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Carol Bartz rides in to save a bunch of Yahoos.

Posted by Kathleen Maher on January 14th 2009 | Discuss
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Wow, well this is news (or at least it was yesterday). I didn't know what I thought about it all until I talked to a reporter this morning who forced me to take a walk down memory lane before I even had my coffee. God knows what I said to the guy that was useful. It felt like he was looking for the one sentence summation, like "she'll fire everyone," and somewhere in all my rambling he probably got it, but what Carol Bartz has done and what she can do at Yahoo! is very worthy of some thought and more than the one sentence summation. After all, it's complicated, like everything else in real life. One thing is for sure: Carol Bartz is clearly capable of dealing with an entrenched company culture, even one that has developed a few neuroses along the way.

When Bartz came to Autodesk, the company was successful but it was in a chaotic state. One of the founders and CEO, John Walker casually tossed a bomb on the way out the door when he wrote The Letter, which told the rank and file of Autodesk that they were doomed if they did not make radical changes. This was something they did not want to hear. Walker was prophetic when he told the company that the digital world was fundamentally changing and that Autodesk would have to find a way to change with it — he just wasn't much help about how to go about making those changes. In fact, that was at least part of his point in leaving. In his wake came chaos as various factions in Autodesk vied for control of what was essentially a technology oriented company controlled by a priesthood of engineers. In fact, all this is ancient history and you don't need me to tell it -- it's well documented by Walker himself at his protoblog The Autodesk File (http://www.fourmilab.ch/autofile/www/autofile.html) and by countless other publications and blogs. A very good CAD history is available at David Weisberg's site The Engineering Design Revolution.

Bartz took the reins at Autodesk in 1992 and she absolutely took charge. History has been rewritten a bit to suggest that she whipped the boys into shape, but there were no wholesale firings. As I remember, it was so chaotic during the transitional period before her arrival and Walker's departure that  the atmosphere seemed noticeably healthier almost immediately.  She was careful to keep the outer trappings the same. Autodesk continue to be Autodesk. The company was famous for letting people bring their dogs to work and Autodesk's PR machine pumped out stories about the company's free-wheeling Marin-style corporate culture and the dogs appeared in plenty of those stories. There were several top lieutenants moved in and out until Bartz got the mix she wanted and she could be ruthless, but she was also generous with the spotlight and shined it on those who delivered. It made the company stronger and when she exited, the process was as smooth as silk.

Let's not forget the bumps though. Autodesk made several false starts on the web and digital download -- the company was too early and business models had not materialized. AutoCAD went through a disastrous release that probably helped function as a 2 by 4 to the company brain trust that not only did the company have to put its eggs in other baskets besides AutoCAD but that AutoCAD was rapidly becoming a weak basket as the CAD market moved on to new technologies including affordable solid modeling as demonstrated by SolidWorks and Solid Edge. A brave management and development team went to work and started building AutoCAD's worst competitor -- Autodesk Inventor. Probably the most difficult transformation was the effort to turn Autodesk into a company providing software for entertainment digital content creation as well as design tools. Autodesk acquired the Canadian company Discreet in a long and painful acquisition process that many thought cost the company more than it should have in energy as well as money. It could be argued that Autodesk is only now realizing the synergy between the design and entertainment tools, and that has come with Carl Bass' leadership. I'd argue that she saw the potential all along.

Bartz also had to deal with a male-dominated CAD culture that scoffed at her engineering cred -- even though she had it with a computer science degree and a shiny resume with a VP position at Sun and management positions at Digital Equiment and 3M. The tech world is a friendlier place for women now, and Bartz has been one of the women that helped make it so. She has done it by being supremely competant and at the same time she has made it clear she's not doing it single-handedly.

If going by history is any way to pick a CEO -- and the fact of the matter is it's only one element to consider -- then Bartz is a good person to put in at Yahoo!, a company that is tearing itself apart with warring factions and no apparent clue about which path to take. This is a company that doesn't need another hero.

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