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Anatomy of a smear


Zachary's ``profile'' of Autodesk appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on May 28, 1992--more than four months after the interview which had to be scheduled in such haste due to his ``deadline.'' It was, as expected, classic Zachary slash-and-burn journalism, directed primarily against myself. Extremely little material from the interview was used in the article; it didn't fit very well into the ``cabal'' fantasy Zachary concocted. Below, I'll analyse some of the key misstatements in the article. I quote brief passages from this copyrighted article for critical purposes under the doctrine of fair use. Quoted material appears in italics.

Tech Shop
`Theocracy of Hackers'
Rules Autodesk, Inc.,
A Strangely Run Firm

Can the Latest CEO Survive
A Cabal of Programmers
Who Send `Flame Mail'?

A Most Unusual Interview
by G. Pascal Zachary

... Autodesk's founding genius, John Walker, a reclusive programmer who doesn't allow the company to distribute his picture or publish it in its annual report. In a rare interview granted for this article, a prickly Mr. Walker insisted that a reporter sit in front of a video camera, declared that Autodesk claimed a copyright on the ensuing discussion and debated the meaning of each question.

Autodesk used to have my picture on file and supplied it to the press upon request. When I discovered, in 1990, having lost 70 pounds in the interim, that Autodesk was sending out pictures of the 215 pound Walker of yore, I requested that they return the wide-angle versions to me... I'm so vain... . Afterward, nobody ever asked me for a new picture. We never printed pictures of any executive or director in annual reports prior to the arrival of Carol Bartz. My feeling, shared by Al Green, was that it encouraged a cult of CEO personality rather than focusing on the company and its products, people, performance, and promise, in which the CEO is one of many contributors. Note the phrasing ``a reporter,'' which dodges the fact that it was Zachary who agreed to be taped--if he'd said ``this reporter,'' as you'd expect, he'd have acknowledged a precedent for future interviews. Read the interview and decide for yourself if I ``debated the meaning of each question,'' as opposed to dodging the many verbal traps in Zachary's phrasing.

Unlike Mr. Gates, Mr. Walker, 42, never really wanted to run his company.

Untrue. I ran Autodesk from its inception through 1986, leading it through our Initial Public Offering in 1985. In 1986 I decided that the size of the company demanded a CEO with professional management and financial skills that I didn't possess. Had I not done so, of course, the story would have been ``Clueless Programmer Destroys Promising Company--`We Don't Need No Steenkin' Managers.''' And he got my age wrong, too--never mind.

But the real power still rested with Mr. Walker, Autodesk's biggest shareholder, and an elite group of programmers called ``Core,'' who had either helped Mr. Walker found the company in 1982 or led its most important projects.

Core members are contentious, eccentric, free-thinkers who have had a way of devouring professional managers.

This fairy castle of utter fantasy has been repeated so many times that otherwise rational people are beginning to believe it. There is not, and never has been a group, cabal or otherwise, called ``Core.'' ``Core,'' around Autodesk, refers to the central components that made up AutoCAD--its guts, as it were, as opposed to device drivers, applications, documentation and tutorials, and suchlike. The group working on this ``core code'' numbered 10 as of mid-1991--among more than 700 domestic employees of Autodesk--and included only 3 founders, one of them half-time. It was managed by, and had been since 1985, professional technical managers drawn from outside the company or promoted from other areas within Autodesk. By the time of Zachary's interview, the majority of members of the ``core code development group'' were not only non-founders, but recent hires.

The founders who worked in this group, Duff Kurland, Dan Drake, and Greg Lutz, notwithstanding the latter two serving on the Board of Directors, were utterly uninterested and uninvolved in Autodesk politics and had, on numerous occasions, declined opportunities to participate in Autodesk senior management. Dan Drake had, in fact, retired as Executive Vice President in 1989, and announced his retirement from the board of directors 18 days after the Zachary interview. Hardly the actions of a power-mad ``cabal.''

As for having ``a way of devouring professional managers,'' one must ask just which professional managers were devoured? Al Green served as Autodesk's president longer than alleged chief-cabal-conspirator John Walker. Every change in the senior management ranks I can recall in the years from 1986 through 1992, and there were relatively few, was made by the CEO, Al Green, based entirely upon his judgement. Other than being asked, on occasion, whether I agreed with the proposed change (and I always concurred), neither I nor any other founder or other old-timer was involved in any process of ``devouring.''

Finally, I wasn't Autodesk's ``biggest shareholder,'' and hadn't been for years. The simplest cub-reporter check of Autodesk's proxy material would have confirmed this.

