A Q&A with Andrew Anagnost

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As part of Autodesk University, CEO Andrew Anagnost held a virtual briefing with members of the press over Zoom

Each year, as part of Autodesk University, Autodesk CEO, Andrew Anagnost, sits down with the global press to take questions. In this year’s virtual event, the format was a little different, but it still gave a fascinating insight into the direction the company is taking. Topics included digital twins, construction, data exchange through APIs, thin clients, open standards, the future of Revit and lots more.

Question: Can you tell us about the Spacemaker acquisition?

Andrew Anagnost: The user is getting incredibly valuable information that would have been incredibly laborious for them to create previously, presented to them instantaneously and in real time as they’re trying to work through constraints and decision processes. So, it’s fully aligned with a philosophy we’ve had for a while. We’ve been watching them for a couple of years now.

And it’s our opinion, and it’s the opinion of our customers too, that they built the best Artificial Intelligence cloud-based platform out there in the market right now. And, more importantly, they’re actually solving real-world problems with it. That’s what some of our biggest customers told us, that this stuff works. And that’s one of the reasons why we acquired it.

So, it’s really fully aligned with where we were going strategically. It’s a great team. I mean, this is an absolutely fabulous team of machine learning specialists, data scientists, and engineers and I think they’re going to make a fantastic addition not only to Autodesk, but to our portfolio.

Question: How are customers responding to Covid, what has the impact been, and what is Autodesk doing to respond and help customers in this climate?

Anagnost: The impacts are broadly felt, we feel them as a software company. One of the things we’re seeing a lot from customers, and we’re hearing a lot, is they’re still working on their processes for working remotely and managing constricted environments.

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I think this is one of the places where we’re working very closely with a broad set of customers, we’ve tried early on to make a lot of things free, so customers could access some of these things. We’ve transitioned more to paying. But there’s still things out there that we’re doing for customers in terms of training and other types of things that are absolutely intended to assist customers through this.

But every customer I talk to is learning how to work with new types of tools and new types of processes. And the interesting thing is almost all of them say, “we’re not going to go back to the way we were before”.

Another interesting thing that I will just talk about one customer generically, but it’s a large customer that that builds large facilities. And one of the things they found is, that by managing the restrictions on a construction site digitally – because, you know, they can only put so many workers on the site at a time, and they had to be spaced a lot more than before – they actually have found that their throughput on the construction site is more efficient. So, they’re actually building faster – in this case by adopting some of the digital tools. Even with the constrained people on the site, they’re moving faster.

But let’s be clear, this is tough on everyone. Every one of our customers across the board has seen their cash flows decrease, their buildings decrease, their pipeline of new business has been impacted. The good thing that’s great about a lot of customers, our industry, is they’ve proven themselves to be extremely resilient and their existing projects have continued to carry them through a lot of what’s going on. But it’s tough and a lot of people are nervous about how next year is going to shape up.

Question: There have been attempts to use generative design for space planning, like in the Autodesk Toronto office, for example. Will Spacemaker technology displace the generative design Autodesk has itself developed for AEC?

Anagnost: It’s interesting. They’re tackling different parts of the problem. And I think it’s important to know that we have multiple vectors on how some of this technology works. The work that we did with generative, and Toronto, was actually working on space within a space. So, for instance, when we use generative design to design the Toronto office, we were looking at the alignment of the office within the physical space that had already been selected. We were moving walls around, moving windows around, creating sloped surfaces, and all things like that.

Spacemaker has started a lot of its efforts at the kind of upfront urban planning stage. So Spacemaker is trying to assist design in highly constrained urban settings. And one of the things it’s trying to do, and one of the things I think is really exciting about the way they position themselves, is they’re trying to maximise return for all their stakeholders – the investors, the developers who are developing the properties, the local cities, and the environment that exists around that, as well as the people that live in the buildings they’re producing.

