What Fascinates Minette Norman of Autodesk?

Pondering how to perform on stage in a different language, what makes good technical writing and how to measure employee performance.

What Fascinates Minette Norman of Autodesk?

Minette Norman is Vice President of Engineering Practice at Autodesk. Her interests around engineering leadership and diversity could be harnessed as a superpower for businesses ranging from startups all the way up to enterprise software companies looking to maintain a competitive edge. Minnette began her career in the theatre world, became a contributor in an engineering organization, then a manager and then manager of managers. Her journey provides insights for professionals at all levels. And stick around until the end and find out Minnette’s favorite movie and how that relates to the process she went through to get her current role at Autodesk.


Bobby: Here's my episode with Minette Norman, vice President of Engineering Practice at Autodesk. Minette's interests around engineering, leadership and diversity really resonated with me a lot, and I think if used properly, could be harnessed as a superpower for startups all the way up to large enterprise software companies looking to maintain a competitive edge.

Minette's had an interesting path to being a vice president, starting in the world of theater, to being an individual contributor in an engineering organization, to being a manager and then a manager of managers. It's quite the journey with lots of insights for professionals at all levels to learn from.

For some fun trivia, stick around until the end and find out Minette's favorite movie and how that relates to the process she went through to get her current role at Autodesk. Alright, I'm here at Autodesk headquarters in San Francisco. First of all, I would like to have my guest introduce themselves, so please go ahead.

Minette: My name is Minette Norman. I am VP of Engineering practice here at Autodesk in San Francisco.

Bobby: Terrific. Minette, pleasure to meet you. So I was thinking back to the first conversation we had when we spoke on the phone about doing this, and I told you that I was drawn to the fact that you'd spent some time in the acting profession.

And I thought that was fascinating and love that you'd had that kind of diverse experience. And I always enjoyed giving my listeners kind of exposure to diverse backgrounds that end up providing to be interesting stepping stones to successful careers. So I thought we'd start off by kind of rewinding the clock back to that moment in time.

Maybe it was late in high school or early in college, when you decided and were excited about entering the acting profession. Like what led to that?

Minette: It started in high school for me. We had this really great drama teacher in high school, Rolfe Tchek, rest in peace. He was this amazing man and he got me my first part in high school acting and I took to it. What's the expression? Fish to water or something like that. Yeah. Fish to water. Fish to water. I loved it. I loved it. What I loved about it was being in front of a live audience and knowing that anything could happen and things always go wrong when you're acting. It's not like in television or movies where you can edit everything out.

I loved live performance and so I started acting in high school. Did plays through probably sophomore, junior, senior year. And then I said, I wanna go study drama when I go to college. So that's where it all started. It was in high school.

Bobby: And do you remember your first part?

Minette: I do. I don't know if it was my first part, but I remember my most memorable part in high school was we put on the play Harvey. Do you know the play Harvey? It's about a man who has a companion who's a six foot tall rabbit.  It was also a movie, but it was a play, and in it I played. I think her name was Vita Louise Simmons. And she was an eccentric older woman. I always got to play the character parts. And I had a big part, so it was funny.

And it was like being someone I was, 16 and I was playing, I don't know, a 50 or 60 year old woman. And I loved it. It was so much fun.

Bobby: That's terrific. All of a sudden I feel like I'm Terry Gross and we are gonna be talking about your new movie that's coming out. I have to remind myself that we're at Autodesk.

And somewhere in here we're gonna have to, we're gonna have to end up at Autodesk but for now don't be too disappointed. No, but this is great. So you graduated from college. And then I know very little about that profession, but so what does one do? Do you just get in a Greyhound and go to Hollywood?

Minette: No, people do different things. Some people get a drama degree and go straight to either Broadway or Hollywood. I had a double major. I went to Tufts on the east coast. Okay. And I had a double major in drama in French.

Okay. So I came out of college with no real marketable skills, except I could speak fluent French and I could act. And it was, the time where people didn't necessarily go to college with something in mind. At the end it was like you'll get a liberal arts degree. That's what a lot of people did.

Okay. When I went to school, and I certainly loved what I studied, came out of school thinking, I. So maybe I do need to get a job now. I got clerical jobs. At first I worked for the French consulate. The French consulate in Boston because I had interned there as a student. I was fluent in French.

I did clerical work for them, and I was at the same time acting so, With a troop that had started at Tufts where I went to school and one of the grad students started her own theater company called Double-Edged Theater. Okay. They still exist today. They're very successful. And it was a feminist theater company. And we had done a play while I was at Tufts. And then we did a play outside. She got a church where we could perform. So I was working during the day and acting at night, and in some ways the actor's life is that you work day jobs so that you can act.

