’s great feedback. Thank you so much for telling the truth, not oh, just send an email here. Other people forget that it’s about people.

Minette Norman: It is, yeah.

Carlos: I’ve talked to a lot of engineers that try to apply and don’t get the contact. Minette just gave you guys a lot of good advice. Minette, I want to end this with thanking you. I think you’ve been, this has been an amazing interview. You’ve given us a lot of insight into your world, and I appreciate that because I know that again, there’s a lot of things you can’t talk about, so I appreciate you sharing a lot of that with us.

Minette Norman: It was a pleasure, thank you for asking me, Carlos.

Carlos: Thank you. I look forward to hopefully meeting you in the future.

Minette Norman: Absolutely. Thank you.

Carlos: Thank you, Minette. Have a good one.

Minette Norman: You too.