Founded in 1982, Autodesk is a software company with more than 140 products used for architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing and media and entertainment. That new office block going up in the centre of town? There’s a good chance Autodesk’s powerful software was used to create it. Seen a film nominated for the Best Visual Effects Academy Award in the past 20 years? Autodesk helped bring that to life too – in 2017 its tools were used by all five nominees.
To continue expanding into new industries, it’s targeting a new customer profile: companies that don’t always know exactly which of the hundred-plus products they need in Autodesk’s line-up. “We’ve traditionally built products in very vertical ways,” says Guy Martin, the director of Autodesk’s open-source initiative, called Open@ADSK. “That’s not going to help the company grow to the next $5 billion in revenue.”
Autodesk’s future customers want to access their software and data from the cloud, not just from the desktop. That’s led the company to rethink the way it sells products and it’s making the transition to a platform company. That also means Autodesk is integrating and unifying its product experience. “When you’re telling teams to build software for the cloud, as opposed to the customer’s data being locked in a file format on an individual desktop, you’re talking about a monumental shift in the way we develop software,” says Martin.
These variations in development have required some massive changes to the way Autodesk does business. And with more than 8,500 employees worldwide, it’s paramount that the company does the same. That’s where Slack comes in.
“Transparency and collaboration are crucial for us because that’s the focus we’re taking to build things for customers. If we can’t model that internally, it’s going to be really difficult to build software that way.”
Collapsing silos and increasing collaboration with Slack
Transforming a well-established workflow meant Autodesk needed to dismantle silos because of a vertically oriented business. In 2015, Martin was tasked with selecting a company-wide collaboration tool to aid employees. “We needed better collaboration, better transparency and to get people to work together effectively,” says Martin.
As he explored software solutions, he unearthed 85 different groups within Autodesk who were using Slack. Because each group had set up Slack independently, they had created 85 islands – with no channel-naming conventions, common workflows or transparency. Yet those 85 instances represented a great organic groundswell, so Martin set about merging them into one Slack instance.
Dozens of teams had visibility into projects and decision making where they hadn’t before, which led to valuable new functionality and metrics. By collaborating with the cloud platform team, product teams are helping to build high-frequency data management, a way of managing engineering data that changes at a rapid pace. In another channel, cross-functional teams are able to engage in real-time discussion about the immediate and long-term design of an unreleased product.
As a result, Autodesk is redefining how it evaluates engagement and collaboration. “We’re measuring things like how many contributions are coming into particular pieces of code from outside that immediate team,” says Martin.
Building an engineering culture based on sharing and reusing common code allows engineers to focus more of their effort on features that distinguish their products. It also delivers increased security to customers – well-known and tested components reduce the attack surface for products.
“Four months after we launched Slack, someone said, ‘I’ve now had more interaction with the rest of the company than I’ve had in six years here.’”
Making real-time incident management a reality
Before Slack, some urgent matters were managed through a combination of phone and email communication. The process simply wasn’t quick enough.
Slack has streamlined incident management for the Autodesk engineering teams. The teams rely on Jira and PagerDuty integrations in Slack to make their process as fast as possible.
When an alert is sent out from the PagerDuty integration, a Slack channel is created using the incident outage number and engineers who see the outage quickly jump into the channel. They test different solutions and relay results back to the group until the incident is resolved. “The ability to have this real-time tool is hugely impactful,” Martin says. And the results of those outages are archivable, which has helped engineers solve future issues quickly.
“Anecdotally,” says Martin, “I think Slack has a lot of impact on our mean time to repair and the ability for us to remedy problems.”
“Before Slack, issues were addressed via email and phone. We needed a more efficient and scalable way to address this.”
Finding the answers faster
“Collaboration’s going to be messy, but there’s a big difference between being messy and being chaotic,” Martin says. Autodesk has instituted two policies to help cut down on chaos.
When creating channels, the company has a strong culture of “defaulting to open”, which means making any Slack channel public when possible. Martin credits this policy with helping build a community and a culture of transparency. When common questions are answered in company-wide #ADSK-slack-help and #ADSK-announcements channels, they’re added to an FAQ, which is pinned to the channel for easy reference. Meanwhile, when someone new asks a question in Slack, teammates can point them in the right direction. This doesn’t just help employees get answers more quickly, it also promotes a culture of answer seeking. “When you’ve built a self-sustaining community, it’s a great sign of success,” says Martin.
Autodesk has also standardised its channel naming, which lets employees know a channel’s purpose from the outset. Anything with an #ADSK- prefix is widely applicable to the entire company. Anything with a #Tech- prefix deals with technology, whereas anything with #Project- is specifically about a project or a team. Martin credits channel naming with increasing both discoverability and cross-team collaboration.
“A team was trying to address a customer’s technical issue with one of our products, so they posted in our #ADSK-general channel,” Martin says. “Other people knew of a better channel to ask that question in, so they jumped into the thread immediately. Half an hour later, the team knew how to address this customer problem. That would not have been possible previously.”
“With so many people on Slack, they are led in the right direction in a timely fashion. It’s the difference between days and minutes.”
Integrating teams and tools
As Autodesk continues evolving as a platform company, Slack helps the process go efficiently. Whether looking for a fix to an outage in an on-the-fly incident management channel or closely collaborating with different orgs, Autodesk has leveraged transparency to solve new problems. “There’s enough critical mass that when people say, ‘How do I fix this?’ we have a nearly real-time response now,” says Martin.
Autodesk has always been an advocate for open-source ideas. Since adopting Slack, the way it works as an organisation now more closely resembles those principles. And the results have been as beneficial as they are perceptible. “Understanding what your culture is and what you want it to be is important, because then you choose a tool that augments that,” Martin has said. “A lot of times, companies will go out and either be sold or choose a tool based on other factors like cost or how it integrates with their existing enterprise and really not think about user delight or user acceptance. We’re culture first, tools last.”