Yet there I was doing this play that was horrible. It was embarrassingly my first professional, like I don't think we actually got money, but it was a professional theater where we charged prices. My parents decided to come to this play. And I was trying to dissuade them, please do not come. Please do not come to this play.

But they were so excited that their daughter was in professional theater. So they came to see this horrendous play. So that was my first experience outside of school with it. And it was, I think I only did one other professional performance in theater after that, which was in New York. I moved to New York after Boston.

When I moved to New York, I was teaching French at this small private school, and I did that for a couple of years and I wasn't doing anything but taking some acting classes. So I wasn't actually acting professionally, but I was taking acting classes. And then later I got a job at the French Trade Commission in New York.

And this director, this French director, came through town and decided he wanted to put on a performance in New York City. And so this, I think this was my last acting job was that I acted at the un, I was in a French one Act play at the United Nations. Wow. Yeah. In French. So I performed in French, and that was pretty cool.

Bobby: Acting at the United Nations. Just acting in one language seems tough enough. Getting a job in one language seems tough enough. That's pretty impressive. I think you remember you telling me that you had done auditions or a fair number of auditions. Is that true?

Minette: I certainly did. And in college we had to audition for everything. And I remember the first audition I went to at Tufts and I didn't get a part and I thought it was the end of my life. It's so awful because in high school it was a small high school. I got most of the parts that I went out for Sure.

And then you get to college and they're, it's a big sea of great actors out there. And I didn't get my, I didn't get into a play freshman year. And I remember just thinking this is the end, and it's, it is devastating. I think one of the reasons I opted out of acting later, Uhhuh, was I hate rejection like that.

I hate going to an audition. And, you know you're good in some way, but you're not, you don't look like the right person or you're just not what they're looking for. But it hurts deeply. And I'm like a deeply sensitive person and I realize, I don't think I can do this. I don't think I can go to audition after audition.

Bobby: I could imagine that is really hard. All right, listeners, so you're gonna have to bookmark that. Bookmark that, because that's gonna be important later when we talk about other things. Okay. So paint us a picture. Relatively speaking, going from doing that performance at the UN to making a decision that you that acting as a profession was not what was gonna get you excited and that something else was, and how does that happen.

Minette: Yeah. So it was not so long after that performance that I had been living in New York for four or five years after Tufts. And I grew up in California, so there was a part of me that really wanted to come back to California and I was not so happy with the hot, humid summers and the cold winters.

And I thought, California's a really wonderful place. So I was already thinking about leaving New York. And then of course the question came up, what am I gonna do for a living? I was still working at the French Trade Commission. I was a librarian at that point. And what happened during that time was they digitized the French Embassy, the French Trade Commission, they brought in computers, and this is the late ‘80s, so these are like the original IBM PCs.

And I hadn't used computers in college, and yet when they brought them into the French Trade Commission, I was really good at figuring them out. And I had been, I was the librarian at that point, and they had this old card catalog and I thought, now we have computers. I should be able to do something about this.

So I digitized the card catalog and I built a database and. It was really primitive. It was back on DOS, so pre-Windows, right? And I thought, oh, maybe there's something here. I'm actually good at this stuff. I like it. And what I was especially good at was explaining it to the people who were terrified of computers.

There were a lot of people who had worked on manual typewriters and didn't understand what a computer was and I would explain how to do this stuff, even how to do the word processing and. Back then to do if you wanted to bold or italicize something, it was, b-slash whatever.

It was HTML. It was actually when we got to HTML years later, I'm like, I've done this before. But that's what it was like back then to do word processing. So I was good at explaining it. And so what happened was my best friend is married to the novelist Nicholson Baker.

She's my best friend from high school, and Nick and I were talking, and he was trying to be a novelist at the time, but he had been paying the bills by being a technical writer. Oh, interesting. And so Nick and I had a conversation and he said, Minette, you would be a really good technical writer. You can write, you understand the technology.

Why don't you try to be a tech writer? And so when I moved to California, That's exactly what I decided I was gonna do. And I sent out resumes to the very few software companies that I could find at the time. And I got my first job in tech in 1989, so it's gonna be my third year anniversary this year in tech.

My first job was at Adobe and I ended up doing it. It was very funny, when they interviewed me at Adobe, there were all these mysterious questions. They were asking me like, do you know anything about photo reproduction? No. Do you know anything about color separation? No. And I still got the job. Yeah. And the job was right. Because no one did, no one knew this stuff. I was interviewing, I didn't know for the job to write the documentation for Photoshop version 1.0. So that was my first job in tech as a technical writer back in 1989.

Bobby: That's amazing. So yeah, I think because I'm an avid sort of tech historian and I love kinda the history of Silicon Valley, but if you rewind back OPAC to 1989, Silicon Valley, there's no Google, there's no any of that. No Salesforce even. Who were the companies?

