20-Minute Leaders

“Whether you’re large or small, starting up or a 30-year-old company, you need to be intentional about inclusion"

Minette Norman, former VP of engineering practice at Autodesk talks to Michael Matias about the soft skills needed to relay hard science

CTech 09:0402.02.21

They say that if one truly understands a topic, one can effectively explain it to others, and Minette Norman, former VP of engineering practice at Autodesk, appreciates how powerful explanatory skills can be. Norman has a background in drama, and though her career path led to opportunities in the tech sphere instead of the stage, she does note that both industries are dependent on teamwork and proper communication. Upon transitioning into the tech field, Norman became a technical writer and helped transform complex subject matters into easily digestible explanations for lay individuals. Norman carried this skill set to Autodesk, where she eventually earned a VP position in engineering. Speaking to 20MinuteLeaders creator Michael Matias, Norman talks about how as a minority in the field, she recognized the important role that leaders have in establishing inclusive practices and why she now strives to aid new and established organizations create safe and open working environments for their employees.



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More than 30 years in the tech and software industry all starts with a major in drama and French. How does that happen?


I realized that being an actor, which I aspired to be, is really hard work. I realized that wasn't for me. My first job out of school was being a French teacher. But soon after that, I got a job at the French Trade Commission, when they introduced computers for the first time, like the original PCs, and it turned out I was a quick study. But what I was really good at was explaining how to use them. That was the crucial step in my career that led me to the tech industry. I decided that I was going to become a technical writer because what technical writers do is translate technical information into something digestible and understandable by a layperson.


(Adobe) hired me to be a technical writer, and my first assignment was to write the tutorial for Photoshop version 1.0. From '89 to '99, I was a technical writer at five different companies, and then in '99, I landed at Autodesk. I ended up staying at Autodesk for 20 years.


Talk to me about this crazy journey to end up as vice president at Autodesk, which is incredible. But the journey is always more impressive.


I started as a writer back in '99. Pretty soon after I started, my manager decided that she wanted me to be a manager. I hadn't aspired to that at all. I started being a manager of other technical writers. I loved that because I'm very much a people person and I love figuring out how people tick and you can't manage 10 different people in the same way. Then I decided I was bored. I started looking around for a new job, and there was this really interesting job internally to lead a team of engineers who were managing our software for localization, getting everything translated and ready for international markets. That was a real stepping stone because going from managing writers, where I could do the work, to managing engineers, where I couldn't do the work that they did, was a really big jump for me. That was my first job out of my comfort zone, really.


I have to understand better this process of being a technical writer. I don't think most people know what goes into writing these guides. How does that process look?


I don't think we even use the term technical writer anymore. It’s often content designer (or) the content developer. But we called it technical writing. What good technical writing is is that the writer truly learns the software inside and out. My process was I would learn everything I could on my own. But then I would sit down with the engineers and say, “Explain this to me,” so that I completely understood it, and only then could I write about it. If you've ever tried to explain something you don't understand, it doesn't work. But if you understand it, you can take what is complex and make it simple. This is one of the things I really learned: how can you take something infinitely complicated and make it as simple as possible. That was always my goal.


Going back to your majors, it's kind of played an interesting role in your career. Tell me a little bit about how that came about.


I lived in France and I'm really fluent in French. I think that makes you just much more adaptable to different cultures and different perspectives because you've learned to think in another language. I've worked in very international companies, working with people from different cultures whose first language is not English. So, to me, it's always about communicating clearly, trying to understand the other person.


What I loved about theater is the collaborative nature of it, and I really saw the parallels in developing software. Because software is not just the software developer, it's the designer, it's the product manager, it's the marketing people and the salespeople and those technical writers and the QA people and all of that is what makes a great product.


Minette Norman. Photo: Tom Borromeo Minette Norman. Photo: Tom Borromeo

Minette, along the way, you make this pretty radical transition from being vice president to starting to share some of the key insights that you've gained. What are some of those insights?


I have to backtrack to tell you how I got to that. I ended up taking on other leadership positions in the company. The guy who was hiring for (the VP of engineering) role said, "You know, Minette, you've got a great track record here, but you have two strikes against you." He said, "One, you were never an engineer.” And two, he said, "You're a woman. And the engineering leadership here is a boys’ club." I did not get the job right away. I was acting VP for three months, and I basically had to win the endorsements of all the engineering leaders, and they happened, at that time, to be all men.


Eventually, I did get that role and I did that role for about five years. What I was assigned to do was to transform engineering at Autodesk. I realized none of this is a technical problem. But it was a behavioral issue, it was a people issue, and it was culture. I got myself a big education through reading and being online. I also became a real advocate for women and for people of color because I was very much in the minority because engineering is so male. I often felt like I didn't fit in, like I wasn't included. I wanted to change that. When I finally left Autodesk, I realized, Autodesk is a great company, but they're struggling with this; all the companies are struggling with inclusion. I wanted to bring my perspective and my experience and help others do better around this.


Share a little bit about how you build a healthy culture both in large corporations but also in a small startup. What are some key insights that you've gained about behavior, culture, diversity, and inclusion?


Leaders really set the tone. I've seen this: So many startups are going really fast. Then later, they'll say, “Oh, look, we're all men. Now, we’ve got to hire some women.” And it's almost too late, even if you're just a handful of men. I think that whether you're large or small, starting up or a 30-year-old company, you need to be intentional, and the leaders need to set the tone of being inclusive. Leaders are not omniscient, and they need to admit what they don't know. Honestly, so much of what I think the problem is right now is that people don't know how to listen to their diverse employees. You need to hear the problems before you can even attempt the solutions. You need to be willing to be uncomfortable and to say, “I don't have all the answers, but I'm willing to listen and I'm going to make sure that this is a safe place where everyone's voice can be heard.”


You've made an incredible impact at Autodesk. You're now looking to make that impact elsewhere. How do you go about doing that?


I started my own consulting business. I've been doing a fair number of keynotes, and there's a real appetite to hear about diversity and inclusion. I'm doing the one-on-one engagements with small or large companies. I'm also giving talks because I feel like people just need to hear, and I will be honest in those talks. I'm not going to sugarcoat things and say that it's all perfect, and I'll share my own experiences as well.


Three words that you would use to describe yourself.


It’s authentic, empathetic, and enthusiastic.


Michael Matias. Photo: Courtesy Michael Matias. Photo: Courtesy

Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, while working as a software engineer at Hippo Insurance and as a Senior Associate at J-Ventures. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.


Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Amanda Katz