An Interview with Autodesk CEO Carl Bass

Carl Bass is the CEO of Autodesk, and is responsible for its continued leadership and relevance in the marketplace. I got the opportunity to chat with him after his keynote at C2-MTL about failure and becoming excellent at something.

HERBERT: What qualifies as smart failure?

CARL: It’s circumstantial. I would say, for example, we’re talking about Google cars. At some point, there is going to be a failure with autonomous vehicles. But I think that’s a phenomenal project that they’re doing. I think it’s an awesome idea, I think they’re executing it well.

When the inevitable failure happens—okay, there’s going to be a headline that one of you [raises his hands to Jason Magder and myself] will write one day, “Robotic Car Kills Pregnant Mother.” It’s important at some point that that wasn’t done out of stupidity, but what we recognize is that we’ve cut automobile fatalities by 99%.

Planes are an amazing invention. They still crash occasionally, so I think you have to look and say, “We want to minimize those as much as possible.”

But things will fail. I’ve obviously picked more dramatic examples, but there are less dramatic examples that happen all the time. Every company I know, if you really look, has an ability to fail smartly, and to fail dumbly.

The expression I use is, “when you Zune it up.” [Grins.] Microsoft has done some amazing projects. Look at the Xbox. By the way, they weren’t the first one to make a game console. But they did a fantastic job, they have a great game studio, they did good work. However, the Zune was a failure before it hit the streets.

I don’t know the people there. I’m sure they’re plenty smart. But they started the wrong way; they were probably given a fairly impossible mission, and that team never got the instinct. They never got the spark—what was right for the market?

You might even say the same thing for social stuff with Google. It’s not phenomenal search, it’s not really clear they’re getting social in the way. You look at Twitter, or Facebook, or a thousand other companies out there, where there’s just this instinct and understanding about what it means to create something social that’s meaningful to people, and others are doing it really well.

I’m sure the team inside is as smart as the rest of the guys, it’s about having the right thing. If you look at them and say, “Is it a failure? Did they try the right things, and why did they fail?” I think you can do an amazing amount of stuff in going back and looking at why things fail.

People don’t like to. It’s kind of human instinct, not to go back. People like celebrating their successes rather than examining their failures. But I certainly found in almost everything I’ve done, I’ve learned way more about when I failed than when I’ve succeeded. I think it’s important— even corporately—to instill a culture where you go “What did we do wrong? What could we have done better? What do we know now that we didn’t know at the beginning, and what would we have done differently if we knew that at the beginning?”

I think it’s a really important attribute that companies tend to shy away from is they somehow think is you’re looking in the face of failure, and I say “Look, that’s rich fertile ground to learn as much as you possible can.”

HERBERT: How do you balance the need to mitigate risk and the desire to encourage smart failures?

CARL: Take the book I referenced in the talk, Clayton Christenson’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. It is not particularly hard to co-create something new to the side. Or something that supplements what you already do well and adds to it. That’s kind of the easy part.

What really becomes challenging and contradictory for companies is when you have the ability to do something that ruins your current business. So the challenge for any of the companies you’d mentioned is when there’s something new and different, and will compromise their existing business. That’s when you really have to look in the mirror and go, “What’s the right thing to do here?”

Adding another component to the thing you already do well and feed your existing business model? That’s an IQ test. If you don’t say yes to adding the thing that adds to your revenue, you really shouldn’t be running the company. The question is when you see the world changing, can you do something differently?

If you look back at the examples of Apple, I think one of the things they did that pissed all of us off, that was phenomenal, is the early iPods. I owned like twelve of them. Two reasons why we owned multiple iPods: one is they came out with a new one by the time you would unwrap yours, there’s a new model out there. The second is they broke all the time.

But we kept buying them! And they kept making them better. And I think if you look back, it’s an act of corporate bravery if you will, to cannibalize your existing product. If you look back at Apple, they did two things that actually took corporate bravery. Which may be an oxymoron [chuckles], but the things they did is they brought out products that made their own obsolete.