What Spacemaker does is it says ‘Look, I have a highly constrained urban setting, I want to maximise the return to the developer, I want to minimise the impact on the local city and I want to minimise the impact on the local environment while maximising the utility and liveability of the space for the people who use it’.

So, they will slice the space up into large chunks of modules. What we’ve done with generative design, is when you get inside of a module, like a building or an office, we can configure that inside there using some of our generative tools. There’s a great overlap between the envelope of a building or a multi-family residence or a multi-office commercial property, and what we’ve done with generative design inside Autodesk.

Spacemaker – cloud-based AI software for urban designers, real estate developers and architects

Question: Can you discuss Autodesk licensing trends, enterprise business agreements and the move from concurrent subscriptions to named user subscriptions?

Anagnost: The enterprise licensing stuff is a very popular method that our largest customers use for accessing our entire world. So, remember, it’s a consumption-based model they get. They only pay for what they use and, for instance, we just acquired Spacemaker, so we’re going to be working to integrate Spacemaker with some of those offerings.

It’s a great way for our customers to get access to technology pretty quickly, and use a broad swathe of our portfolio. Now, the move to named users – I want to make sure that we understand exactly what’s going on here. The move to named users is just part and parcel of our move to a fully SaaS model.

If we name every user, we’re able to deliver more value, more capability and more insights to every user. However, that doesn’t mean we’re going to abandon the idea of occasional users and concurrent use models in the cloud. We want to name every user, we’re going to definitely replace the old multi-user paradigm. But what our customers have not yet seen or been able to embrace is the new paradigm that will allow them to take some of the best things we’ve learned in enterprise business agreements and use them further down the market to manage occasional use inside their companies.

So, we will be naming every user because that’s the paradigm of the future. It allows us to deliver the most personalised experience to each user, the best insights to each user, the best information to the companies that manage all the users. But we’re also going to be delivering the ability to manage how much work an occasional user does, versus how you pay for a full-time user. And that will be coming too as time goes on.

Question: How will Autodesk Pay Per Use model will work?

Anagnost: It will work in a very similar [way] to the current multi-user paradigm, but with a cloud-based deployment and a cloud-based monitoring system. So, if you think about how our EBAs [Enterprise Business Agreements] work, they give access to the entire portfolio, but the customer only pays if somebody uses something for a day.

You can imagine an environment where a smaller customer doesn’t have to buy an EBA or that kind of ‘all-in thing’, when a smaller customer owns a few, purely named-user licences for high use individuals, and then purchase a capacity pack or a plan that allows them to access the whole portfolio for a certain number of bytes over several months or a year.

And they can use that for the occasional use user and use that to manage their capacity in such a way that they’re not putting full licences, full named user licences on the desktop of an occasional user.

You will see customers blend the two just like they blended multi-user and single-user licences. But it’s all going to be on a single cloud infrastructure in the cloud. Maybe a lot of people might not realise, but our existing multi-user licences were just our old licensing system, deployed in the customers’ environments. We couldn’t deliver named-user value, we couldn’t manage it in the cloud. All of its going to be managed in one place in the cloud, and operate in this kind of hybrid mode, where people have both types of capabilities in their accounts.

Question: You talked about how Autodesk is building pipelines around open data standards at the very end of your talk. Can you provide a little bit more information about this? What open standards does Autodesk see as critical for your pipeline plans? Both in AEC and in manufacturing?

Anagnost: So, like we did with IFC, we continue to support open standards within manufacturing and the standards that allow people to collaborate information. We embrace the standards in the media and entertainment space.

But one of the things I hope people understand about these standards is, it’s not so much about the file format standards anymore. And I want to impress upon people that the future of our industries is not files, OK? Files are what I’ve classically liked to call one of those dead things walking. Everybody works on files. Everybody uses files today. But what’s really powerful is, can you communicate about the information that’s critical to a particular design at more of a sub-element level, not just a file level?

