DETROIT — Like so many brilliant leaders, Carl Bass landed at a top university out of high school, and like so many brilliant leaders, he did not spend four years there. Not right away, at least.
The president and CEO of Autodesk, Bass studied mathematics at Cornell University for two years, then dropped out and wandered for the next five. He traveled from Maine in one corner of the country to Washington in another, he learned how to build sculpture, furniture and boats, he figured out how to really be a maker – before maker was a preferred term.
After half a decade out in the world, Bass twisted the narrative and — unlike Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and, more recently, Mark Zuckerberg and Elizabeth Holmes — dropped back in at Cornell. Two years yielded a degree and the wherewithal to launch his first company, Flying Moose Systems and Graphics, Ltd., which was later renamed Ithaca Software and purchased by Autodesk. The last 20 years have been filled with another startup sandwiched by two stints with Autodesk. He has been its CEO now for almost a decade.
Bass has decades of experience running companies, designing software, working with manufacturers — and manufacturing, himself — and dived into all of those areas during his recent Techonomy Detroit conversation titled Craftsmanship, Work and the Future of Business.
If we just look broadly at manufacturing, and if I go back 10 years, the questions manufacturers used to talk to us about, as the toolmakers, were all about quality. It was Six Sigma, you know, How do I get good quality? Today, quality is assumed to be in every product. The questions that manufacturers are asking today are, How do I get this kind of intangible that many would label innovation? How do I make a product better than my competitors, and if I’m really lucky, in a sustainable way? What’s my sustainable competitive advantage over my competitors? And, How do I get that product to market more quickly?
One of the interesting things that’s going on right now is the reversal of some of the things that made the Industrial Revolution. You know, the Industrial Revolution was based on We’re going to make lots of something, and by making lots of it, we will make it well and we will make it cheaply. We will be able to lower the cost by raising the volume. Now you don’t need to make things in huge volume to have those kinds of economies of scale, and one of the enablers of that is that we have software that embeds this knowledge. And the other thing is that most manufacturing is done with computers today. Sometimes it’s in the form of a robot, sometimes it’s a 3-D printer or a CNC machine or a laser cutter. All of this is really brought about by the microprocessor. All of a sudden, now what reverses that trend of the Industrial Revolution is that I can make really high quality things in small quantities at reasonably affordable prices. That’s different, and that’s where I think this is an incredible opportunity for people to create businesses.
If you think about all of our customers, they make stuff. So they’re making automobiles, they’re making medical devices, they’re building buildings, they’re building civic infrastructure. It’s all about taking some idea and turning it into something. And, you know, there’s the fun of it. … What we’re really trying to do is help all these people who at heart are really trying to take their ideas and turn them into things that solve problems.
The maker movement is just the tip. I think the maker movement’s incredibly interesting, but when you start moving up the ladder in terms of scale, … you look at what’s going up in the startup community, and now you look at hardware startups — all the way up to the largest manufacturers in the world — and many of the challenges they share are the same. It is this idea of, How do I get my idea made? How do I turn this into a real thing? How do I make it in a way that’s differentiated from the next? … It’s just a different scale problem. Disney is as interested in making a different movie from someone as GM is in making a different car than BMW. We’re there as the tool providers for that. In some ways, the best part of my job is to work with all these wonderfully creative, imaginative people who are trying to get this done.
3-D printing has one terrible problem: If you have something that you 3-D printed and you wanted to make it twice as big, it takes eight times as long. … So you’ve got to look for things that scale exponentially as well.
What are we all going to do when the robots take our jobs? There’s a number of things that will make having a healthy, robust middle class around the world difficult. On the other hand, the way we’ve stayed ahead of this is by developing new opportunities. And I think we have to look at those opportunities, the entrepreneurial opportunities where we can go and find new industries where there are problems that need to be solved. … If you look at Detroit, or any of the industrialized cities, as being about the factory, that’s the mistake. That was a means of production, and it was an appropriate one at the time. Factories now are almost all completely automated. When they’re still running three shifts, you go outside and the parking lot has 20% of the cars as it did when it was at its peak. We’re not going to create those kinds of jobs. The question is, Can we create other and even better jobs? And I think the strength of places like Detroit is the expertise of the people. Some days I feel like we’re all pretending in San Francisco that we know how to machine and we know how to mold and weld.
We’re not going to reinvent factories where there’s tens of thousands of people who go in every day. I think you just have to write it off. And I think if you want to be forward looking in some way, you have to admit that. … I’m not trying to say this is the way the world has to work, but you’re going to give people these options.
And I think we’re mistaken if we want to try to figure out how to kind of put the genie back in the bottle and say, We’re not going to have autonomous vehicles, and we’re going to try to make full employment. We’ll end up with some of the jobs that they have in places like Japan, where you go, “What is that job? This is a made up job, with 17 people on the train platform to watch the train, just so it’s full employment. We want good employment. I think it’s the saddest state of affairs to make jobs just for the sake of having jobs.
I would not underestimate the power of the entrenched automakers. People forget that the design of an automobile is one of thing, but the sale, marketing, and production of that automobile — for example, we get all amazed by the Tesla factory. There are factories in Germany that are producing 10,000 cars a day with a handful of robots. I mean the scale at which the big auto companies do this, and do it very well, is something to marvel at. … Just as in every industry we’ve watched, I would not write off the people who are already there and have a lot of the other things needed.
I think it will be demonstrable that the computer is better at driving cars than we are.
I still think one of the biggest things we need to do is reform the American education system, where if you really look at the history of it, it was to take an agrarian population and make us all suitable, you know, to tame us so we could work in the factory. We’re educating people in some ways for a future that doesn’t exist anymore, and I think that’s a real crime that we’re perpetrating on our children. The future is going to be in taking their knowledge and creativity and passion and turning it into interesting things, not for us to stand there all day and turn the same screw 10,000 times.
I am less enthused about virtual reality and going into a made-up space, because I think there’s all kinds of limitations. I’m much more interested in the class of applications called augmented reality, where we take things that already exist in the world and we supplement them with information that’s in the computer. You know, so in the context of cities, if I’m walking down and I have a device on — you know, so you watch them digging up the streets, you know, the call before you dig is immediate. I can walk and I can see the infrastructure underneath as I’m walking. You can think of thousands of applications. And I think this augmented reality set of applications will be the thing that in many ways is much more interesting than virtual reality.
And by the way, the Oculus, it’s actually a great device. It’s a great technical achievement.