If you’re anything like me, you have become passionate about AutoCAD Civil 3D over the span of your career, and you’ve always wanted to know some of the behind-the-scenes information about the development process. OK, maybe I’m the only one that is interested in things like that, but it led me to want to talk to Nick a little more in depth about his new role as Product Manager. Here’s a little bit of disclosure – Nick and I are great friends, and have been for many years. I was there for his “young turk” days (has he really grown out of that?) He’s a great guy, and we are lucky to have him. So without further ado, hit the link below to see what I ask him and what he has to say.
Tell us about the path that led you to Autodesk – how did you end up as a Product Manager?
There are a lot of stories and tangents that ultimately led to this but I’ll try and stick to the basics. Many years ago I took a high school drafting class where I learned all about a product called Generic CADD, I quickly was maxing out what I could do there, but an older student (shout out to Carl) started showing me AutoCAD R13. Our teacher really didn’t know a lot about it, so we were left to our own devices to figure it out and of course got A+ grades for our efforts. Fast forward a few years after college and a couple of different jobs and I get a call back from an Autodesk reseller that I had sent my resume to maybe a year earlier. I started working doing AutoCAD support, customization and programming (my college program had specialized in CAD Management). It was here that I was introduced to the world of Land Desktop (I should note here my family is in the business of land development, mining and construction, so subdivision plans and contours weren’t new to me.) One day my boss stopped by and said Autodesk was releasing this new product that would eventually replace Land Desktop and he wanted me to be the lead for it. It was at that point I jumped in head first and starting seeing just what the product could do and shortly thereafter hassling people at Autodesk about what it needed to do before my customers would even consider moving to it. After a few years on the road teaching many customers in British Columbia about Civil 3D I took a contract position with James Wedding and his new venture. During that contract period one of the friends I had made at Autodesk over the years IM’d or emailed me about a QA opening. A few dozen phone interviews (at least it seemed like that many), a quick trip to New Hampshire to interview and some work visa wrangling (I am a Canadian) and I was moving clear across the continent to another country. After 4 years in my QA role the opportunity arose to move over to product management and that brings us to today.
Tell us about your exciting new job as a Product Manager for Civil 3D. What are your roles and responsibilities?
I’ll start with a general overview of product management, and then get a little more specific about what I am responsible for. Product Managers at Autodesk are responsible for the day to day oversight of a given product. Primarily this involves providing requirements to the product team, which means meeting with the development teams to work on plans for upcoming releases, talking to sales teams about issues they are hearing in the field, meeting with customers about tools they need to drive their business forward, analyzing customer feedback data and a whole host of other sundries. In some ways I see the product manager as the negotiator: we are trying to balance many interests and do what is best for the product and by proxy best for everyone those decisions impact. As for myself specifically, I am one of the product managers for AutoCAD Civil 3D, Dave Simeone is the other (and likely more famous.) Personally my focus is in three primary product areas, Water (pipe networks, Autodesk Storm and Sanitary Analysis), Survey (Point Clouds, Points, Surfaces) and API.
How does your new role compare with your old job as a QA Analyst?
They are really worlds apart, both very interesting and engaging, but solving very different problems. In QA my focus was on ownership of a particular set of features and understanding those at a very deep technical level. All the while, I had to understand what customers are trying to accomplish using all those inputs to test the software. Product management is really about balancing many needs and interests to help customers succeed.
Tell us about the life cycle of a new feature in Civil 3D. How does a feature go from concept to reality?
The initial inception for a feature is typically in a product plan, I will talk more about those in a later question. The genesis for an idea could come from many sources, customer meetings, internal prototypes, or even other industries. Depending on the scope or difficulty of a feature it could be anywhere from 3 months up to over 2 years from planning until a feature is released in final form. As a product manager I provide a set of core requirements to the development group, our designers take those requirements, perform user research to discover how customers might like us to solve that problem, then take that research to the developers and a group of folks get to work building and testing that solution.