They could have sat on many of those models for much longer. The other thing they did, there was almost a lifelong hatred of the PC, and Windows, and Microsoft. The thing that made iTunes successful is they threw all that out the window and said let bygones be bygones, and we’re going to run on Windows.

Imagine how successful iTunes would have been if they stuck to their orthodoxy, and said “We don’t like PCs, we’re not going to run on them.” You look at a moment like that, and you go, there’s a combination of skill, insight, and creativity that you require that far exceeds…for example, Facebook bought Instagram. Almost certainly, they paid too much. But what they were looking at is an idea that they’re going to add more capability, and they were afraid of people creating a social network that was different. In some ways, that’s a pretty straightforward decision to make, absent the price.

Makes total sense, get more people on their network, they’re doing more and more activity, makes total sense. Back to this question of failure vs. success, I think the more interesting question that hardly gets asked is not why Apple created the iPod, but why Sony didn’t.

Sony was the master of consumer electronics. All of the music players up till then had been Sony’s. They had the idea of being an entertainment and consumer electronics company. What went on there that prevented it is almost as interesting as what had allowed it to flourish.

HERBERT: Going back to your earlier analogy about Kobe Bryant and a team—

CARL: I wish I had a hockey one. [We all laugh.] I did watch the Rangers lose last night though.

HERBERT: How do you ensure you’re creating an environment where you allow Kobe Bryant to succeed? Instead of having something like the Raptors, where we get superstars and they flounder.

CARL: Same thing goes with the Golden State Warriors, just so you know. So don’t feel bad. [Grins.] Everyone who is a superstar at one point played for the Golden State Warriors. And they don’t become good until they leave.

I think it’s easy, again, and I think it’s interesting to figure out what are those bad environments? Everyone wants to see what goes on in the good environment, but what are those bad environments? It’s far more interesting to look at Sony than it is to look at Apple. What goes on in those organizations that they don’t flourish? Even this year, there’s that great story about Jeremy Lin.

Having played basketball my whole life, there’s one thing you notice: When you step on the court with another player, you actually know whether they’re good or not. You have to guard someone for about two minutes, before you go, “This guy is quick, this guy is good.” I have no idea how this guy managed to sit on the bench for a number of years, participate in every practice, and nobody on that team said, “You know what? This kid can play!”

It’s astounding that not one of the players spoke up for him, not one of the assistant coaches. And you see it happen all the time, where someone’s pulled out of an environment, put into another one, and flourishes. Now sometimes I think it’s just a question of bad chemistry, there is the possibility that this just doesn’t work.

One of the worst things you have to do in work is fire people. But my most satisfying thing is when you fire people, and they come back and say, “Thank you, that was the best thing that ever happened.” Because most often, it’s not that the person is bad, it’s that it’s a mismatch.

I’d be gratified when people come back and probably neither of us quite knew it at the time or could say it, but they come back and say, “That was the wrong job for me, for the last three years I’ve been doing this, and I’ve never been happier.”

And you go, “That’s great!” That’s what it should really be.

From a student’s perspective, how do you ensure that you turn yourself into a Kobe Bryant? Talent aside.

You have to choose something you love. The people who force it, I don’t get at all. I had a conversation with this kid, well he’s not quite a kid, but this kid in management consulting. And he started asking me all these questions about being CEO. And I said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

And he said, “CEO!”

I said, “Of what?”

He didn’t know. He just wanted to be CEO, and I thought to myself, “Wow, that is weird. My approach to it is just so opposite, but he was just insistent that he wanted to be CEO.”

I was like, “You could just start a company tomorrow and be CEO.” I don’t think that’s particularly what he had in mind [laughs], but that was his goal. I find that awfully weird, and I don’t think it’s going to be particularly satisfying.

The advice that people have given a million times: find something you care about, something you love, something you’re passionate about. Then you’ll figure out how to make it successful for you. It’s way more valuable than following someone else’s dream.


Bass confirmed that passion is a prerequisite to success and leadership in a career. Now aware of these curious insights and approaches to innovation, we’re curious to see what Autodesk is up to next. Bass’ observations also tie in very well with Seth Godin’s statement, “Being safe is risky.

Thanks for the interview, Carl!