CIO In The Know

Starting with the customer and working backwards with Prakash Kota

March 09, 2020 Tim M. Crawford
CIO In The Know
Starting with the customer and working backwards with Prakash Kota
Show Notes Transcript

This week I’m joined by Prakash Kota who is the Chief Information Officer for Autodesk.

 In our discussion, we talk about how Autodesk changed from a company that shipped software to a subscription-based business. We talk about the role of the CIO and what it means to work backwards. Prakash shares his perspective on digital transformation delving into how cloud and AI are providing greater value and making the work more exciting. He talks about the value he gets from his CIO to CIO interactions and his perspective on the CIO role moving forward.



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Tim Crawford:               Hello, and welcome to the CIO In The Know podcast, where I take a provocative, but pragmatic look at the intersection between business and technology. I'm your host, Tim Crawford, a CIO and strategic advisor at AVOA.

Tim Crawford:               This week, I'm joined by Prakash Kota, who is the Chief Information Officer for Autodesk. In our discussion, we talk about how Autodesk changed from a company that shipped software, to a subscription based business. We talk about the role of the CIO, and what it means to work backwards. Prakash shares his perspective on Digital Transformation, delving into how Cloud and AI are providing greater value, and making the work more exciting. He talks about the value he gets from a CIO to CIO interactions, and his perspective on the CIO role, moving forward.

Tim Crawford:               Prakash Kota, welcome to the program.

Prakash Kota:                Thank you, Tim. Thanks for having me.

Tim Crawford:               Prakash, you're the CIO, the Chief Information Officer for Autodesk. It might be good for our listeners that aren't familiar with Autodesk, and aren't familiar with you, to talk a little bit about who Autodesk is, and your journey there?

Prakash Kota:                Sure. To set context, first, at Autodesk, our vision is to help people imagine design, and make a better world. So basically, what we do is we make software so that our customers can make anything that they can dream of, literally anything. We help our customers design and make anything, from skyscrapers, and smart cars, to bridges, and blockbusters. If you look at all of those things, before they come the real world, our customers design in the digital world. So, we are in the business of helping them to automate the whole design and make processes.

Prakash Kota:                As a company, we have existed for 38 years. A lot of our customers, or folks know us, through the computer aided design software, AutoCAD. But, we are more than just AutoCAD. I've been with the company for 15 years. This April, our company, 15 years.

Tim Crawford:               Wow.

Prakash Kota:                15 happy years, I would say.

Tim Crawford:               That's great.

Prakash Kota:                Especially in Silicon Valley, you know this, it's not common to have leaders be here for the longterm. But, I've had a journey where I grew up, or played different roles within an IT organization, over the course of 15 years. Like, I've played 11 different roles, in 15 years. In the last couple of years, I've been their CIO.

Tim Crawford:               Wow, that's great. I want to talk about that journey, and what you've seen over that period of time. I mean, I go back to AutoCAD, well, many years ago. I'll say 30 plus years ago, when I was in school, using it for electronic design. Of course, that was the CAD space.

Tim Crawford:               But, as you've seen the change happening, both within Autodesk, but then also outside of Autodesk, how has the CIO, and the role of business and customers changed over that period of time?

Prakash Kota:                Yeah, totally. That's where the fun part is, because as a company we have gone through a huge business model transformation.

Prakash Kota:                In the days when I first joined Autodesk, we used to ship software to our customers. As part of the onboarding program, in the first couple of weeks when I joined, I was sent to warehouse as part of the onboarding program, to see how our DVDs are printed. And then, they're packed, waiting for a truck to pick them up. Then, how do we do invoicing, and fulfilling, and our SAP, our business system backend. From those days to now, we give access to our software in the Cloud. We are a complete subscription based model.

Prakash Kota:                So, that journey, in the last 10, 15 years, what we have gone through, is tremendous. I feel like it's a totally different company.

Tim Crawford:               Well, I wanted to dive into the technology in just a couple of minutes. But, one of the things I know you do on a regular basis, is you're constantly out there, and you're engaging with customers. I hear this from some of our peers, how this has really changed, especially for the role of the CIO, is that engagement with customers.

Tim Crawford:               Maybe you can take a minute, and share your perspective of how you're engaging with customers? And, more importantly, what you're gaining from that, in that CIO role?

Prakash Kota:                Totally. One thing that we all know is, typically in any company, enterprise company, CIOs are typically purchasing software, or selecting vendors, and choosing. So, we have a very common portfolio, irrespective of whatever company that you come from. So, it's very important with our new model of how we operate, we put customer at the center. We are obsessed with our customers.