Sometimes features don’t work entirely as intended. When an issue is found with the software, what process goes into determining when a fix will be available?
I will generalize a bit and as you are on the support side I will try and capture the process from that being the originating source. After being reported to someone on the product support team the issue gets entered into our internal issue tracking system (used by many of the product teams here at Autodesk). The support tech will select a project (we track all releases by internal codenames, which can get confusing!) and a feature within that project and submit the issue. For each feature the QA group has an assigned owner who will go in, verify the issue is reproducible. If we are unable to reproduce the issue it will be sent back to the person who reported it for additional information. As a general rule if we are unable to make the problem happen in our offices it is almost impossible for the developers to know how to fix it. At this point there are two real paths, sometimes items are behaving as intended but the customer wants different behavior - this becomes an enhancement request which my team handles and plans for future releases. Otherwise a defect in the product is sent on for further diagnosis. Timing of the report plays a part in the options available, for example if we have an upcoming update for that project the issue can be evaluated for inclusion, but if nothing is on the schedule than something like a hotfix may be the only possible route (hotfixes are reserved for issues with the broadest/most severe impact.) Once an assessment has been made by both development and QA the product core team sits down to review issues and decide a course of action. The core team is made up of folks from across the company, QA, development, and support. The team takes all of the risk, impact and associated information and decides on the best available course of action. There are many variable that play into this decision, some items we are unable to correct without making a format change to the drawing (which can only be done during the annual release) or based on comments from the software developer they may feel that the risk of the fix (possibly breaking other behaviors) outweighs the positive of resolving the issue until a better solution can be found. Other factors can be as simple as do we have enough time to adequately test the fix before it is scheduled for release. No two issues are alike, some may be simple for the developer to discover what has caused the issue and to resolve it; others we have had teams of many people working for weeks in order to find a resolution.
I know your life doesn’t constantly revolve around software. What do you do when you’re not managing such an awesome product?
I like to joke that I need more hobbies because I don’t have enough time to do the ones I am already involved with, but a short list would include: $500 car racing, golf (I put myself through college cutting grass at the local course,) mountain biking, running, and skiing - I have skied all my life and am currently learning how to telemark. Then of course there are the standard diversions for those of us in the 2000s: being facebook and twitter (both of which have a strict no work policy.)
How far down the road are you looking with regards to the development of Civil 3D? How many releases are being looked at right now by your team?
We do product planning on a 3 year rolling basis, which means we have a very detailed plan a year out, 2 years out we might know 50% of where we might like to spend resources and 3 years out we have say 25% of our resources committed to something (like finishing out a feature set we started 2 releases earlier.) Beyond that our thought leadership team is looking at industry trends that are 3-5 years out.
Can customers become involved with the direction of the software? If “Joe User” has a great idea or request, how can he provide feedback?
The best thing these folks can do is sign up for the Infrastructure customer council here. The product and functional teams across the infrastructure group leverage this pool of people for ongoing input in many forums; examples include Product Design research, surveys around software use, usability testing and many other activities. On the product management side specifically we are always watching the newsgroups, beta projects, Autodesk labs projects, AUGI wish lists and out meeting with as many customers as we can.
We both know you can’t talk about the future direction of Civil 3D. However, if you could gaze into your crystal ball, what do you think you would see?
I know you said crystal ball, but in order to look forward I think it is worth a brief look at the past: when AutoCAD Civil 3D was first released on the market it was squarely aimed at the site development market. Over the past number of releases the product has evolved into a strong competitor in a number of adjacent markets. The product has become an in demand tool for the transportation segment. Also, our release last year of Autodesk Storm and Sanitary Analysis as a companion to AutoCAD Map 3D and AutoCAD Civil 3D has started changing how customers view Autodesk in the water resources segment. Going forward I think you will see us continue to advance our products to allow more professionals the in infrastructure markets access to tools that lead the industry in the evolution of BIM.