Minette: I applied to Oracle. And I remember having an interview at Oracle and deciding that wasn't the place for me. Adobe, Silicon Graphics was really big back then. I can't think of the names, but there just were not that many.

Bobby: Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. And yeah I assume that the tech scene in San Francisco itself wasn’t really happening.

Minette: No, there was really nothing happening in San Francisco It was all down in the valley. In fact Adobe was in Mountain View at the time.

It wasn't, they're now in San Jose, but it was in Mountain View and right next to us was Silicon Graphics. Sun was the big company back then.

Bobby: Yes. Yeah, I think Sun, Microsoft, and Oracle all went public the same year in ‘86. So you’re Interviewing at Oracle three years after they'd gone public. So it was still relatively new. So you get the job at Adobe. Presumably you they tell you what color separation is.

Minette: Yes, they do. They do. And at the time it was really funny because my husband was a journalism major at San Francisco State and he had done color separation as part of.

Doing print production. Oh, interesting. Yeah, so at night he was giving me tutorials on what all this meant because I didn't understand any of it.

Bobby: What was the first project that you had to work on when you got to Adobe?

Minette: So it was version 1.0. There was one writer who was writing the user guide. And this was back in the days when you had print four-color manuals. I still have the book. I was assigned to write the tutorial. So this was basically giving people hands-on exercises to learn how to use Photoshop. And what was so challenging about it was the engineers, the inventors of it, John and Thomas Noel, and then there was a team of engineers around them, they didn't know how anyone was going to use Photoshop because it was so new. It was not a verb back then. It was like a brand new program. So I would be saying what's an example of how someone might use this? And they would say, You don't know. So it was a real struggle to come up with real world examples to do exercises for the tutorial. But that's what I was doing.

Bobby: In my mind I think about that, and it sounds like a product management role in the sense that you had to sit down with the engineers and understand what the use cases were, and then your job was to take notes about that, understand that, and then go away and script it.

Minette: Yeah, in a way, I mean there was product management. I remember the product managers, it wasn't quite a product management role, but it was understanding how people would use it. And then, what I think the magic of technical writing is taking everything technical out of it and getting people to actually just be able to understand it and use their software.

From the day they install it. And so that was really my job is. Writing it in a way so that people could just get into it and start using it.

Bobby: I think a useful skill worldwide is taking the, I think, the intimidation factor of technology out, and trying to get people excited about what Photoshop can do.

Minette: It became this huge phenomenon.  I think one of my first learnings and that was, had served me well all through the years, because I did, I ended up doing tech writing for about 10 years. But what was tempting as a tech writer was to go meet with the engineers, play around with the software, and then just start writing.

And what I discovered every time is that would always be bad unless I really understood what I was writing about. And this is why there's so much bad documentation. Cause people just transcribe notes from engineers, I think, and it becomes gobbledygook, right? But what is the key to success there is getting the complexity out of it.

Truly understanding it and integrating it. And then you can write about it. So writing is almost the last thing you do. The

Bobby: synthesis of it, I think is the stage that people spend very little time. On you then do technical writing for I think a couple of stops after Adobe. Is that right?

Minette: Yeah. I went from Adobe to a startup called Chaos Tools, which unfortunately didn't make it. Okay. And then to Symantec. And I stayed at Symantec the longest, probably four and a half years. And then I came to Autodesk in 1999.

Bobby: So where did you make the transition from being an individual contributor tech writer to managing?

Minette: So I made two stops in that. One was, one opted out. So what happened was, that was the second job I went to after Adobe. I came in as an individual contributor and then they got rid of my manager and they said, you're the manager now. And I didn't wanna be a manager.

And one of the first things I ended up having to do was get rid of an employee. And that was such a traumatic experience for someone who didn't aspire to be a manager or had no training, had no HR support. And I said, I will never be a manager again. So I then went back to being, after I left there, I went to as an individual contributor writer, and same when I came to Autodesk.

And then I was at Autodesk for a couple of years and my manager at the time said, you would really be a good manager and I need a manager of this team. And she talked me into it. But it was a different because I'd had more time. And also, Autodesk was a company where you could actually get training around some of the management skills, and have support. And so then I did it and I didn't do it quite so reluctantly, and then I turned out that I loved it.

Bobby: So talk a little bit about the training ecosystem and tools that you had before you jumped into that role here at Autodesk.

Minette: I wouldn't say I got the tools before. I would say it was more in, on the job, but, so you are now a manager. Okay. And then they, back then, and I don't know that we still have it exactly the same, but back then we used to have, there were like five classes that every manager had to take. Okay. Managing performance. Communication skills, I forget what the list was. But I have to say that those classes were super helpful because when you go into being a manager, you don't know how to do any of that stuff. You don't know what you can and cannot say how to really bring people along in their careers. And I always care a lot about people, so I wanted to be a good manager.