So, file exchange is great, and you can see us embracing all of these file formats, so that we can bring them all together to make sure that people can use all the data they need. But what’s more important is data APIs that allow you to pull information that’s been defined by standards, and you can talk to the APIs and exchange information behind the scenes. You might dump or save a file from time to time but, in the future, most of what our customers do, is going to happen without a file ever being opened by us.

And that’s the exciting thing about the future, it’s these data APIs. The open standards are just a way for us to make sure that we’re all communicating about the right things. And we’re totally committed to these. But in the end, the future is going to be data APIs.

Question: What’s your vision for these new [Construction Cloud] products and for construction in general?

Anagnost: At the high-level, our vision for construction is nothing less than to connect everything from the very early conceptual design phases, all the way to the final handoff to the owner, and everything that goes in between. What you’ve seen with Construction Cloud, especially with the new rollout of Autodesk Build, and you’ve seen us take all the great technology we have and we’ve actually now built it off on a single platform, Autodesk Docs. Everything hangs off that platform now.

Our best-in-class mobile capabilities are basically from the PlanGrid team. The PlanGrid team was a best-in-class mobile application organisation. And the PlanGrid technology is showing up in this new platform as our best-in-class mobile tools. Nobody’s got anything better for mobile devices than we do.

One of the things that’s front and centre of what we are trying to do is empowering the site with high performance, high utility mobile tools connected to a single platform. But I think what you also saw with the notion of Quantify, and the other things associated with that is a continued focus on where the money actually gets committed. And that’s in the planning phase of construction, the pre-construction phase, and all those things associated with it.

No one is going to have better tools for pre-construction planning than Autodesk. We’re going to be deep, it’s all on a single platform, you can see that right now. And you can see all we’ve taken from every piece of technology we’ve learned over time. And if you go and you see the keynotes on this, you’ll get a real sense for how you can see the best of everything we’ve ever built integrated into this new offering. It’s designed to help save money, not only in the planning stages, but also execute better on the construction site phases.

You’ll see us touch every aspect of the process and I really encourage you to go back and watch some of those demonstrations of what the Construction Cloud can do now what Autodesk Build really is so that you get a really deep understanding of how it works and what problems it’s targeting.

Issue Tracking in Autodesk BIM Collaborate, part of Construction Cloud

Question: Is there any change in your indirect sales channel strategy? How are partners included in the company’s strategy?

Anagnost: There’s really no change right now. More and more of our business comes direct. But I’ve always said that partners are an important part of our business. If there’s a really important change that I think is worth talking about it’s the roles our partners play in helping our customers integrate all these technologies, more and more.

The partners are front and centre with helping the customers understand our cloud APIs, integrate our cloud APIs into their processes, and build custom solutions on top of those APIs to help the customers build out complete and stitch together their solutions.

The emerging role of partners, as system integrators for our customers, as trusted partners to build this and put it all together for them, is something that I think you’ll see as an emerging change and an important thrust for how we work with our partners.

The partners will continue to sell the software; they’re going to continue to get access to all of this software. Over time, the mix of how much of our business comes from direct and indirect will change. You’ve heard me talk about that many times. But the amount of money our partners are making will continue to go up and up and up over time.

Question: How do you see the Forge ecosystem and capabilities evolving?

Anagnost: You remember we’ve had Forge for a while, it’s existed for many years now. What you’re seeing now is additional aspects of Forge being exposed publicly. Things that we had behind the scenes, but nobody saw before. Like, for instance, what we’re doing with Forge for manufacturing and the data disaggregation that allows people to talk to specific slices of data within the manufacturing process and light up some of these collaborative processes.

Our goal for Forge is to be the best third-party development environment for design and making in the industry. And we think we are well on our way and we believe that by powering this industry with open standards, open ways of communicating web-based APIs and accessing the data, and also the workflows that are involved, we’re going to see an explosion of innovation on top of these platforms. People building all sorts of new custom tools.

