Autodesk CEO Carl Bass: “I’ve been batshit about Trump for a year... he’s acting somewhere between a dictator and a small business owner”
“You are talking to the wrong CEOs. There are plenty of CEOs who have been going batshit crazy for months over Trump.”
That was from an email I got last Monday from, Carl Bass, a tech CEO who has been going batshit crazy for months over Trump.
His note was in reaction to pressure Pando has been applying to members of the tech world to back up all their words-- whether being pro-immigrant, or feminist, or pro-science with actions of taking a stance against Trump. By the way, a lot of that has had some impact, as has employee pressure in the last week.
As he put it: “I have talked with many execs and while some are chicken shit and some are indifferent, many don't know what the best response is to the current craziness.”
We’ve seen CEOs rapidly adjusting in the last week. From “hey, it’s OK to meet with Trump if everyone else is, right?” to dead silence on major issues to tepid condemnation to donations to finally some actions, like last night’s Amicus Brief signed by almost 100 tech companies including Twitter, Google, Facebook -- but, interestingly, not Tesla.
What we are seeing is a Silicon Valley that only started to get political under Barack Obama struggle in real time to either TAKE IT BACK! and stop being political or…. Well, wonder how the fuck tech became the industry that had to take a stand.
Bass is the CEO of Autodesk, which makes the kind of CAD software that could, say, build a wall in between here and Mexico. The company is worth some $18 billion. But it isn’t a glitzy consumer brand, nor is it a $100 billion plus giant.
So the question for CEOs like Bass who run huge companies but aren’t strong-armed into being on executive committee is… what are they supposed to do if they object to the regime?
I hopped on the phone with Bass last week to discuss his point of view as a CEO who is speaking out, and what he sees around him him the tech space. The most interesting take away for me was how much reality is shifted underneath the feet of tech CEOs who mostly don’t care about politics and are now under extreme pressure to take a stand.
He started out by describing how CEOs like him used to handle politicians-- days he never thought he’d be nostalgic for. What’s interesting is how the playbook with the amicus brief seems to shifting to how tech handled politics in the past: In a gang, so small voices could be amplified and loud voices wouldn’t get singled out.
I’ve known Bass for a while, and I am used to his outspoken nature. But even I couldn’t believe he said some of this on the record.
Here we go...
Carl Bass: Up until Trump, Autodesk was like every other place that said everyone can have whatever political opinion they want and we all can talk about it relatively discretely. Occasionally we would weigh in on public policy when it came to things like H1B visas or tax credits, but those things were so milquetoast.
Lobbying was primarily around issues that affected the software industry. We generally did it collectively.
One thing that people don’t understand about these lobby trade groups is why we want to all do it together. The smaller companies don’t have a big enough voice, and the big companies don’t want to be singled out and companies like us are in the middle. That’s the reason we always did it together before.
It was incredibly low key and a lot of it was very industry specific. We would go to Washington and lobby about something like anti-piracy being part of the trade agreement with China. My personal experience was that it was the most frustrating days of my job, because you felt like stuff never got done. All you were trying to do was get them to understand a little bit about something.
Most of the time you get told all these reasons things won’t happen. Each year we go and talk about H1B visas and finally someone took me aside and said “Look, this is how it works. You aren’t going to get anything done on immigration because the Hispanic Caucus has tied it to low skilled immigration and nothing is going to move forward.” That is how the sausage is made there.
I remember looking at Rahm Emanuel who was looking at ten CEOs, and he was saying, “Tell me the one thing you want and how much money you are going to give us.” It was like being held up at gunpoint.
And then there were losers like Harry Reid, who sat there with CEOs and read us a bunch of pages out of a Dr. Seuss book. It was a filibuster of the worse kind. We are all looking at each other like, “I must be high, or I’d like to be high.”
Sarah Lacy: Why did he do that?
CB: Something in there was some kind of parable or lesson, but we were too literal and stupid to understand what he was talking about. He had some point, I have no idea what it is to this day.