A year ago, Mr. Walker issued the ultimate in flame mail, a 44-page letter brutally attacking Mr. Green for allegedly trying to bolster short-term profits by neglecting investment in new products and marketing.

I challenge you to find one place in Information Letter 14 where I attacked Al Green, brutally or otherwise. In Zachary's world, every issue facing a company boils down to a conflict between the egos of individuals--in this case the estranged founder, working through a ``cabal,'' undermining the legitimate management of the company. Corporate strategy must flow from the head of a Superman CEO, all-knowing and all powerful, rather than drawing on all the intellectual resources of the company. The strategies I was attacking in Information Letter 14 were, for the most part, strategies I helped put into place myself in the early 80's. So, I suppose I could be said to be ``brutally attacking'' myself at least as much as Al Green.

... I do not believe the best decision is a group grope.''

That, however, is largely how Autodesk has been managed until now. It was founded by Mr. Walker and a dozen programmer pals...

One wonders what phrase would have replaced ``programmer pals'' had Autodesk's founders consisted of real estate speculators, junk bond peddlers, savings and loan cowboys, and others deemed ``legitimate businessmen'' by The Wall Street Journal. In reality, our founders included a marketing and sales person with more than 20 years experience in the computer industry (Mike Ford),  an investment banker (Jack Stuppin),  and a prominent San Francisco corporate lawyer (Bob Tufts).  Shortly thereafter we added a retired U.S. Army colonel, John Kern,  to manage manufacturing and shipping.

Instead, Autodesk's hit product proved to be a computer-aided-design program that Mr. Walker purchased from an outside programmer named Michael Riddle. The program, which became AutoCad...

This is a bald-faced lie, which the most cursory reading of The Autodesk File will demonstrate to be untrue. Mike Riddle was a founder of Autodesk, not an ``outside programmer,'' and contributed the source code for INTERACT, with which Dan Drake and I had been working since 1979, to Autodesk in return for a royalty deal, just as Dan and I contributed major components of the Marinchip source code. Note that Zachary misspelled ``AutoCAD'' throughout the article.

Mr. Walker has unusual interests, which he imposed on Autodesk. When he grew intrigued with outer space, Autodesk invested in a company that salvages used fuel tanks from the Space Shuttle with the idea of sending them back into orbit, carrying the concept of recycling about as far as it can go.

This is a lie, delivered with a nasty spin aimed at both Autodesk and myself. In 1987, I introduced Dr. Randolph Ware of External Tanks Corporation to Autodesk to explore whether an Autodesk investment in External Tanks could be beneficial to both companies. My sense was that the investment could be justified simply by the publicity Autodesk could derive from introducing AutoCAD into the very highest of high-tech domains, the Space Shuttle Program. That, and identifying AutoCAD's price-performance advantage with the cheap road to a space station that ETCO promised could easily yield visibility much greater than an advertising expenditure equal to the $225,000 investment sought by ETCO. In providing this introduction, I was simply putting the parties in touch, just as many other people did at Autodesk before and since--Autodesk receives dozens of co-promotion and partnership proposals every year, most of which it rejects, some of which it takes advantage of. As it happens, when Dr. Ware came to Autodesk to make his presentation to senior management, I was on vacation. Al Green asked me if I'd like to attend the meeting and I said, ``No--it's your call.'' I heard nothing more about ETCO until, a month or so later when I returned, Al told me that we'd ``written the check.'' Now, if this is ``imposing my interests,'' I must be endowed with paranormal powers of persuasion--Al and other senior managers attended the meeting, they made their decision, and they made the investment. Other than setting up the meeting in the first place, I played no rôle in it. Shortly thereafter, we received a proposal to sponsor an NHRA dragster which had been designed with AutoCAD. I thought that was a cool idea too (though pricey), but it was rejected. Zachary's description of ETCO's business is totally wrong as well (see page [Ref]), but that isn't germane to the slam inherent in the statement, just sloppy reporting.

He published a book containing scores of confidential Autodesk memos, many written by himself.