Prakash Kota:                Previously, we were more product based, now we're customer at the center. Anything that we do is like, "How do we add continuous value to our customers?" Which means, we want to learn more about the customers, and share with our customers our digital journey, too. This is probably a buzzword also, there. Everybody is going through a Digital Transformation, and for us, when we say digitization, it is removing friction from our end users, whether it is customers, employees, or partners.

Prakash Kota:                With that regard, I spend quite amount of time with our enterprise customers, and their CIOs, to understand what kind of transformation are they going through. And, if we are going through similar, whether it's leveraging Autodesk products or not, we always share notes, compare notes, and share best practices. That's always advantageous, the same thing like how we do. We connect offline in the Valley, to compare notes.

Prakash Kota:                "Hey, I'm starting to work with this company, have you exposure to it? What are we doing?" That similar thing, that we are sharing with our customers, and spending time, and giving value is tremendous to understand how our customer is using our products, and what are they expecting. For that reasons, I do spend quite some time with our customers.

Tim Crawford:               How does that help you, from an IT perspective? I could connect the dots between having that information, and applying that into the product, or into engineering. But, from an IT perspective, where do you connect the dots?

Prakash Kota:                As an example, we have gone through this whole initiative, or going through this initiative called Digital Workplace, which is almost like providing virtual desktops for engineers, who are using our complex 3D software, which requires a lot of GPU intense workloads, and whatnot, so we have been trying to do that for our internal engineers. So, when I speak with our customers and their CIOs, they're trying to digitize their environment. They're trying to not needing to give some huge, expensive laptops, with heavy, powerful machines, but they really want their employees to also use some of this complex software, anywhere, in any device.

Prakash Kota:                That's where understanding that thought process definitely helps me to think, okay, what am I doing for my engineers? Can we extend that kind of similar services to our customers? I think that's where the comparison definitely comes from a CIO to CIO.

Tim Crawford:               It sounds like it's more than just the Autodesk product, but it's also just how we work, how we support our different stakeholders in the mix? You mentioned, we see each other outside of this podcast, outside of the work that we do independently. And, in some cases, it's not just in the Valley, right? We just ran into each other recently at a conference, somewhere else.

Tim Crawford:               You mentioned about that CIO to CIO connection. I know you're engaged, just like I am, with other CIOs, both in the Valley, but then also outside of the Valley. What do you get from that community? Why do you spend that time, investment that time, with those folks? You mentioned sharing how you're supporting stakeholders. But, in your own words, I don't want to put words in your mouth, what is it that you get from that community of other CIOs?

Prakash Kota:                I think the big thing that we all get is there's no happy talk, and that's the real thing that I would want. That's the real thing that I would want.

Prakash Kota:                When we go, and we hear these thousands of pitches, all the vendors want to get our time, to tell how great they are, and probably a lot of them are really great in what they do, but ultimately we have all have common business problems that we're trying to solve. It's not just about the technology. Technology's definitely enabling us to solve those business problems.

Prakash Kota:                So, when we all connect, and compare notes, it's the real, straight talk that we all have. What works, what doesn't work. What are the scars that we have had, and what mistakes did we do? How can we help each other out, so that we don't repeat some of those, or I don't do what you did or, or you don't know what exactly I did, and misfired. We compare notes, and that is what is much more powerful, for us being in the Valley, and sharing, and comparing notes, and helping each other out. That is what I look for, when I reach out to any of our colleagues, or you to say, "Hey, I'm running into this." Or, "I'm starting off this huge ERP modernization. Have you worked with this vendor, have you used this SA? What is your feedback, what to look out for?"

Prakash Kota:                Any of those things, that are peer to peer, quick reference checks, and other things are super impactful.

Tim Crawford:               You find that's more valuable than, maybe, the public conversation around those vendors, or around those processes?

Prakash Kota:                It is. In addition to all of this, I think these peer to peer conversations are much more impactful because we also get to know the good, bad, and the ugly. Not just the great things that we always hear, and that's what I talk about, not just the happy talk.

Tim Crawford:               Let me put a bow on this. So, CIO to CIO conversations are not happy talk.

Prakash Kota:                Not only happy talk.

Tim Crawford:               That's great.

Tim Crawford:               One of the things in past discussions, I know you've talked about, and something you're passionate about, is this concept of working backwards. Maybe you can share your perspective on what does that mean? What does working backwards mean, and how it's impacted your role, the company, your customers?

Prakash Kota:                Yeah, sure. Working backwards is not a new concept, it's widely used in Amazon as a principal on how they prioritize and approve work. That's something that we incorporated, within my division.

Prakash Kota:                The main reason which led me to start using that is being in a software company, and working with a lot of technologists, we are so attached to technology. We get excited seeing new technology, and other things. But, at the end of the day, it's not just about technology, and technology is probably the easy piece.