I think the communication success skills class that I took probably in 2001 is still one of the most valuable classes I've ever taken. And the number one thing I learned was about listening, not about communicating. So that to me has served me really well over the years.

Bobby: I've seen you speak and I've always been impressed, but was that something that you practiced in this business setting or is that something you think you picked up through the theater background?

Minette: So I think there's an aspect of it that comes naturally to me. I think one is that I'm really comfortable in public. So I think that's from the stage, working on stage and that I enjoy it. Sure. However, I have definitely consciously gotten coaching and taking classes to be a better public speaker because I do a lot of public speaking now.

And a couple years ago I was gonna be doing my, maybe it was three, four years ago, I was gonna do a big keynote in front of 500 people and I said, it's time for me to hire a speaking coach. And so I did that. I got a lot of really good feedback on how to present to a crowd and how to speak publicly, but when I'm doing something like this one-on-one, this just comes naturally to me.

Bobby: It's great. I think having some innate abilities in that meeting with some preparation can lead to some great outcomes from that time that you became a manager at Autodesk, but before you became a vp. Yes. Could you talk a little bit about how the team sizes grew as you got successive promotions and larger responsibilities? How big was that first team that you had?

Minette: The first team that I managed was probably six or seven writers, and it was an interesting transition because as I said, I've been writing for about 10 years. And I was really good at it, and I really loved it. And I felt like I'm an expert.

And then suddenly to manage a group of seven writers, it was hard for me to let go a little bit and say, I'm not the expert. They're the experts now. And I'm not gonna micromanage. So I think that, and I always talk to people about that now, that first step of going from an individual contributor to a management role is hard.

Because you have to let go. And I did experience that. It was a little hard for me to let go, but then once I did, I realized, oh, they're doing all the hard work and I get to just help them and unblock roadblocks for them and sure. Advocate for them. I think I did that job for a couple of years, I think it was started at six and maybe went to nine at its max.

And then I decided, so this is now 2005. So, I'd been in the tech writing field either as an individual or as a manager fFor 15 years. And I said, I am ready for a change. I am getting a little bit bored with this and I'm not sure. I'm learning a lot.

I love to keep learning. So for me it was like, I loved to learn the technology when I was a writer. And then as a manager, I felt like I'm always, I still am always enhancing my skills as a people manager and as a leader, but I wanted some new technical domain to learn. And so I started looking around for a job both internally and externally, and there was an internal posting at Autodesk for a manager in our localization department.

So that's the department that gets everything translated into different languages. And the job was a technical manager, so it was managing a team of engineers who were in charge of all of the technology used to translate our documentation. So the tie in was that I knew the documentation side of things.

I knew a little bit about the technology. I knew nothing about localization. Okay. And localization is super interesting and super technical and super complex, and people think it's just running things through Google Translate now, but there's a lot behind that. And so I took this job and that was it. I actually had a small team.

When I took the job, I went, I had five people. And it grew from there to maybe eight or nine, five engineers. I'll never forget this. I took over the job. It was like five guys, all engineers. I didn't have the background. I didn't have either the localization background or the engineering background.

Okay. And, one of the people who. Interviewed me, who was a member of the team, wanted the job, and he didn't get the job, and his first words to me is, you will fail in this job. Wow. And encouraging. And it was, it is not exactly the most encouraging. However, what happened is that he and I became great colleagues.

We are still friends to this day, and he maybe six months later said, Manette, I owe you an apology. You're doing great. So it was definitely, I had to come and improve myself, and I think that has been the lesson in every job that I've taken, is that there's this proving yourself and learning period.

I had to learn about the technology they were working on. I had to learn what their challenges were. I had to learn how can I help them with those challenges, whether it's. Budget or technology or time or people or whatever it is. So that was what, that was my first entree into a new world.

And then what happened in terms of my management jobs is that within the localization department, I kept taking on bigger and bigger roles. So I did that one first and then I took on a job managing, I think what was called publishing technologies, but it was all the technology and all the people responsible for getting all the documentation localized.

And it was a department of about. 40, 30, 40 people. So I was managing managers for the first time. That's a big switch too. Yeah. You go first, you go from IC to manager managing individuals, and then you're getting more and more removed from the work as you go from managing individuals to managing managers. So that was the first time I did that.

Bobby: So one of the things you mentioned that struck you when you went from being an IC to a manager the first time is that notion of getting comfortable with the fact of letting go. So what would you say is the equivalent thing that struck you when you went from being a manager to a manager of managers?