It happened ages ago, for instance, when AutoCAD came out. AutoCAD was a platform in its original form. And a lot of AutoCAD’s big impacts early on were from third-party developers. The Forge ecosystem we’re building is going to have an even more significant impact because of the way you can stitch the processes together in the cloud. Look for us to continue to add more and more to Forge but, more importantly, to improve the developer experience that a third-party sees with Forge.

Question: Will we see more partnerships between Autodesk and construction product suppliers like Schneider Electric?

Anagnost: I think partnerships in all of these spaces right now, given the digitisation that’s happening in our industries, is an inevitable outcome of the rise of all these new ways of working. So yes, you’ll see partnerships from us of all types. And there’ll be partnerships where we overlap a little bit, where we’re fully complementary, but it makes sense in a connected world like this, especially when you’re trying to use open APIs and data APIs to connect things together to be partnering more closely with a broader collection of individuals. I would fully expect to see more partnerships like that in the future.

Question: Autodesk has gotten a lot of feedback from customers on the future of Revit. What have you learned from that feedback? And when will some of the investments that you’ve said that the company is making really bear fruit for our architecture solutions?

Anagnost: I’ve published numerous commentaries on this. I want to make sure that I point people back to the things we’ve said in the past, about where we were at with our architecture customers.

We made deliberate choices to invest in some of the guts of Revit, and in other areas of Revit. And we knew that some of the architecture requests and preferences were not necessarily being met at the same velocity. So, this wasn’t a surprise to us, in terms of some of the concerns we heard from architecture customers. We take them very seriously.

As a matter of fact, one of the things we took incredibly seriously, and I think you can see it in some of Amy’s [Bunszel] comments, and some of the blog posts that Amy’s done is that making sure we stay connected to some of our architecture customers that are further down in the market, lower down in the mid-market, where their voice may not have been heard as much as the larger architecture customers, and some of the larger architecture customers in the mid-market.

We’ve definitely set up capabilities and facilities to make sure that those individuals have line of sight, so to speak, to Autodesk and we are engaging with lots of them in listening sessions.

We’ve gotten a lot of great information, in terms of when they’re going to see some of these investments. We actually started investing well ahead of any discussions that happened recently. You’re going to see capabilities, functionality and tools for architects that are on the roadmap showing up within the next releases coming in the next year and beyond.

The investment in Spacemaker, $240 million, kind of represents a fundamental investment in technology that will ultimately show up in other parts of the architecture pipeline. Spacemaker was founded by architects to build solutions for architects and what they’ve done is incredibly elegant, and that technology will show up in other places.

The other thing I want to make sure that you’re aware of, is that one of the big requests we’ve had from architects is ‘how can you help us make better decisions about embedded carbon and total carbon associated with some of my designs?’ I think you’re going to see some exciting solutions over the next year from Autodesk that helps architecture customers make more informed decisions about the total carbon footprints of the designs they’re working on.

Question: What’s the deal with Omniverse? Will you be selling Nvidia services and customers pay Autodesk in tokens? Or will it be handled by Nvidia, a bit like the Unity partnership?

Anagnost: We integrated with Omniverse. We think it’s the right way to get multiple data formats collaborating in virtual worlds. We’re going to follow Nvidia’s lead with how they want to bring all that technology to market. The real news for us is, we’re all in, we’re going to support this incredibly tightly, we’re going to make sure we evolve and grow with it. We want customers to be able to bring together data from multiple applications, multiple types of tools, and engage in an immersive dialogues and conversations.

How that evolves over time is going to be directly related to how Nvidia wants to evolve their model with regard to Autodesk and Omniverse over time. We’re absolutely going to follow their lead and engage with them on some of these things.

Our goal is to make technologies like this available to our customers, because we think they’re important. And open technologies like this are particularly important in our space.