But that’s always been my interaction. They were mostly low key interactions. I’ve met with Obama, and Joe Biden and a lot of senators and congressmen, and a bunch of them were incredibly ill-informed about most of the issues.
We used to pick who was going to do the most talking in each meeting and I was leading the conversation in one meeting about repatriating money. I still remember I was sitting across from this congressman from Texas and at some point, he puts his boots up on the desk in my face and says, “Son, so you are telling me that when your money is overseas, it’s not in US banks?”
I said, “No, our money is in Switzerland or Singapore, and they both have really good banks.”
“So that’s not an American bank that money is in?”
He had no idea how any of it worked. It was incredibly depressing, but on the other hand it was fairly innocuous. Mostly, you were dealing with staffers who were there for the longer term and were more reasonable. But this is how we approached this before.
SL: So, how does that change after Trump? How have you handled this to date?
CB: Personally, I’ve been batshit about it for a year. And I’ve been worried since before that that he could actually get elected. I didn’t say much. Watching one of the debates, I Tweeted something like “I can’t believe the biggest nation on earth is about to elect the biggest asshole.”
I watched the election from Portugal, and I wrote an email to my employees on the plane ride home. If you really look at it honestly, there are plenty of policy issues that even reasonable people could disagree on when it comes to tax reform, infrastructure, things to have a point of view on and reasonable people could definitely disagree on. The thing I’ve been the most concerned about is more about the temperament and demeanor and lack of intellectual curiosity.
It appears like he’s acting somewhere between a dictator and a small business owner. In that venn diagram, you surround yourself with people telling you what you want to hear, you have no structure, you are surrounded by family, you have no checks and balances, no regard for the institution-- you are the institution
My concern is all on the personality side, the kookiness of the way he’s operating, and the people he has surrounded himself with. Imagine we had a left-wing President, and he decided to appoint Arianna Huffington as the person to preside over the National Security Council. I’m sure she’s a wonderful person, but that idea is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. That’s what Trump is doing with Bannon. He is just so ill-suited for this role.
The other part that has actually concerned me about this is there doesn’t seem to be a sense that he has a real agenda he wants to advance… it’s more like a seven year old that wants attention.
What do you say or do to someone who is going to have a tantrum about whether a crowd size was bigger? That’s a very hard thing to respond to.
This idea that you can have alternative facts, and objective reality doesn’t matter is really disturbing. And the whole whether to take him “literally or seriously?” Generally that’s not such a hard thing we have to distinguish about someone.
OK, I get we can all rail against this shit, and I wrote that email giving you a hard time because the question is what do we do? What do you actually want CEOs to do?
SL: Well, it’s different for every company. There are actions that may make us feel better but not have impact and actions that people don’t want to undertake that could have a huge impact.
CB: We are talking about a guy who likes belittling people. He really is a bully. Look, everyone I talk to, the tech guys, who went to that first meeting, well, you saw what they looked like. They didn’t want to be there. And the people I talked to kinda said that. “I feel like I gotta do it.” I think the argument is it’s hard. The problem is with this guy in particular.
When I wrote my emails to our employees that did make me feel better in the sense that 1,000 people wrote back to me with moving stories about how personal this is for them, and what I was surprised by after both emails was the number of people the number of employees of an American tech company that feel vulnerable.
Can I take an assignment in the US? Am I going to be treated right? The handful saying “My family is questioning why I would work for an American company.” There’s another side to the fiduciary responsibility thing. In a business like ours where the majority of our employees are outside the US, a bunch of stuff like this is not good for our business in any way.
Every one of these people can take a personal stand-- especially a guy like Elon that is not born here-- in the way Sergey Brin has, saying I’m standing with the other guys because it’s important.
I underestimated how many people I’m involved with every day weren’t born in the US or have family in the US or children not born in the US. It’s staggering. It’s definitely a coastal phenomenon, but that’s the people I interact with. I think there is a way they could do it. You could say “People like me would not be here.”
They are hurting their own reputations by not doing it ,and people are pointing that out.