What was different, noticeably different that you had to practice and get used to, if anything? Y

Minette: I think part of it is even knowing the individuals really well, right? So when you have five or nine direct reports, you know them all really well, you know all of their strengths, you know all their weaknesses, and what makes them tick.

And then suddenly you're managing managers and you don't know those individuals in their team as well. And so you have to rely on those managers to be giving you the right information to make sure you're supporting the next level down and the next level down. And you are even farther removed from the work.

I didn't even know what half of them were doing. I got curious, right? But initially when I joined I don't know what those people do. How can I support them? How can I be a good leader for them? So then it's having to learn like enough so that you're knowledgeable and enough so that you can unblock things or help make decisions or help get funding, but that you're not in the details.

Bobby: Had you done when you were an either an IC or a manager, had you had skip level meetings where you were the one that was like skipping a level of skip levels?

Minette: Yeah. That's a really interesting question that I I'm sure I did, but not regularly.

Bobby: So then when you became a manager, that was something you had to pick up. Because that's one of the hacks around you. It's impossible for you to meet everybody. There would just be no jump up in the week. So was that the first time that you'd started to use that as a tool

Minette: And I still use that a lot and I've always made it a policy that anyone can come talk to me, that, you do not have to go through the hierarchy that anyone can come talk to me. So it's a matter of making time for that. But Sure. I do think it's really important that people have access to every level of management and there's no blocker that you can't go to your manager's manager.

Bobby: That makes sense. And I think that's removing that friction. Because it gets you the best shot of getting the information you need to Exactly.

To better tune the organization. On this podcast I've talked to a lot of leaders about their best practices and things that work well for recruiting developers. I'd be curious to spend just a bit of time talking about what you learned, hiring best practices tuned for the technical writing profession that may be a little bit different than how you evaluate a developer. So could you talk a little bit about, things that over the years, what you found was. Effective more than not in, in selecting in tech writers?

Minette: Yeah. It's been a while since I hired a tech writer, but I do remember one of the things that you always do, at least you did, and I'm assuming people still do, is you look at writing samples.

As a tech writer, you usually have to do some kind of a test. They give, whether it's brain teasers or solving problems or some kind of a coding test, with writers, it was always Show me your samples and then talk to me about how you how you developed this and so what I was always looking for extreme clarity.

Yeah. I once interviewed a tech writer, I will never forget this. And I had a writing sample and I said, so now that you've done this a couple years ago, what would you do differently? And he said, I would use less words. And I'm like, could you repeat that please? And he said I'd use less words.

And I'm like, that was a done deal for me, that he didn't know the correct grammar was fewer. I had to end it there because if you don't know grammar, it's gonna be a problem. I hate to say that was a deal breaker and if that person is listening to that, I didn't get the job but I mean I couldn't there's certain, like the basic level of being clear and do and using proper grammar, that's just the lowest bar.

Bobby: My kind of romanticized version of this is that I can't imagine, spelling mistakes and resumes are always a big note. Yeah. But I gotta believe there are even more cardinal sin for a tech. There's just no way that would ever be. Okay. So now we get to the next stage. Because of the localization group that you're now running, you've gotten exposure to developers, to deep technology as well as obviously the writing skills and so forth. So talk to us a little bit about how it comes about that there's this possibility that you could grow your career even more and yeah and inherit, the position we've talking about today.

Minette: Yeah. So what happened in those years, and I think it was the years between 2005 and 2014, So I think that's about that. So it's about a 10 year timeframe. But I stayed in localization and I did, I think I counted up five different jobs. So I did that first technical management job and then managing managers.

And then I'm trying to think exactly the order, but I took an interesting role at one point. Where I, in localization, I took a very small team. I think I had three direct reports, but we were running the business, all the money, and it was a really important detour for me. It's one of those lateral moves that was really important because it was the first time I had a big budget to deal with and Okay, we had a large budget because we were localizing like, Autodesk.

Products are huge and complicated. Yes. And we were literally localizing millions and millions of words, hundreds of millions of words and pages. And so it was big budget to deal with. Sure. And dealing with all these vendors and a lot of complexity. And so for me it was really important to spend time understanding budgets and business and how things worked across the company in terms of finance.

So I did that role and that led me to actually taking over as the leader of the whole localization department. So I inherited a team of, I think about 130 people, 120 to 130 people. When I took that team, we were under huge scrutiny because we were seen as a cost center. And I know all the other localization leaders in all the companies in the valley, and that is often how localization is seen.

Interesting. It's a cost center. You don't talk about all the money that you're getting internationally from those international products, but it's just the target of like, where can we shape some money off of that? And so we were under scrutiny as a department, and honestly there was a good reason for the scrutiny because it was pretty much a black box that no one knew what was happening inside of and where that money went and how it was used.