KPF is using data from 52 Lime Street , also known as ‘The Scalpel’, to test out Nvidia Omniverse

Question: We see Microsoft being a bit more upfront and focused in their cloud services for specific sectors like Azure Maps, Azure Digital Twins. Is Autodesk working for closer integration with these? Or is it best to be more cloud or platform agnostic?

Anagnost: So, one of the reasons we engaged in the Digital Twin Consortium at the level we did is to work with vendors like this, to make sure that we’re all solving problems together. There’s going to be multiple players involved, bringing multiple types of capability to the problem. Azure’s Digital Twin technology is completely different than what we bring to Digital Twins and it’s not connected to BIM in the same way. However, if we work together with what Microsoft is doing, we will provide much more powerful solutions to the industry and that’s one of the reasons why we’re involved in some of these discussions and some of these engagements.

I believe all of our customers are going to be getting tools from multiple places and it’s the responsibility of Autodesk and companies like ours to make sure they all work together. And that they’re able to stitch information together and pass information back and forth from each other because each one of these tools will solve a unique and different problem for a particular persona in a particular space. The more these things work together, the better it is for the entire ecosystem.

Question: Down the road, do you see a business impact from a COVID-induced slowdown in manufacturing, construction, energy, education and other industries that have taken a big hit in the revenues because of this?

Anagnost: The future is uncertain. The good news is there’s two vaccines out there on the horizon. They won’t show up anytime soon, but that will affect people’s investment decisions in various industries. What we see is people’s pipelines are building back up again. They’re just building back up differently than they were building up before the crisis. And this has been indicative of just about every downturn we’ve ever seen in our industry. The demand shifts, it shifts to other things.

I think you’re going to see over the next year, more spending on infrastructure, potentially more spending on multi-family housing, you might see some pullback and commercial, and things associated with that.

In manufacturing, I think you’re going to see a shift to different types of products and preferences – tools that are more aligned with some of the digital workflows. You’re going to see a shift to more electrified types of applications.

What happens in a crisis like this is economies come back, but they come back different. And the great thing is that our customers are super resilient and they’re going to adapt to these different shifting patterns in demand. There are going to be different patterns in demand, but we see on the other side of this, more people making more things more digitally connected with better decision-making tools.

While certainly the near term is uncertain, the long term is absolutely not. Probably some of you read all these books about the Spanish flu pandemic, from the early 1900s. I’m sure you know, it was popular reading, riveting stuff, by the way! I read a couple of them myself and you know, one of the things that came after the Spanish flu epidemic was the roaring 20s. Hopefully, we don’t get a repeat of the roaring 20s, because a lot of strange stuff happened in the roaring 20s. But people came back and they came back strong.

If we can come back as strong and as powerful on the other side of this, heightened with more digital processes, I think all of our customers are going to be able to adapt and do new things in incredibly interesting ways.

I guess that short term is uncertain. Long term, I’m highly optimistic.

Question: What established workflows are there from Spacemaker to Revit? And how will you seek to improve them?

Anagnost: Spacemaker will incorporate BIM information right now. It consumes that information. But actually, there’s lots of exciting opportunities. This is one of the places where we’re very interested in building out connections and capability.

I think that’s one of the areas that we’ll be talking about more in the future. How we’re building connections from what Spacemaker is doing way up front in the process, to further downstream in the process and building a bridge between the general design capabilities of Revit and the generative design capabilities inside of Spacemaker. Stay tuned on some of that.

Question: Can you talk a little bit more about the Digital Twin Foundation and the areas we expect to see standards? Also, can you talk about the Rockwell relationship in terms of digital twin for manufacturing appointments?

Anagnost: Talking about core Digital Twin technology. What is a Digital Twin? It aggregates information that comes from lots of different places. It is essentially built as a database from the get-go. It’s got a very fluid way of aggregating the information. It can sit in the middle of a lot of different information sources and a lot of BIM models that are surrounding it.

