How often does a CEO of a billion dollar company give up a Saturday to guide kids? Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, is doing just that. Before a standing room only crowd at Maker Faire, he delivers a heartfelt plea for one and all, the young and their parents, to use his company’s software, to help make things, something, anything -- whatever their heart might desire, it seems. To help them, he’ll make his software, some of it sold to professionals for thousands of dollars, available for free --or really cheap.
It is a message that plays well to those attending Carl's talk “CAD for Kids.” A lot of kids have actually showed up – along with their parents. Before the show, Carl tells me, it was the parents he actually wants to reach.
Carl is on a mission to gain acceptance among the youth. But spending millions on software just to give it away? But for those outside the room, the shareholders, the board, the financial community, people without kids… are they thinking Carl has gone crazy?
He might be crazy like a fox, though. Autodesk discovered the consumer market almost by accident. Its Sketch app for the iPhone got a million downloads in almost no time. It had taken years before its flagship AutoCAD reached a million users. To say it struck gold with Sketch might not be accurate as most users stay on the free version, generating zero income, but Autodesk was in a place that it could afford to commit millions of dollars to see where such numbers might lead. A consumer division in Autodesk was born.
Autodeskers credit Carl for such the initiative, the daring to go after a not-immediately-profitable market. Sowing the fields, i.e., providing technology at low cost hoping for commercial success is not new. Apple did it for years. Now generations of kids have grown up with Apple computers. It can be argued that it led to Apple’s success today. It’s not entirely without risk. Didn’t Apple almost run out of money before its mobile devices saved the day?
Carl gets the maker movement. He is a maker. His medium is wood and his tools are his own CAD products. He gets making things like no other CEO I can think of. It’s not just dollars and cents with Carl but some higher calling. Make something! He seems to say.
In jeans and a t-shirt, he's not your usual CEO. He seems more like an uncle. And a kindly one, too. The uncle who remembers your birthday and what you actually like, not the one who gives you socks. He knows you play too many video games but he won’t tell you to get off your ass and make something of yourself. He’ll play ball with you in the front yard.
The tools he has offered are substantial and generous. What is he hoping to gain? To me, it seem nothing less than a resurgence of creativity and productivity, starting with the young, but applied on a scale that Autodesk can address, this could be BIG! Give me your kids, I’ll give them the means…starting with software, but with 3D printing, a lot more. Let’s see that they can make. Why can’t they make anything they want? Including making America great again.
I find myself under Carl’s spell and have to shake myself. But the message of hope is unmistakable.
There may be detractors among the more cynical. For sure, a couple of bad quarters could make detractors out of the previously hopeful. The road to winning the minds of the next generation is a long one, but the difference from one Maker Faire to the next is considerable and noticeable. Kids are swarming the Autodesk booth, playing on iPads, using Sketch, the 3D Creature, wanting to get a 3D print of themselves. I don’t remember so many kids last year. I wonder if the kids belong to Autodesk employees but I am assured they most certainly are not. The kids seem to be having fun.
I allow myself to slip into Autodesk’s fantasy: a generation of children growing up using Autodesk applications of whatever devices their little hands can hold, all cheap or free, all online, not caring if on the cloud or what format their data is in, who their reseller is, how to install it or maintain it, no need to train on it or do homework.
Crazy like a fox, indeed.