Some CEOs are chicken shit and there is a lot of cowardice out there. But what do you want them to do?
Because the other side is you turn yourself into a target for no good reason.
The place where I thought your criticism was fair was on Sheryl Sandberg. Most COOs aren’t known for their day jobs. We didn’t know Tim Cook before he became CEO. Once you decide to become known for something as she did, you have a responsibility to speak out.
The hardest one is Tim Cook. He is incredibly vulnerable because the question is so literal. Are you going to make these in the US? No one understands where Facebook’s servers are, but the question of “Where do you make these iPhones?” is something Trump can turn into something. Also [Cook] doesn’t seem like a guy overly comfortable in public. For him, you have to go. It’s complicated.
Most of these guys have been relatively indifferent to politics. It’s just not their thing. I’m surprised at the people in this industry who I talk to who just don’t think about it very much. I understand the people who are really in a hole.
But when is the right time to strike?
The thing is a lot of what Trump is doing isn’t republican. We can build anything for any amount of money, and we don’t have to look for the money? Telling Carrier where to put its plant or telling Apple where to make iPhones? That’s the exact opposite of free market capitalism that mainstream republicans have been advocating for decades.
Can you imagine if Obama had told companies where to make things? They would have been going nuts.
The trade stuff is dividing people into winners and losers that aren’t quite clear. Every company that has a product is in this together all the sudden. You have companies like Apple and HP and Caterpillar all going, “What are we going to do on this? It’s a 30% price increase on our customers.” It is bringing people together in unusual ways.
At the HP board meeting the other day, we were talking about how the tax thing could send them billions back but everyday prices are going to go up, is this all good or bad?
You look at companies with that kind of scale, and they want to have the ability to plan. With a guy who is kooky and unpredictable, that is the antithesis of what companies want. Imagine scrambling to redo things under a new tax regime. That is going to be a crazy waste of money for no good.
The problem is you don’t have a guy who believes in something firmly; he’s just playing to the crowd.
What I don’t quite understand is the one thing he seems really good at doing is putting every attack against him into fodder for his supporters. Every time the New York Times says something bad about him, that’s good for his brand.
Have you seen this Trump Regrets Twitter feed? Part of it is taking a little bit of pleasure, but there is also this incredibly sadness when you read these things. He has telegraphed every single one of these things he’s done.
SL: These were campaign promises!
CB: People are concerned and want to do something, Ok so what do you do? If you are running a few hundred person startup, what can we do? I don’t know. What can any of us do? For me, that’s the struggle. People would do more if they knew what “more” amounted to.
The biggest response tech can muster is giving $1 million to the ACLU? That doesn’t feel that meaningful to me. I do think you pointing out that the troops are mobilized about this, that the employees in tech feel very strongly is an important point. But despite all these people feeling mobilized it’s like, “OK, what more should I do?”
What would you like to see us do that we aren’t doing?
It maybe time for people to get together and have this conversation, the one that is happening one-on-one now.
Right now, I haven’t seen a response that works. You have a man who has this sensitivity to be adored, but seems to have this filter to believe that he is. It’s a combination of he wants you to adore him, but he also wants to stick a finger in your eye. It’s the most unusual politics I’ve ever seen.
I thought Paul’s thing was interesting about Twitter [banning Trump’s personal account]. They are selling weapons to the enemy. That one might hit the mark for me. You jump over to Google and it’s a little harder. On the Facebook stuff, the whole thing about Fake News is a harder issue to parse because everyone has their own point of view.
The trick is to find the CEOs who can have a real impact, and if Dorsey actually does that, that would be something to rally behind.
My only hope is, we’re only ten days into this. I’m just hoping as we get into two to three months of it, enough takes shape that you can actually shoot at it. Because right now, it does feel a little bit like shadow boxing.
Maybe it’ll start to take shape or maybe they’ll just keep running it like a dictatorship. We are all struggling to figure out what to do. Sometimes those excuses are lame things to say, because they don’t know what to say. “Fiduciary duty” is the thing you say when you’ve run out of other excuses.