The fundamental technology you’re seeing there is akin to some of the things that I showed on AU mainstage a couple of years ago, with regards to dynamically adapting views of a design, and the final stage being this representation of what was actually built. It’s pretty powerful technology. It works very differently from how Revit works, for instance, and how it actually responds to the role.

Partnerships with companies like Rockwell, for instance, on the manufacturing side, allow us to incorporate some of the information from how they instrument a factory, and ensure that it actually works with how we represent a factory or something like that. Just like how the partnership with Schneider helps us represent more effectively how a building incorporates electronic systems.

All of this is very connected; the hardware that actually powers the factory, the hardware that actually keeps the building running, are all things that we want to be represented accurately and captured meaningfully inside the Digital Twin.

Question: Fusion is a thick client architecture. How long before AutoCAD, Revit and other desktop applications become thick clients?

Anagnost: Fusion is a medium client architecture. Here’s what I’ll say. Fusion is going to get thinner, we believe in the app model, we believe the future of this space is not browsers, though browsers are going to be a major part of it, everything’s going to work in a browser, everything’s going to have a browser-based version. Fusion has a browser-based version, TinkerCAD, a fully browser-based application. But… the world is app based, and the apps are going to get thinner, Fusion gets thinner. And yes, you’re already seeing the rise of an app-based model in the AutoCAD world.

The question that I think you might be asking is, are we going to see the same kind of apps build up in every one of our spaces? The answer is both Yes and No. In some cases, what you will see is a new form of application that shows up, that replaces existing applications over time – like, for instance, you know there’s plenty of room for Spacemaker as a bigger client as time goes on, and there’s plenty of room for Fusion to get thinner. And there’s plenty of room in the Media & Entertainment space to have thinner client solutions.

The key thing that you’ve got to recognise about Autodesk is we believe in the app model; we believe in some of these powerful new devices that are going to be able to do amazing things. And we want apps running on them with a fully multi-tenant, powerful cloud-based architecture behind it. That’s what we built and that’s the future we’re betting on.

We will have solutions, and we do have solutions, that support browser-only models – AutoCAD does. There’s an AutoCAD version which is completely browser-based. It’s beautiful. It’s been featured on mainstage in numerous forums because of its power and capability. It has an app model too and then it has a heavily thick desktop version. Look for that world to show up everywhere. But app first, it’s going to be app first, everywhere.

Final words from Andrew Anagnost: We are living through unparalleled times right now. They’re incredibly different, difficult. They’re challenging from a business perspective. They’re challenging from a human perspective. We are all learning to adapt and change and respond in ways that we really never wanted to. Nobody wanted to be in the current situation we’re in right now. But here’s what’s amazing about what’s happened – whole entire industries, thanks to the rise of a lot of digital infrastructure, have been able to adapt the way they work to an unprecedented situation.

If this situation hit twenty years ago, the impact on all of us would have been significantly more adverse, even if it hit ten years ago, it would have been more adverse. It’s amazing, actually, how much we’ve been able to adapt, even with all the struggles that are going on right now. If you look out on the other side of this, people have now realised that integrating and digitising is not optional. It’s the way to create a more resilient and more productive business model. I think what you’re going to see on the other side of this is people using technology in all sorts of new ways.

We’ve learned that even in the software business, we don’t all have to be in the office every day to get our job done. What kind of productivity? Is that going to open up long term? I spent three hours of my day, every day, maybe a little less, commuting back and forth to the office on the Bart train, OK. What have I done with that time? I’ve given some of it back to my family. I’ve given it some of it back to work. And all I know is that I don’t miss being stuck on the train during that time. We’re all going to be adapting to these new models of working, we’re not all going to be on the train every day. I think the other side of this is something to be potentially excited about and to be optimistic about.

These are tough times. We will get through these tough times. And on the other side of this, there are going to be better times. And what we’ve learned through all of this, we are not going to forget. I’m looking forward to seeing how all of our customers take what they’ve learned from this and turned it into an amazing new set of possibilities.


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