Blogger critical of Yahoo’s Carol Bartz gets comeuppance

Michael Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch, found himself on the end of an expletive or two from Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo yesterday. It’s hardly surprising that Bartz was both frustrated and annoyed by the time she finally lost it — Arrington was particularly provocative, in my view. Indeed, his opening line was a little bizarre.

Image representing Carol Bartz as depicted in ...

Image via CrunchBase

Arrington started the interview like this:

Michael Arrington: “So how the fuck are you?”

Carol Bartz: “Is that appropriate?”

MA: “That’s all I got actually, too.”

CB: “If that’s all you got you’d better quit now.”

MA: “You know I was looking at the last two posts I wrote about you. The last was titled ‘Please Pass the Bong, Carol’; the one before that was titled ‘Can We Please Have Jerry Back’?”

CB: “I didn’t see that one.”

MA: “It’s a little hard… you don’t check TechCrunch every day? You can add it as a widget to the homepage of the, er, I can show you how after.”

There follows lengthy discussion in which Arrington questions Bartz about her strategy. To be fair, she doesn’t answer all his questions fully, but then neither would I under such circumstances. After 25 minutes, she’s had enough:

CB: “You are involved in a very tiny company.”

MA: “Very tiny, yeagh.”

CB: “And it probably takes a long time to even convince yourself what the hell to do. So I don’t want to hear any crap — I don’t want to hear any crap about something magical [like an iPod or iPad that Yahoo could have gotten into] that the fine people of Yahoo are supposed to do in this short time [17 months since she joined]. So fuck off. And that one I meant. Lunch time! We’re way over. End on a high.”

MA: “My last question is er, is er, are you a search company or not?”

You can watch the interview in all its excruciating detail here. I wouldn’t normally criticise a fellow journalist: everyone has their ‘style’. But did Arrington overstep the mark this time?

I have met Carol Bartz and had the opposite experience, as it happens. I profiled her and the company she was in charge of when she was at Autodesk. For some reason, the original article on CBRonline has been lost to the sands of time, so here it is — it appeared in the Novermber 2008 issue of Computer Business Review.

As I concluded in that profile piece: “As well as being the CEO of an incredibly successful company she may happen to be a mother, she may happen to be a rather glamorous woman, and she may happen to have a penchant for Italian food, Italian fashions and Italian wine. But let’s face it – you would have to be a complete idiot to take Carol Bartz anything other than seriously.”

I assume Michael Arrington doesn’t share my views on Bartz’s qualities, although to be fair his concerns are with Yahoo’s direction, not Autodesk’s. Anyway, here’s that profile in full:

Tour de Force

Jason Stamper meets Carol Bartz, who since taking the reins of Autodesk in 1992 has reinvented the company more than once and grown sales from $285m to over $1bn.

Carol Bartz, Autodesk’s chairman and CEO, more than deserves her status as the most powerful female executive in the IT industry – indeed her track record makes her one of the most successful CEOs of the last decade of either sex, and in any sector.

Under Bartz’s guidance, design and collaboration software company Autodesk has gone from a one-trick pony to having a hugely diversified portfolio, market leadership in a string of sectors and six million registered users. Its software has been used to make all sorts of ideas and designs come to life, from skyscrapers and bridges to the special effects used in TV series like Rome and films like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “Our customers make the world,” says Bartz proudly. “Unless it’s an animal or plant, there’s a high chance that someone used Autodesk to design it.”

Since Carol Bartz joined, she has taken the company, its employees and customers on an extraordinary journey, even by IT industry standards. It began in 1992 when John Walker conceded that Autodesk, which he had founded 10 years earlier, needed some fresh ideas to get to the next level. Carol Bartz was the chosen one.

Her story as far as the IT industry is concerned begins when she took a degree in computer science, one of only two women on the course at the University of Wisconsin. “Although it was considered very unusual for a girl to do computer science I just thought it was fascinating, taking maths to the ultimate,” Bartz explains, when CBR caught up with her late last year.

One of the first things you cannot help but notice about Carol Bartz is that she remains genuinely passionate about technology, which is perhaps why she has managed to retain her position as the head of Autodesk for over 13 years, when the average tenure of a technology CEO these days is about three. “I just loved [computer science], I still get goose bumps. I think that’s really important, because if you don’t have a passion for something then you tend to bounce around.”

From university it was on to Digital Equipment Corp where she was a systems analyst, thence into sales and marketing at 3M, and from there to Sun Microsystems, where she ended up as VP of worldwide field operations. How does she explain her rise up the ranks? “You have to bloom where you’re planted.”