And I spent several years undoing that and I had to completely change our vendor model, our finance model, how many people we had. I streamlined the whole organization dramatically, and so I had to get used to doing reorgs and laying people off, which is not anyone's favorite thing. Sure.

But doing it in a way that made sense to the people who left and the remaining people, that this is not a personal decision. This is about what functions we're gonna keep and what we’re gonna outsource. And so I ended up being able to build a localization team that is highly respected, both internally and externally.

And that is really what led me to being seen as someone who could lead change and lead change that was bold. And that people hadn't done before. And that was seen as a success story, and that's, that was my stepping stone to be able to even apply for the job that I'm in now.

Bobby: So to give people a sense of the scope of the job you're gonna apply for how many people was the person who would get that role be responsible for?

And what maybe also what products was that position responsible for?

Minette: So the job that became available that I ended up applying for, at the time, it was called Vice President of Global Engineering, and. Under the umbrella of global engineering, there were about 1200, 1500 people.

It wasn't based on products, it was based on, we had two big r and d centers, one in Singapore and one in Shanghai. And those rolled up to this role. And then there was another part of the job, which was about best practices for engineering and building community for engineering. Our engineering community at Autodesk is more like 3,500 people.

So they didn't all roll up to this role, but the role was responsible for interfacing with all the engineers in the company.

Bobby: And it was for all the products then? Yeah. Wow. Yeah. And by that time had the company moved over, I'm guessing, moved over to the cloud?

Minette: It was in transition. We were partway in and we still had perpetual licenses, but we were moving to a subscription model. So it was, everything was influx at that point.

Bobby: There was an evaluation period. And you find out that you've made the short list or the top of the list?

Minette: No. What happened was, I reported into that role before, so when I was leading localization, I reported to the VP of Global Engineering. And he told me he was taking a different role and so I thought, oh, what an opportunity. And so I wrote to the S V P that he reported into, and I'll never forget it because I was traveling at the time, I was in Switzerland visiting our office there, and I wrote him a note and said, I may not be the most obvious choice for this role, but I would love the opportunity to talk to you about it.

And he wrote right back and said, let's talk when you're back. And so we did. We had a lunch when I got back and he, was wanting to understand why I thought I could do this job. What I had seen in the previous leaders and what I thought of Sure. What they had done and what I could do differently and.

So then, and I know there were other applicants, I don't know how many, but there were other applicants. But shortly after that lunch, he said to me Minette, I would like to try you out in the role. And I said, what does that mean? And he said we'll do it as an acting role. I don't like that. I could already feel it.

I didn't like that. And he said I'm not sure it's the right role for you. I'm not sure from my perspective, and you have to see if it's the right role for you. I said, okay, if you really wanna do that, how long would that trial period be? And he said, three months. We'll give it one quarter.

I guarantee that I will make a decision at the end of 90 days. Okay. And so that was in November of 2014? I believe so. Wow. I had no November, December, and January. To audition, this is this was back to the auditioning phase. Yeah. For this role. And the longest ever audition. No. For 90 days is long.

And I tell you 45 days into that I was done. I'll never forget. Cause the reason I know it was November, December, January, is that we have something here called the Week of Rest where we shut down usually for the week between Christmas and New Year's. Okay. So it's just before the week of rest. So halfway into the 90 days.

Yeah. And one of the things that I had to do to prove myself was to get the buy-in from all the engineering leaders around the company that I was the right person for the role. So that meant having phone calls and, video calls and hearing what was on their mind and hearing what they liked or didn't like about me.

And basically it was popularity. I feel like it was a popularity contest. Does she get your vote? The good news was, People were super supportive. They were saying things like, you know what? I think we need something different in this role. And you really do bring a different perspective. So no one was saying, you should not, you're not qualified, et cetera.

But every time I would come back with now I've done this, I would get another list of people I needed to go talk to. So 45 days in. I was like, okay, forget it. I don't even want this job. I'm, the audition has gone on too long. But then we had the break at the holidays and I calmed down, had rest, yeah. Had a new perspective and came back. Always having that week off brings me new perspective. Came back the first of the year feeling okay, this is doable, and you know what, if it doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world. Then I was in China. We had a big office opening. We had a new unveiling of our legal entity in Shanghai.

And so I was there and I was there with Omar Hanal, who was the vp, the svp, who was making this decision. And we were there together. And he said to me just before he left, he said, Minette, when are you back in the States? And I said, I'll be there Monday. And he said, get on my calendar for first thing Monday morning.

And there was something about the look in his eye that I thought, this is good. He didn't usually reveal too much, but then like it had, there was a slight glint in his eye. So I got on his calendar for Monday morning and he said, how do you think you've been doing? And I looked at him and I said, are you kidding me?

