Next Up Previous Contents Index
Next: Prologue: The Quaint Up: The Autodesk File Previous: Conclusion

Information Letter 14


Information Letter 14 is, arguably, the most widely-distributed internal memo in the recent history of the computer industry. In November 1990, I took my second six-week leave which, combined with accumulated vacation days, amounted to three months away from the fury of software development. I relaxed (a little), read (a lot), wrote a book ``The Hacker's Diet'', and spent a lot of time evaluating the numerous software products which were being launched for Windows 3.0. I quickly reached the conclusion that the issues about which I'd been concerned when I penned my August 1988 ``Technological Leadership'' memo to Al Green (see page [Ref]) were not only unresolved, but in many cases the situation had deteriorated, both internally within Autodesk and vis-à-vis the competition, the evolution of the market, and the expectations of customers.

I wrote Information Letter 14 for presentation to senior management, to spur them from what I perceived as a dangerously complacent view of the software business. With all the turbulence that has ensued since 1991, it's easy to forget that the problems and risks I warned of in Information Letter 14 were little-perceived around Autodesk prior to its appearance. After its appearance, one Autodesk director said of Information Letter 14 ``some of it was unfair and a little exaggerated.'' Management, who quickly moved to minimise the significance of Information Letter 14, apparently persuaded investors that all was well--whatever impact the release of Information Letter 14 had on the stock was limited to a week or so, after which the stock went to new highs.

Legend has it that Information Letter 14 was ``released into the company's E-mail system'' as the ``ultimate flame mail'' or similar nonsense intended to paint me as an irresponsible leader of some kind of underground ``cabal'' of ``Core programmers''. For example, and for a good laugh, see the front-page ``profile'' of Autodesk in May 28, 1992 issue of The Wall Street Journal, written   by hatchet-man Greg Zachary.[Footnote] What actually happened was that, as I always do, after drafting an early version of IL 14, I circulated draft copies to a few people with whom I'd been discussing these issues over a period of time, to see if they felt the document was complete, accurate, and fair. Unfortunately, I failed to adequately impress upon one of these reviewers the confidentiality of the memo, which was intended first for senior management and then, only later, for general distribution. As a result, copies of the early draft began to circulate within the company and outside, which forced me to quickly issue an official IL14 with at least some of the shortcomings of the draft corrected.

The runaway replication of the unofficial draft meant that the copy most people read was not the final document presented here, in the form I delivered it to senior management on April 1, 1991. The differences were not great, but I consider this version the more accurate in expressing the issues facing the company than the early draft. Information Letter 14 inspired Bill Gates, who   described it as ``brilliantly written and incredibly insightful'', to write his own Issues and Strategy ``crisis letter'' in which he said that ``By talking about how a large company slows down, fails to invest enough and loses sight of what is important, and by using Microsoft as an example of how to do some things correctly he manages to touch on a lot of what's right and wrong with Microsoft today.''

The Final Days

Autodesk, Inc. Information Letter # 14

by John Walker
Revision 24 -- April 1, 1991

Here on the level sand
Between the sea and land,
What shall I build or write
Against the fall of night?
Tell me what runes to grave
That hold the bursting wave,
Or bastions to design
For longer date than mine.
            --A. E. Housman, 1936

Next Up Previous Contents Index
Next: Prologue: The Quaint Up: The Autodesk File Previous: Conclusion

Editor: John Walker