Prakash Kota:                Where I want my engineers to start thinking is all about the customer, whoever that customer is. Whether it's an employee, or a real end user who is using our products, or the partner, really keeping that in mind, what the end state is. We talk about ... When anybody comes up with an idea, or an outcome that we are trying to drive, we really think about, imagine yourself, that you're already done building or incorporating whatever you're envision. On the day of launch, how would you launch this? What will be the press release? That should not have any technology elements, in that one pager. It's all about business capabilities, value that it brings, and whatnot. That almost becomes ... That one page is very tough to write. Trust me.

Prakash Kota:                People, so many of them, don't come back with that one pager, even though they have that brilliant idea that keeps coming up. [inaudible 00:11:41] to complete that homework, it's only 50% of them that come. Then, we really look back at that one pager, and [inaudible 00:11:47] to incorporate goals, to see how is that making an impact, and moving the needle. That becomes our frozen work thing, that we are focused on.

Prakash Kota:                From there, to achieve those business capabilities, how do we get to that state? That becomes our state of what we want our goal, or the objective that we want to achieve, and then work backwards to achieve all of those capabilities. And then, start going into user stories, requirements, and how to get to those states. Then, talk about technology that needs to be leveraged, to enable those capabilities. That's how we approach to things, so that we are results and outcome driven, not cool technology that we want to bring in, that will be used by me and my dog.

Tim Crawford:               I love that, "by me and my dog." But, you're really flipping it on its head, so instead of saying, "Hey, we got this cool technology, now that's find the business problem that we can solve with it," you're saying, "Let's write the press release first, that one page press release. It's got to be tight, it's got to be direct, and to the point. It can't be flamboyant, it has to be something that a customer can understand. Then, let's work backwards, to figure out how do we start to develop solutions and products, that actually will realize that?"

Prakash Kota:                Exactly, exactly. That changes the way every engineer has this empathy, and design thinking, and the way they think, keeping customer in mind, not technology alone in mind. That has changed their behavior, is what I see.

Tim Crawford:               That's great, that's great. How do you make that connection for, let's say, the most junior developer in your organization? I use this as the extreme example. But, the most junior person in your organization, how do you help them connect the dots, to understand what the customer is saying, in the way that the customer says it? So that it's not too filtered, and isn't creating too many dots to connect?

Tim Crawford:               You're out there, meeting with customers. How do they get connected with customers, and get that information and insight?

Prakash Kota:                I think with our new business model, and keeping customer at the center, we also have a lot of data that we leverage, and insights that we get, to see how our customers are leveraging our products. Metrics are the key elements of any of these capabilities that we are launching. So, we follow these, our model objectives and key results, everything needs to be specific. Any capability that we launch, it's not just we're launching it, and we're done, we went live. It's more about adoption and usage, too.

Prakash Kota:                That's a new mindset of how I'm expecting every engineer to operate. It's not only launching a capability. Then, how are we measuring you on the usage? If we're expecting a certain amount of addressable market, or a serviceable market that needs to be consumed, how do we get to that? If people are not consuming it, how do we start divesting that? All of those elements are something that I expect every engineer who is really thinking through, to think through the entire lifecycle, and not just thinking about launching a capability, or bringing a technology in. A once it's live, okay, it's down to operations and I'm done with it.

Prakash Kota:                I don't have that. I'm looking for end-to-end people to have ownership on any capability that we launch, including adoption, usage, and trying to see, okay, what are our customers who are really using it? What additional value can we generate? That's how we calculate the whole TCU of it, and not just through the SaaS costs, or licensing costs, of whatnot.

Tim Crawford:               The incentives and OKRs for those folks are focused on those business objectives, as opposed to technology objectives?

Prakash Kota:                Totally, it's all business outcomes.

Tim Crawford:               That's awesome. But, I do want to switch gears a little bit, and talk about technology for a minute. I laugh at this, because I would be remiss without asking you about Cloud, and artificial intelligence, and some of these newfangled, really cool things that are out there, that provide significant value. The question is, how do they provide significant value?

Tim Crawford:               But, let's start with Cloud and AI. These are top conversations, for our fellow CIOs. What's your take, in the two of them? Feel free to pick them apart.

Prakash Kota:                Yes. I would say, let's start with Cloud. Again, we are no different than any other, we definitely want to take advantage of these public Cloud providers that are out there. I'm in the process of, really, not having my own infrastructure as such. I'm like, "Why do I need to? They're probably delivering more values, more services, more capabilities than whatever I can imagine."

Prakash Kota:                We are in the process of migrating off all of our, or shift off from our data centers for our IT footprint, to leverage public Cloud providers. Again, wherever it makes sense, we are leveraging a public Cloud provider, and SaaS solutions. So, I'm a big proponent of leveraging Cloud to our advantage, and also for security. It's more about agility, it brings a lot of business agility in the way we can deliver quickly, and resilience. These things, Cloud comes with, if we design and architect it properly.