This is a damaging, demonstrably false lie. The book Zachary is referring to is the Third Edition of the book you're reading now, The Autodesk File, which was published in 1989 by New Riders Publishing, a company in which, at the time, Autodesk owned a 1/3 interest. The copyright page reveals that it is Autodesk who holds the copyright on this book, not I. In fact, neither I nor Autodesk received royalties from it. The contents of the New Riders edition of The Autodesk File were derived from the Second Edition, which was made available within the company to all employees, and was often given to prospective hires interested in ``where the company came from.'' Before publication of the New Riders edition, the text was reviewed by Autodesk's legal and accounting departments, who suggested some minor deletions of material not considered to be public information, such as AutoCAD unit sales by month, and profit and loss broken out by subsidiary. All of the requested matter was elided, and The Autodesk File was published with the full approval of Autodesk's management, who considered nothing within it remotely ``confidential,'' especially as all of this material and more were routinely made available to all employees. Other than handing over a copy of the disc containing the source documents to New Riders, I played no part whatsoever in the production and publication of this book, and nobody at Autodesk remotely considered it as ``airing Autodesk's dirty laundry'' in any fashion.

He is prone to making unexpected pronouncements. In a rare public appearance in March, Mr. Walker interrupted the description of a new product with this observation: ``We are living on a small blue sphere in an endless black void.''

Zachary is referring to my talk at the introduction of AutoCAD for Windows in San Francisco on March 10, 1992, one of seven public appearances and press interviews I did in the three months I was in the U.S. in 1992. He was in the audience then, and despite spending most of the presentation talking out loud to one of his press cronies, when I wound up my talk with the message of the ultimate destiny of CAD and its place in the human future over the next several decades, Zachary raised his head and fixed me with a stare I will never forget. I've seen that kind of hate before--I've watched German newsreels from the 1930's and 40's--but I'd never before been on the receiving end. Read the talk he's referring to--you'll find it on page [Ref]--and see if the phrase Zachary quotes was an ``interruption'' or diversion from the message I was conveying. Here was a software entrepreneur talking about technology and its place in the human adventure--an individual as yet unsullied by the tawdry greed, ego, and personality conflicts which consume so much ink in the daily press. I almost felt the targeting computer lock on--no need for The Force--``trust The Smear, Greg.'' A day or so afterward, our P.R. firm told me that Zachary has totally changed his schedule, or some such, and that he would be doing a much more ``in-depth'' profile of the company. I immediately knew what that meant. It was just a matter of waiting to see how bad it was.

These fits of impatience dovetailed with Mr. Walker's continuing suspicion of professional managers, shared by other members of Core. In early 1986, he forced out John G. Ford, Jr....

John G. (Mike) Ford was not a ``professional manager,'' but rather a   founder of Autodesk, as even the most cursory reading of The Autodesk File will document. As companies grow, things change, and sometimes changes have to be made. I have not, and I will never discuss the issues that led to this or that person's leaving Autodesk--in most such cases there's plenty of blame on both sides, and lots of shared regret afterward. But suffice it to say that when Mike Ford resigned in February of 1986, it was the unanimous opinion of the other directors and senior managers that it was in the best interests of the company. His successor, Tony Monaco  was a 20+ year veteran of IBM.

Mr. Green was ill-suited to ride herd on the rambunctious Core.

Which is why, one presumes, he managed, from 1986 through 1992, to lead Autodesk from $50 million to more than $250 million in sales, over four releases of AutoCAD created by the so-called ``rambunctious Core,'' and was named, in February 1990, by California Business, one of the top 25 CEOs of the decade, receiving an award presented by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. 

Writing from his new home in Neuchatel, Switzerland, where he had recently moved to find more seclusion.

As was made clear in the interview, I did not move to Neuchâtel until May of 1991--well after Information Letter 14 was circulated. As to having ``moved to find more seclusion,'' I'd ask whether, a few months after my arrival, giving a 25 minute speech, in French, in the parliament chamber, before members of the government, business leaders, and a broad selection of European press constitutes ``seclusion.'' (See page [Ref].)

Moreover, the broadside didn't mention that Mr. Walker himself had picked Mr. Green as his successor.

Well, duh. Here is what I said in Information Letter 14.

First a few words about me and my relationship to the company. As you probably know, I initiated the organisation of Autodesk, was president of the company from its inception through 1986, and chairman until 1988. Since I relinquished the rôle of chairman, I have had no involvement whatsoever in the general management of the company. ... Over the years I have agreed with many of their choices and disagreed with some, but all in all I felt our company was in good hands. In any case, I never doubted our senior management was doing a better job of running the company than I ever did when I was involved more directly.
Yes, I suppose a lawyer could argue that Zachary's statement is true, ``the broadside'' didn't mention that I picked Al Green as my successor, but seeing as I was Chairman of the Board at the time, and remained so until 1988, it kind of goes without saying that I played a major rôle in selecting Al Green. The ``broadside'' also failed to mention other dirty secrets such as the facts that water is wet, eggs break if you drop them, and that you can't always believe what you read in The Wall Street Journal.


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Editor: John Walker