I actually said that. Are you kidding me? He goes, yeah. And he, I said I think I knocked it out of the park. And he smiled and he said, yeah, you did and you're getting the job and you're getting the title and it's happening right away, 1st of February. Wow,

Bobby: that's great. So before you started that 90 day period, what were your expectations of what that role would be like and then after you finished 90 day, what was, what hit expectations and what was different?

Minette: In some ways it was a brand new role because Omar had said to me, it's not the role that the other VPs have been doing. We need to change things. So one of my big discoveries was like, what is it we need to, that was what I was trying to find out. What is it we need to change that's not working?

So some of my conversations with those engineering leaders was revealing that. We have a big problem here. And what the problem was that just as you asked, you were already into the cloud. We were trying to move to the cloud. We were trying to become a modern company. We were founded in ‘82.

So we're one of the older software companies, and we had grown through acquisition and we had all of these teams all over the world who did their own thing completely. Reinventing the wheel right and left, like whether it was technology that they were building or the tools that they were using, the processes they were using, everything was different.

And the realization that Amara and others had was that. If you're gonna be a modern cloud company, everything has to look and feel and behave like it comes from one company. And not all of these disparate products that operate differently, look different, et cetera. And in order for that to happen, we have to start working together.

And so I'll tell you to answer your question more directly, I was afraid that the job was gonna be too technical for me because I had never been a developer. What I learned. Is that this is not a technical job. This is entirely a people job and an influencing job because it was all about behavior and culture and tribal knowledge and no, I need to do it my way.

And it was about breaking down those barriers. In a way it was reassuring because I'm good at the people stuff. There are lots of people who are really good at the technical stuff. But this was not a technical problem. It was a leadership problem,

Bobby: Yeah. Which, and it was all about people. Which many would say is way harder because people are unpredictable, people are challenging.

Minette: They definitely are. And unique. Yeah, everyone is different. Every single person you talk to is being coming from a different place.

Bobby: Yeah. So now we delve into things that everyone's always interested in running an engineering organization. So for example, what have you found to be effective ways to measure if a team or yeah, a team or a set of teams are performing in an efficient way that you're happy with. How does one measure that?

Minette: Yeah, that's one of the hardest things. You and I talked a little bit about that, right?

That's one of the hardest things, we've tried different things and we're really embarking on a different way of measuring it. In terms of team health and you can measure things like velocity and throughput, but there's so many good ways to game the system. Yes. And that is not what you want.

But really to see our teams operating in a way that they feel productive, that they feel they have autonomy and they're satisfied with what they're doing. And that then of course are delivering business results that our customers are, as a cloud company. One of the things that every cloud company is dealing with, and that we're a little late to the game is making sure our resiliency is there.

And so one way we can measure is, for any X product that we are delivering, is it three nines? Is it four nines? Is it five nines? Is it less than three nines today? In some cases. So that's one thing is really to make sure that. Engineering teams are focusing on resiliency and security and performance, and not just focusing on features.

Sure. So that's a big switch for a company like Autodesk that has been so feature rich. Everything is about more features for our products, and suddenly we need to think differently about how do we make sure that everything is up all the time for our customers.

Bobby: I can definitely see that. And thankfully that is a metric.

Minnette: Yes, there is a metric there, but the other things are much more elusive. And so I have someone on my staff who's a real expert in agile practice, and she's put a self scoring mechanism in place for teams to measure their own performance. So then no one's coming out with a report card on you, but that you can actually, as a team, do retrospectives and say, how are we doing?

Yeah. So I think that is much more of the way to go, is to let the teams assess themselves. Yeah. And maybe there's some checks and balances there that they're not just. Having fun. Of course they're not having fun, they're delivering value, but that they feel that they're operating well. That's in a way, the most important thing.

Bobby: Yeah. Because that'll lead to other things like, retention and Exactly. If they're feeling good and then presumably they'd wanna stay. And if they're not, then you probably have to worry about other things. Yes. That does seem like a good way to go about it. I think I saw a talk that you gave and you talked about diversity.

And this is something that I'm really fascinated with, especially with a lot of the startups I work with and a lot of the startup founders that listen to this podcast is when you're building these founding teams, why diversity is so important. And I have my own biases about why, but. Would love to hear your thoughts and counsel on, on that and why it's so important and powerful.

Minette: And we don't have another hour.

Bobby: Certainly not.

Minette: There are many reasons, and some is simply business performance, that there's tons of research, and I won't say that here, but anyone can go look it up, that diverse teams perform better and that they deliver on results better. That they solve gnarly problems.

There's just evidence that if you have a bunch of people who are all alike, they're gonna miss some. They're gonna get into that group thing where we all came from the same school and we have the same background and we don't, we have our blinders on. Yeah. So there is lots of evidence that diverse teams come up with better results and better business outcomes.