She has certainly continued to bloom at Autodesk. It broke the billion dollar sales barrier in 2005 with revenue of over $1.2bn. But her most courageous and ultimately successful decision was to insist that Autodesk could no longer rely on the success of one product – its AutoCAD design tool. “We have been working to get beyond one product since I joined, and there’s still more we can do,” says Bartz.

Today her strategy of diversification is evidenced by the company’s broad portfolio of products. It has tools that address manufacturing; infrastructure; building; media and entertainment; location services; collaboration; education and even government.

Read more about Autodesk’s products and the use of its software to design the Freedom Tower on the site of the former Trade Centre Towers in Lower Manhattan, at www.cbronline.com.

Many organisations might be largely unaware that Autodesk helps them stay ahead of the competition, but those tasked with turning plans, designs, ideas and projects into a reality will be fully aware of the power of Autodesk’s applications.

But did Bartz never worry that straying from its 2D design tool heritage would see it spread itself too thinly? “You have to be willing to change yourself as the world changes around you,” she says. “It’s easy to rest on past success. We needed a strategy to join the networked world, so we made sure we did.

“I really like the thinking behind Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat – it is a flat world, even though that notion was debunked in the 1400s! But it is a flat world because work is being done globally that used to be done locally. You have to try and accommodate that and not be stuck in the past.”

AUTODESK IN A NUTSHELL

Founded: 1982

HQ: San Rafael, California

Key product areas: Design & Drafting; Visualization; Modelling; Collaboration; Project/Lifecycle Management

Revenues FY05: $1.2bn

Net income FY05: $221.5m

Market cap: $9.77bn

6 million registered users worldwide

Used by 98% of Fortune 500 Companies

2,500 third party developers

It didn’t all go smoothly for Bartz, as you would expect for a newcomer trying to change the outlook of a company that had been doing the same thing for 10 years. Especially during the dot-com hype, when as Bartz explains, “We weren’t considered a go-go new economy, hot company. We were almost forgotten for a time. We had a really tough time, because all of a sudden there were a lot of new kids on the block, and lots of our employees wanted to wander off.”

All was not lost, however. “It didn’t diminish the fact that we make real products and real profits,” Bartz explains. “The good news is that we remained sane, while a lot of the more crazy companies crashed.”

Bartz has a philosophy that at Autodesk has come to be known as “fail-fast forward”, in which it is acceptable to try things that may ultimately fail, as long as you quickly spot the failure and change tack before momentum is lost. Looking at the company’s track record, it’s clear that its failures have been outweighed by its successes. “I think I’m pretty good at seeing where things are going,” says Bartz. “But it’s not just me – a company is a group of people, with lots of people in lots of different markets. But the wrap-around is my job – saying ‘what is common in all this?’. That is what I do.

“My job is to keep going with the vision until other people have that ‘a-haaa’ kind of moment. I’ve got a lot of things wrong, but I don’t think I’ve missed the main trends: the move from 2D to 3D, the move to networks, the way the world’s products and projects are done.”

According to Bartz, there is still plenty of opportunity for the company to continue its growth trajectory: “Design is probably the last major task that relies on paper. Most companies have automated most of their processes – ERP, CRM, HR and so on. Yet products are still very much paper driven. That’s why I’m confident that we have the right vision.”

As well as all the strategic thinking, Bartz has instilled in Autodesk a certain philosophy that seems to have helped in the company’s success. Whether it’s free pizza and beer on Friday afternoons, the fact that flexi-working, telecommuting and even regular exercise is actively encouraged, or that Autodesk employees’ benefits are said to be second to none, Bartz has a very clear idea of how a company should treat its staff.

As for the fact that Bartz is the most powerful woman in IT, she says she is, “Very proud. I think that if it highlights that there could be more women in this industry then I think that’s great. It’s sad that there aren’t.” She does a lot of work to encourage schoolgirls and young women to consider the sciences as career options, but she does not go as far as complaining that women are overtly discriminated against in this sector: “Can there be disadvantages? Absolutely. Can there be advantages? Absolutely. I know I get invited to things sometimes because I am in a skirt and it balances out the numbers. I also know that I get excluded sometimes for the same reason. But it’s hard to complain when I became a CEO.”

The numerous occasions on which some fool has made a faux pas on meeting Bartz along the lines of, “When is your CEO arriving?” do of course rile her, but she is good humoured enough to “not waste my time dwelling on it,” as she puts it. “You can’t take yourself too seriously, can you?” she asks.

As well as being the CEO of an incredibly successful company she may happen to be a mother, she may happen to be a rather glamorous woman, and she may happen to have a penchant for Italian food, Italian fashions and Italian wine. But let’s face it – you would have to be a complete idiot to take Carol Bartz anything other than seriously.

First printed in CBR, November 2008.

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