She persisted: Transforming software engineering at Autodesk

Innovation means creating something new and useful. Although we associate innovation with building new products, technologies, and solutions, the term applies equally to creating new systems or processes. Innovation in thought and practice enables teams to do more and better.

With this in mind, I invited a senior executive to share her story of engineering transformation at Autodesk, a $2 billion supplier of technical software founded in 1982. Minette Norman has the unusual title of Vice President of Engineering Practice at Autodesk, where 3500 engineers rely on her for guidance.

The discussion with Minette took place as Episode 269 of the CXOTalk series of conversations with top innovators. My co-host for that episode was Tamara McCleary, one of the most well-known thought leaders on the topic of digital transformation.

The conversation spanned a range of subjects, emphasizing the crucial role of culture in shaping productivity and overall success in software engineering. We also discussed agile software development and collaboration among team members.

Speaking with two powerful women, of course, we had to explore the issue of women in technology, which Minette and Tamara discussed with the insight you would expect from them.

Watch the entire video, which is embedded above, and read the full transcript on the CXOTalk site. Here is an edited summary of key points taken from the discussion:

You are Vice President of Engineering Practice. What does that mean?

Minette Norman: My job is unusual. Mostly, VPs of engineering run product groups. I do not run a product group. I run a practice. The way I think about it is how we develop products, how we develop software. What are the practices we use? What are the tools we use?

The number one thing that I have been driving over the last three years in this job is, what is the culture of engineering at Autodesk? How do we break down the barriers and silos that we built up over 35 years, actually start to work together across those barriers, and create cohesive software that our customers will love?

When I took this job about three years ago, the SVP that put me in this position said, “Minette, your job is to transform engineering at Autodesk.” That’s a tall order.

We have to stop recreating tech stacks and recreating tools — everyone doing on their own — and come together to share knowledge, share technology, and contribute to one another’s solutions instead of building one-off solutions.

That is much more of a behavioral and cultural problem than it is a tooling or technology issue. I deal with the technology, but I would say the harder part, the more interesting part, the part that gets me up in the morning is the people stuff.

How do you drive culture change in engineering?

Minette Norman: Going back to my “transform engineering at Autodesk” charter, it is really about getting people to respect one another, listen to one another. [With the mindset], “Okay, I didn’t invent it. It’s not mine, but I could reuse it. I could build on it. I could amplify it. I could enhance it. And, we could make something better together.”

It’s the idea of getting people to listen to one another, to respect one another, to overcome their defensiveness, and to realize that when you have diverse minds working together and diverse personalities, you create something better than you would just an engineer sitting alone in isolation. A lot of it is getting people to have those dialogs. One of the things we do is, we put in tools that enable people to work together more easily. We always say, “Tools last, culture first,” but tools have helped us to build some of these collaborative bridges across teams because we have teams all over the world.

What about the women in technology dimension?

Minette Norman: I was never an engineer. I got into tech as a technical writer, and I’ve been in tech for many, many years. I don’t have an actual engineering background and I’m a woman.

When I applied for this job a few years ago, the person considering me for the role said, “Well, I’m willing to give you a try, but you have two strikes against you that you have to know. One is you are not an engineer, and you’re going into an engineering leadership role. Two is that it’s a boy’s club, and you are not a member of the boy’s club, so you’re going to have to break in.”

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That was on the table for me, and it’s very clear. The #MeToo movement has been powerful. I can’t say that I’ve had a #MeToo moment that has been so horrible in my life as a woman in tech. However, as women in tech and leadership roles, we have to fight that much harder to be heard and to have a voice at the table. That’s been the challenge in my journey. Sometimes, sitting in a room of 20 men and me and just literally having my voice heard and not being spoken over, that’s been an interesting journey for me.

Tamara McCleary: We’ve heard a lot about diversity and inclusion, but talk is cheap. We’re still not seeing it displayed out there.

Even at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, there are no female keynote speakers. You cannot tell me there aren’t qualified female speakers that could be highlighted at CES. Even LinkedIn had this great video go out about the future and, in all of these leaders in that, there’s only one female. Diversity comes in many shapes and forms, more than just gender diversity.

Minette Norman: I feel your passion around this, Tamara. I’m incredibly passionate because I feel like we barely made progress. In some of the studies, you see that the numbers of women in tech are going down and the diversity numbers are terrible. I feel like a big part of my job, although it’s not in my job description, is championing women, minorities, and diversity of thought and education.

In fact, I just gave a keynote for the Society of Women Engineers at UC Berkeley. My topic was about how you need to have a really broad liberal education in addition to your STEM education because I think it’s really dangerous today how there’s this sort of micro-focus on everything has to be STEM, and you’re not getting that broad education. How that translates into the engineering world — I see this every day — is engineers get up, they try to make a pitch for what they’re doing, they go straight into the details, and they never see the big picture. I always ask the question of why. What’s the context? Why are we doing something? I truly feel that comes from having that sort of liberal education. You just have to write these papers that explain things from a big picture perspective instead of just the narrow, technical focus. I am passionate about a lot of these topics, and I’m glad we’re talking about them, finally.

When I started this job a few years ago, I was overwhelmed with insecurity about the things I didn’t know. I surrounded myself with really smart people. I asked a ton of questions. I hired some great people. I went on a listening tour around the company talking to all the engineering leaders about what their concerns were, what they needed, and so I got a lot of contexts. Context is always important for me.

Then, I just started chipping away at one thing at a time because we couldn’t do everything at once. I made some tactical changes. [For example,] I worked with our legal department to have a better source code policy that said that our source control repositories could be more open so that engineers could have access to one another’s code bases. That was an enabler for collaboration. Then we started to get onto one set of tools so that people could find one another’s stuff and find information.

It was a lot of talking. I give presentations a lot at Autodesk. I run these big engineering summits that we do every year where we bring about 700, 750 engineers from around the world together. When I get up and talk, I always give a keynote because it’s my team’s event. I get up and speak, and I never speak about technology. I always speak about human behavior. One year I talked about collaboration.

Last year I talked about empathy. The night before my talk, I always get up and say, “Minette, what on earth are you doing getting in front of a room of engineers and talking about empathy?” The fascinating thing is some of the geekiest of the geeks have come up to me and said, “I am so glad you’re talking about this because it’s really important. No one talks about it, and it’s a big problem.”

How do men react to your approach?

Minette Norman: I’ve never met a man who would have brought [these issues] up the way I have been willing to bring them up. It might be that we just feel it more deeply. We’ve certainly been on the receiving end of what feels like some bad behavior, as women and as minorities, right? We’re a minority in the tech world.

However, the sentiments that I feel are universal. Men feel whatever it is: being ignored, being talked over, [or] being shamed. Men feel that, but I think maybe women are more willing to put it out there. I don’t know for sure. I know we all feel it deeply.

In my role, I have a podium here. I have a good title, so why not use that title for good? I’m going to speak about this stuff. Many of my male colleagues will talk more about the business and more about the tech. When I do talk to them about this, they think it’s important too.

CXOTalk brings together the most world’s top business and government leaders for in-depth conversations on digital disruption, AI, innovation, and related topics. Be sure to watch our many episodes!

(Cross-posted @ ZDNet | Beyond IT Failure)

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Well-known expert on why IT projects fail, CEO of Asuret, a Brookline, MA consultancy that uses specialized tools to measure and detect potential vulnerabilities in projects, programs, and initiatives. Also a popular and prolific blogger, writing the IT Project Failures blog for ZDNet.