Besides that. However, like if you're a founder of a company and you don't think about diversity from day one, and you think you're gonna strap it on later, oh we'll just get our first 10 guys and then we'll hire some women and people of color and whatever that is. The problem is that no one wants to come work with you because they walk in the door and they see, whatever it is, whatever group it is that is homogeneous, whether it's the white guys or whatever.

A woman's not gonna wanna come work with that. They already know the brew culture is there, right? Yes. If there are no people of color, the people of color do not wanna walk in that door, because they don't, they're gonna feel other, they're gonna feel that they're not included. So you have to think about it from day one.

You have to work hard to build diverse teams. And honestly, none of the companies have solved it at all. Right now we're all working on it. It's all work in progress and. I've thought about it a lot, especially because I've been in this field so long. And it wasn't talked about for years and years. And yet what I do remember is that back when I joined Adobe, There were obviously more men than women. There always have, but I feel like there were more women. I felt that there were more women then than there are now.

Really. And then it turns out the statistics are that back in the eighties there were more women in tech than there per percentage wise. There were more women in tech in the eighties than there are today. So the trend is going in the wrong direction.

Bobby: And do you have any sense of why that is?

Minette: I think it's that the culture that has been created in many tech companies is really that sort of bro culture that isn't welcoming to women and other minorities, and so people are opting out. Women are opting out and at young ages. So you know, they don't see that. And that's why programs like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code are so powerful because they get girls early in school to get interested in tech and to see themselves in those fields later. Because if they just go and visit a company and it's like, where are all the women in? Yeah. Where are all the black women? Where are all the Latino women?

Bobby: I can definitely see that. I came across an interesting narrative about the cause of this that I wanted to run by you in case you'd ever heard anything, any science behind this. Cause I think this was anecdotal, but I don't know if there's been any hard science behind it, which was that in that time period that you're talking about, when there were more women, which is hard for people to, yeah.

But it's true. There's just the numbers back that up. But apparently one reason for the phase shift was that the toy industry decided to aim those tech toys at Young Boys. Yes. And then somehow there was a, kinda a domino effect from that. Have you heard anything about that?

Minette: I feel like I've read that or seen that too, and that it totally lines up.

Because that, because again, the boys like, this is what I do now, this is what I play with. And therefore I'm going to become an engineer, or this is interesting to me. Yeah. And the toys that were aimed at girls were, fluffy. That's right. Pink, princessy things. And those are so divergent.

If you go back and look, it's again really hard for people to understand because it's such a big problem that has to be solved now. So we're all focused on it. And you would just think that we're better now than we were 23 years ago. We're not. If you wanna look at some crazy things, go just anecdotally, go look at the early team at Microsoft, the pictures of these people with sideburns, but there are a lot more women than you might think in that photo in the seventies.

Interesting. Than you would now in a proportional team. So some facial. So I think the answer to the solution is just basically we need more tech toys aimed at girls. And just wait for the funnel to work out.

I do think that the the programs that are. Springing up everywhere, whether girls who Code Black Girls Code, there are a whole slew of these programs right now.

I think they're really important because what is happening is that by high school girls are opting out of math and science and fields that lead them into engineering. So the girls Who Code started out, for example, with high school students, But now they've worked back to much younger girls.

Because it's too late in some ways, often when you get to high school. So really targeting the girls and minorities, younger and younger.

Bobby: Sure. I always like to end with a fun piece of trivia tuned for my guest that's been so gracious in giving their time. My trivia question for you is, what is your favorite movie?

Minette: Oh, I can answer that one without hesitation. It's two, it's Godfather, Part 1 and 2. And I love everything about those two movies. And we watch them, we own them and watch them regularly, but we never watch Godfather III. Cause that was not good.

Bobby: Yeah, that was not good at all.

Minette: They’re popular, very famous movies and loved by many people, including yours truly.

Bobby: Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone was not their first choice. Francis Ford Coppola kept putting him into dailies and things and Paramount desperately wanted a bigger star. So essentially for the first period of time that they're shooting this movie, Al Pacino, similar to your, your situation was an acting actor.

Minette: That's right.

Bobby: They were waiting for him to fail and it would take, the story goes, it would take until the scene where he kills the police officer. And he gets the gun from the bathroom until Paramount would let it go. And he would, Al Pacino would be allowed to finish.

Minette: I love, I know that story and I love that. Yeah. They wanted Ryan O'Neill to play that part.

Bobby: Yeah. As a Northern Italian is I think what they were I think they were going for. So anyway, I love that piece of trivia and I love that Al Pacino was not the only one apparently that has auditioned for very big things later in life.

Minette, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Minette: My pleasure. Thank you.

Minette Norman
VP Engineering Practice, Autodesk

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