Searching the Soul of Your Software Developer

The juiciest story in the BIM community at this moment is the open letter to Autodesk complaining about how shitty Revit is in terms of cost, licensing, feature set, interoperability, and day-to-day use. The letter came from a bunch of British architecture firms and was published in AEC Magazine. If you haven’t read it, you should. Autodesk is a (consistently) poorly-led company that uses acquisitions, restrictive proprietary technology, and marketing to return shareholder value instead of innovation and keeping customers happy. This is an important reminder that when looking for a new software solution, we should look at the companies behind the software first — why do they do what they do? Why do they exist? Who’s running the show? Then, we can look at the software itself, which is a lesson I learned very early in my career.

The BIM wars are tired because they focus on comparing features and functions of one BIM authoring tool against another — and rarely do they involve architects who have used both of the software titles being compared. In 2020 it’s safe to say that any BIM authoring tool out there is probably quite capable. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, they all have their blind spots that will shock and appall those who use different software. They all do stupid shit from time to time that will have architects ready to throw their BIMs out the window. No one of them is perfect, but they’re all capable. From there it’s more subjective in terms of UI and the intuitiveness of the experience, so whatever floats your boat.

It’s more interesting to look past the software itself and into the company that develops and sells that software. I’ve always thought this was an important thing to do when it comes to software that drives your practice (obviously it’s not as important for software that plays a bit part in your workflows). In school, I learned AutoCAD, which in the early 1990s ran on DOS or System 7. I liked it and it was exciting to be learning CAD. When I started working, I continued using AutoCAD on DOS. Version 12 was current at that time with version 13 coming out soon. My coworkers were excited about that new version, which made me excited as well. Then AutoCAD 13 came out. I still remember the firm’s IT consultant deploying its multi-diskette installation and changing out digitizer pad templates. AutoCAD 13’s UI looked noticeably different and ran on DOS or Windows only. Those were dark days for Apple and I wasn’t surprised that Autodesk dropped support for the Mac, but it still sucked: strike one. Anyone who’s used AutoCAD 13 remembers that it was a notoriously horrible version full of bugs, incomplete or missing features, and it was a frequent crasher at a time when recovery of lost work was overtime hours instead of restoring a recent past file. This was still in the first half of the ‘90s and it took the piss right out of everyone who was so excited about CAD technology in architecture. From then forward, getting excited about new releases of AutoCAD was strictly the realm of the CAD managers and tech nerds — the average production person at an architecture firm was just going to use whatever version of AutoCAD the firm had to get their job done and that was, more or less, it — no passion or excitement about CAD anymore.

AutoCAD 13 changed the way I looked at software in general and at Autodesk. I went from loving AutoCAD to hating it in rapid succession. I would read the CAD industry magazines and see Autodesk staff brush over the troubles they brought with AutoCAD 13 (though they did fix some things with AutoCAD 14, which took years to finish and release after the 13 debacle) and make promises about new versions. When it came out a while later, I tried AutoCAD Architectural Desktop and felt like blah-blah-whatever — it was too cumbersome for its own good. During this time, our Autodesk reseller hosted some training sessions to help expand people’s knowledge of AutoCAD’s feature set — they were mostly awful, and the last of these sessions was so bad we got a refund. By this time, the Autodesk promises were coming out hot and heavy, but with no substance and little in the way of delivered product. I began looking to get away from Autodesk. I was met with doubts and resistance, as people were scared that we wouldn’t be able to work with engineers, or be able to open DWGs from clients.

It was the late ‘90s when I heard about Graphisoft Archicad and its “virtual building” concept, which seemed really intriguing. But at the same time I was researching Graphisoft, I got a CD-R of a 3D drawing tool called SketchUp dropped on my desk. SketchUp was fast and easy; and even though it was dumb and disconnected from AutoCAD, just bringing 2D work to life in 3D so quickly without having to deal with AutoCAD’s clunky 3D bullshit was exhilarating for us AutoCAD users. I look back on those SketchUp years as a complete waste of time though. SketchUp was an enabler of Autodesk dependency in a weird way, as it was really just a shortcut to 3D from AutoCAD (for the record, I thought the people of @Last Software, who made SketchUp, were great and very, un-Autodesk-y).

It was 2006 when I got back on track and purchased licenses of Archicad for the firm to try out. This was after Graphisoft sent an actual architect to show us their software instead of some slimy Autodesk reseller. They offered training coupled with template and content development provided by an architect as well. The experience with the company behind the software was noticeably different from the Autodesk racket. Not to start pitching Graphisoft here either, as the point I’m trying to make is that your experience with the developer of your software is vitally important and it tells you something about their motivations. What I got from Graphisoft was a community of architects who were passionate about virtual building, which was quickly being rebranded as BIM…

…Long side-story short, I used Autodesk Revit at the same time that I was rolling out Archicad. I got to work with some talented Revit users and we learned and grew our BIM knowledge together. In retrospect it was nice to be able to use these two tools side-by-side. Revit made good progress during the early aughts and got more stable and useable. But for me at least, it was not nearly as nice to use as Archicad…and of course there was still Autodesk behind Revit being unbelievably shitty about support, licensing…everything…

…I was young and still learning the industry during Autodesk’s rise to a billion dollar company in the 1990s, but I could clearly see that their CEO at the time, Carol Bartz, was more interested in pushing new versions out the door and charging us for them even if they didn’t work well, than she was about making sure we were happy customers. Now, the shareholders on the other hand, were very happy during this time and made Autodesk a superstar on Wall Street. It took me a while and I got distracted along the way, but even in the early years of my architecture career, I eventually made the change away from Autodesk. This is why I’m always amazed that people still use Autodesk’s crapware and tolerate the abuse of this company’s licensing practices. Nothing — not one single thing — has changed since Carol Bartz set the tone back in the ‘90s. So, if you started a firm since that time and still got into bed with Autodesk when it came time to buy software, it’s hard for me not to laugh after reading the open letter in AEC Magazine. Those firms aren’t even contemplating leaving as they try to fix an unfixable relationship. There’s plenty of other great choices out there and no one will die if your firm no longer uses Autodesk software to get the job done, we “outsiders” all manage to grow beautiful designs in our own little plots of heaven-on-earth outside of Autodesk’s walled garden.

As for the software developers that didn’t just get written up by an angry mob of users? Remember what brought us to you in the first place: the fact that you weren’t Autodesk and didn’t act like Autodesk. Keep it that way or your next.

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