Meet Raji Arasu, Autodesk’s Latest CTO, Part 2

We continue a conversation with Raji Arasu that started on October 5.

Click here to see part 1 of this interview. We picture your CEO, Andrew Anagnost, looking for a CTO saying, “We gotta go to the cloud. Who’s out there?” and that leading to an executive search. Is that how it went?

Raji Arasu: There’s CTOs at Autodesk that were long-future focused versus execution and Andrew wanted a good mix. He wanted someone who would have some scars from having solved platform issues. He had a short time to get this moving forward. So, someone who had done it and learned from it, failed, pivoted and did it again.

You’ve heard this joke about Autodesk? The good news is Autodesk has a lot of customers. The bad news is Autodesk has a lot of customers. How will you handle the great mass of customers that want little change in the products they use?

It’s been really interesting. I talked with many customers last night during dinner. I asked, “Do you want to kind of move to a different platform so you could do all this great stuff? Are you willing to give up the current product quickly and move on?” “No, no, no,” they say. “I love that product.”

You can get their favorite products from their cold dead hands, right?

That’s the biggest balancing act.

You have to be careful when introducing new technologies … like the cloud. A lot of users see the cloud as a threat. The Revit community, the Inventor community … think they are not getting any attention by Autodesk, that Autodesk is not fixing or enhancing their products but concentrating on cloud-based products. There is that tension. Do you feel it?

Yes, Amy [Bunzell] mentioned a lot of that today. I have been thinking about it. I was talking about it in the Leadership Forum as well. We need to talk about the value that we’re bringing to complete workflow, not just individual products. We are talking to architects working on Revit or someone in manufacturing working with Inventor. We are adding so much value to their workflow. When you look at all the partnerships we announced yesterday, our acquisitions, what we are including in BIM, like Tandem. It’s all about making sure people can go all the way from plan to operate. Plan, design, build and operate exists digitally in the manufacturing world. We want to do that for the AEC world. That is lost when people just want to hold on to their products. I ask why they are doing that, but there’s a ton going on with the overall workflow for AEC. The larger firms realize that. They complain less. The people who complain more are those that are loyal to a particular product they’ve used forever. They are not realizing the value in digitizing the whole lifecycle.

So, it’s a matter of showing customers the value?

We need to continue to build that story from a customer lens. Paint the picture saying here’s a customer that went from digital all the way from the beginning to the end.

How did you get your previous communities [before Autodesk] educated on the value of digitalization?

There was a time when payment used to happen at the time when you got a product or service. Now, you don’t even think about payment. You go into these e-commerce sites and you put things in the cart and the payment happens in the background. The workflow changed. Payment went from being a destination to a back-end job.

It’s about one flow. It is about imagining everything from the beginning. That’s what we call digitization. I think we need to take our customers there.

Andrew doesn’t seem like a patient person. He wants digitization to happen soon. What does he say about a file? “It’s a dead thing working?” Is that where we are heading—nothing but databases in the cloud? How is that going to be done for the desktop products?

That’s never going to be because there’s so many projects that have been done with files. It will take decades before files go away. You may never be completely free of files because you’ll want to go back to an old project, open it, look at it. My hope is to have 70 to 80 percent of critical workflows be on the cloud. Let’s say you did a one-off project in 1990 and you want to open it. You should be able to open it. But then for your day-to-day work, your new project, you want to share it with your buddies in Thailand. He wants you to release it, the whole thing. Then you can create it in a new open format. Most of the work that you do within your discipline or even within the manufacturing world—it’s all about workflows. You shouldn’t have to deal with files.

So here you have this massive AEC industry, worth trillions of dollars, which is so far behind the manufacturing world. That is Andrew’s frustration, right? He wants to show AEC the way it is done in the manufacturing world—the modern workflows, a world with clouds and databases. Is that correct?

That, but without disruption.

It’s happening slowly, right? Where do you think AEC is relative to the goal of digitalization?

With VR, we are right there near our goal. Owners are going to get a sense of the physical space. They can walk around and see the whole thing. They want a digital handover. They want a digital twin. They want to be able to operate it; they want to maintain it. This is happening. Our customers are working with the owners and they’re looking for who’s going to help them. That’s happening fast now that bills are getting passed to rebuild infrastructure. Seventy million buildings in the U.S. have to be redone for net carbon emissions to zero. That’s 7 million every year for the 10 years that we need to redo in addition to building new things the right way.

That’s a lot of potential business.

We’re talking about automation, about energy efficiency coming out of building walls. Maybe less so in the architecture world, but that’s where it starts. It’s a craft, how you build things. It’s in construction. It’s happening. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Who in the AEC industry is driving the sustainability goals? Owners?

Construction has problems with labor shortages and supply chains. That’s why prefab and industrial construction is coming in pretty strong and asking, “How do we optimize” and “How do we go fast?” The second thing is the demand from all the buildings that have to be rebuilt.

Everybody at the end of the day wants sustainability. Even when they say they want less maintenance, it’s with an eye toward sustainability.

Do you see demands for sustainability domestically and internationally?

We have a lot of customers working locally. We have customers from the UK and France. I think they’re all talking the same thing.

Is Europe ahead of us with sustainability?

They were really taking it seriously. Their goal is 2030 while ours is 2050.

Agreed. We need to catch up. What about the rest of the world? Asia, for example.

Look at all the development in Singapore. It’s not only beautiful but also sustainable. These are living, breathing, built structures.

Singapore is doing a lot of work on clean water, digital cities….

Some of our customers and our VARs are engaged with them. There’s a lot going on there.

What about the competition? Where does Autodesk rank with Bentley, Trimble, Hexagon for construction software?

I think in our space there’s always going to be someone who leads in one or two things. Autodesk has a big advantage, an expansive portfolio. Who else has a portfolio that starts from the beginning of the project lifecycle to the end? This is a huge opportunity with data. We can help our customers digitize the entire workflow. We have a unique opportunity. That’s why we’re impatient. It’s hard when I have a conversation with someone who’s so fixated with Revit [that] they don’t see all of this other stuff they should be using.

That must be a struggle. You want to grab them and say, “Look what you can do. Stop hanging on to a little part of the workflow.”

Sometimes it’s competition, but sometimes it’s a partnership. Look at the things we have been announcing. Epic Games is in our m&e [media and entertainment] space and we think they have great visualization. We want to bring that in so we can say to the Revit user, you don’t have to stop at Revit. You can actually pull up a design in TwinMotion and you can show the high-res visualization. Show that to a client and you will win their business.

I love that Autodesk looks at everything through the customer lens. Even our competitor can be our partner if it is mutually beneficial for the customer. Sometimes we compete in one area, but we could be doing things together in another area. It’s the value to the customer that precedes everything.