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How to lose sales and market share through imagination and hard work[Footnote]


Consider this: open the AutoCAD box, the actual commodity that changes hands when a customer buys our product from our dealer. Take out all the pieces, then go back through the product release notes, the documentation review routing slips, and the like, and make a list of the names of individuals whose work directly appears in that box--the originators of everything that eventually ends up in the hands of the customer. When I do this, I come up with about 15 names. It's no wonder we never seem able to deliver what we would like to on a schedule we can live with.

I do not mean to imply that only 15 people are responsible for AutoCAD, or to disparage in any way the efforts of the much larger number of individuals in quality assurance, development test, product management, marketing communication, or other aspects of product development: these are just as essential as writing software, producing documentation, and assembling the support materials that constitute a product release. But they don't wind up in the box! When the customer takes delivery of the product and unpacks the box, he doesn't see any of those other efforts. He assumes adequate resources have been expended to insure the product is reliable, not the least since he parted with such a large wad of cash to acquire it. He relies upon the integrity of the product's vendor to protect his investment through upward compatibility and cross-platform data interchange. He expects the vendor's financial strength, management resources, and commitment to future development will ensure the company can continue to meet his future needs. But at the moment, once the shrink wrap has been discarded and the floppies copied to the hard disc, all that the user sees, reads, and uses is what was in the box.

Written by about fifteen people.

Is this an appropriate development commitment to a product that is generating on the order of two hundred million dollars per year in sales, a product that commands an overwhelming share of a rapidly growing market?

Modern software has so much in the box because more people are working to put it there. Mythical man months and mystical management aphorisms aside, if you stack a development team of 15 people up against a Microsoft-sized project with a hundred or more people directly contributing components that the user will encounter in the product, the tiny team, however bright, however motivated, however hard-working, will always come up short. Especially if the team of 15 people is only allowed to work on the product for a few months per year, conforming to product release schedules proclaimed by accountants (as is the case for Release 12), not by sales, marketing, development, or (perish the thought) the needs of customers.

But doesn't increasing the number of developers, writers, and the like require corresponding increases in the number of supervisors, managers, testers, spec-writers, and everybody else involved with the product? Yes, of course it does. Doesn't that increase costs far beyond even the already large costs of a big development team? Naturally. That is the way the software industry works these days, and it is the investment required of all companies that wish to remain leaders.

But, can Autodesk afford it?

Out of two hundred million dollars a year?

Autodesk has inherited many things from its history, not least of which is the tradition of the ``hungry rat,'' a reputation as a lean, mean competitor that consistently did more with less through imagination and sustained hard work. This mode of operation was essential when there wasn't anything but imagination and hard work from which to forge a company. In the absence of market share, distribution channels, reputation, financial capital, or a community of users, you fall back on what remains. This way of doing business took us very far. Indeed, it took us all the way to the last quarter of fiscal 1991 with an unbroken streak of rising sales and earnings. But I fear it can no longer guarantee the future of AutoCAD in an increasingly sophisticated market. I believe it is burning out our best people and ensuring the eventual eclipse of our principal product.

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Editor: John Walker