Prakash Kota:                One of the Cloud applications brings a lot of resiliency, and uptime, and active [inaudible 00:16:54] kind of thinking, built with multi-regions, multi-zones, then however traditional hosted applications are built.

Prakash Kota:                So, that's we are headed, completely as a company, from our systems to support our Cloud business, as well as our subscription business. As a company, we are growing, so when we need to grow and scale, I see that as the only way. I'm not expecting us to really build our own data centers and expand. So, that's on the Cloud front, and I also think that it brings a lot of enterprise security elements along with it. It also brings that consumer experience and enterprise security balance, and agility, that is needed for the business.

Tim Crawford:               How much of your decisions and strategies around Cloud are influenced by the fact you're based in the Bay Area?

Prakash Kota:                We're a global company. We may be headquartered, and based in Bay Area, but we have our presence across the globe. It could be, I'm biased probably, because sometimes you don't know that you're based in Bay Area, and you're making these decisions. Unless, you compare notes with folks, outside of Bay Area. But, I do think that's where everybody's headed, is how I feel. That could be, again, a Bay Area kind of thinking.

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Prakash Kota:                If somebody not in Bay Area, it should be, that's commenting on.

Tim Crawford:               But, this goes back to the value of that peer to peer, that CIO network.

Prakash Kota:                Totally, yeah. I feel like, this is a common theme.

Prakash Kota:                Coming to AI, I would say, as we collect more data, whether it's our employee or whatnot, from insights, our goal is, how do we convert that into insights? How do we leverage AI, ML, to, whether it's chat bots, whether it's RPAI, or whatever it could be, right? It's more like digital workforce, is what I call it. How do we augment our existing workforce with digital workforce, so that we can get more value? Especially whatever there is monotonous, repetitive work that needs to be done, I think that this is a huge advantage for us, to start leveraging AI, to augment with our existing workforce. Because, we all struggle for talent, and again, in the Valley, that's another problem. But, we are located everywhere as well, and we recruit everywhere.

Prakash Kota:                We continue to struggle for the same talent, so our goal is how do we make the work for all of our engineers, or anybody in the organization, more exciting, so that they are not doing monotonous work? That's where we leverage some of these AI, cool technologies, to augment our workforce. And we're experimenting in different areas, and leveraging as it comes.

Tim Crawford:               Many people will take different ... People will take different approaches to what they're using AI for. It sounds like you're starting point is, how do I get my workforce more focused, and get the rote tasks away from them, so that they can be doing more meaningful work?

Tim Crawford:               At some point, I would think that shifts to providing you with greater insights around your customers, for faster, more accurate business decisions?

Prakash Kota:                Yeah, exactly. That's more in the IT frame, whatever examples I give. There's so much effort in the product space, again, leveraging, instrumenting within our customers usage, and getting insights, and giving more value to our customers, there's a separate area of practice for that, that they're completely focused on adding more value to our customers. Whatever examples I gave is more on the portfolio that I oversee and manage.

Tim Crawford:               Excellent, excellent. As we wrap on the episode, a question I always like to ask, and I think based on our past conversations, I'm really excited to hear your response to this. But, what excites you most about the role of the CIO, both there at Autodesk, but then more broadly? Both today, and moving forward?

Prakash Kota:                Within Autodesk, too, I've seen the last 15 years, how this role has evolved. Mainly, I think this is the most exciting time to be a CIO. Because previously, I would say CIOs roles was almost like, you're responsible for something that nobody cares, until something breaks, is what I used to tell. But now, you have this unique opportunity to work across the company, to leverage technology, naturally, to enable them to make quick decisions, and get the desired outcomes much faster, because the rate at which things are changing is dramatic.

Prakash Kota:                I think we are in the that unique position now, where the focus is on value delivery, and how do you partner with different organizations, across the company, to equip and enable them so that they can do whatever they need to do, to be effective and productive. So, that partnership, I think this is the best time to be playing this role. It's not easy, it looks all sexy. But, I would say, unless you are passionate and interested in it, if you're interested, I am telling you, this is the best time to be playing a CIO role.

Prakash Kota:                The technology, also, that we all have, that we can leverage to enable our business partners, I would say, this is probably the best time. I'm totally enjoying it.

Tim Crawford:               That's great. Prakash, it's been great having you on the program, thanks for making the time.

Prakash Kota:                Thank you, Tim. Thank you very much. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.

Tim Crawford:               For more information on the CIO In The Know podcast series, visit us online at Or, you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, and Sound Cloud. Don't forget to subscribe, and thank you for listening.