Sunday, April 22, 2012

AutoCAD and Where I'm At With It Today

For some reason I get e-mails fairly often asking if I'm still "working with AutoCAD".  The answer is actually "yes", but with some qualification of the answer.  In any case, here's a brief summary of the twisted path I've taken with respect to my involvement with Autodesk products.

In short, I started out using AutoCAD, then customizing AutoCAD, then (now) deploying and maintaining AutoCAD.  Actually, replace "AutoCAD" with "Autodesk Products", because I'm dealing with Map 3D, Inventor, Civil 3D, Raster Design, Maya, 3DS Max, and more.

Strap yourself in, drink plenty of coffee, because this is going to be one of THE most incredibly boring stories you will ever read.  Don't say I didn't warn you...

The 1980's

I started around 1984 as a draftsman (now called, more politically-correct: a drafter or draftsperson), at a Naval Engineering and Design firm working on contracts involving overhaul/retrofit of U.S. Navy ships.  At that time, I was working with plastic media on Mylar film.  Occassionally with pencil or Rapid-o-graph ink on Sepia, Vellum or blue-line paper. I used to run my own blue-line prints too.  All the good stuff: a parallel bar (aka "drafting machine) with cable guides, tri-scale bar, French curve templates, flexible guides, various templates, erasers, erasing fluid, coffee, junk food, and the ubiquitous Sony (cassette tape) Walkman blasting some horrifically bad 1980's music at dangerously high volume directly into my ears.  Those were good times.

Somewhere around 1985 I was introduced to a mainframe piece of shit CAD system named AutoTroll.  I thought it sounded like a robotic creature that lived under a bridge.  I've said many times before that those days were filled with overpriced, under-powered crap products that today's AutoCAD can easily out-perform at 1/100th the price tag.

As the 1980's progressed (or degressed, depending on how you view it), we expanded into more types of design work: oil drill rigs, special-purpose nautical equipment, land-based facilities (buildings), and so on.  The work followed the economy and what was going on around the world at the time.

The 1990's, part 1

After moving to my third job in the field of Naval Engineering and Design (ok, most of those firms preferred "Naval Architecture, Engineering and Design" but I ran out of breath before getting through that), I was put through training, and began using Intergraph VDS (along with EMS, PDU/PDM) where I developed 3D models of U.S. Naval ship portions.  We never modeled an entire ship because it wasn't what we were contracted for.  Our role was overhaul/retrofit of spaces, systems, and components.  The hull form modeling was left for other companies at that time.  I moved from Intergraph to Microstation, to AutoCAD R10.  R10 was the first version I worked on.

At this point, the U.S. Navy would only allow AutoCAD to be used for "non-design" work.  Sounds confusing, doesn't it?  What that meant, was that the title sheet, bill of material, notes, and references, could be handled with AutoCAD, while the "detail design" of systems, spaces and components had to be done with one of our ever-growing arsenal of UNIX-based CAD garbage.  It was painful and frustrating. We requested over and over that the Navy reconsider, but they were adamant (and slow).

The 1990's, part 2

Soon after the Navy approved the use of AutoCAD for general systems design, we dove into with both feet and pretty much left the UNIX design tools behind for good.  We still maintained some content with them, but we migrated/translated content to AutoCAD on every opportunity we got.  It was a good move.

My employer hired a fairly-sharp MIT graduate to develop custom extensions for AutoCAD to help automate the design process for each major discipline, which back then meant: Piping, HVAC, Electrical, Electronic, Hull Design, Hull Outfitting, and Scientific/Engineering.  My area was in both Piping and HVAC systems and component design.  However, we had a fairly good rotation program, so I got to work for a period of time in each of the other departments and learned about their worlds quite a lot.  I'm sure the grammar and syntax in that previous sentence is somehow wrong, but whatever.

So, this MIT guru was a major player in the world of LISP and C++ so they dangled a big paycheck in his face and he went to work.  The results were incredible, BUT... he was contracted out of our San Francisco office, who only worked on Chevron contracts at that time. So all of his automation tools were built for that, rather than U.S. Navy ships.  That made for some frustrating work.  Our East coast teams requested features for our type of work, but we were rebuffed and ignored.  That led me to pick up a book and learn AutoLISP and DIESEL/MNU programming on my own.  I stayed late after work every night and practiced and tinkered.  Soon I began to review the MIT guy's code and make small changes to suit our needs.  That led to making more changes, and eventually just making my own set of automation tools.

Once my supervisor saw what I was doing, he asked me to push faster and get some tools ready for our department to start using.  Once I got that going, other departments asked me to do the same for their design needs.  It grew from there.  I was with that employer for about ten years.

The 1990's, part 3

A job opened up at a large defense contractor in the area (no names) looking for someone to lead the effort to implement their first "AutoCAD design environment".  I jumped at the chance and was soon involved with implementing it on their first Windows NT 3.51 LAN as well (they were on WFWG and Novell to this point, aside from the dozens of UNIX LAN's scattered around).  That meant I was put through training courses on Windows NT, and various Microsoft technologies.  Soon after, I was moved into the double-role of Windows LAN Administrator and AutoCAD Administrator for a user base of around 3,000 (that one location had over 18,000 employees, 9,000 of which were daily computer users, so I dealt with roughly a third of them).

One of the major tasks I was handed was to recreate the design automation tool development results from my previous job.  This was much bigger scale and required a more serious approach to handle the complexity of the environment, the more rigorous expectations, more focus on performance and stability, and dealing with a tiered security access control environment as well.  That meant building tools so that certain people could access higher-level features than others based on their designated role in the organization.  It was a very interesting time for me.

This was also when I began my college education in Information Science.  So I was getting a brain-full of new ideas from school and work at the same time.  My head somehow didn't explode.  Oh yeah, I was also dabbling with Cold Fusion CFML and web site development.  Fun times.

The early 2000's

After I graduated college, I left for yet another new job.  This time however, my balance of customization versus administration was shifted from roughly 70/30 to around 50/50.  I had picked up skills in Microsoft SMS 2.0 while at the previous job, and SMS 2003 was in early development at the time (I was working on the beta program by invite from a close friend, very lucky indeed).  My emphasis was at first on rebuilding a newer generation of design automation tools, but once that was done and in production, I shifted my focus towards deployment and administration.  I was also pegged to lead our company-wide migration from Windows NT 4.0 to Windows Server 2003 and Active Directory.

That meant more training, more lab time, and more use of VMware than I ever expected.  The migration went very well and I began wearing a Microsoft hat more than an Autodesk hat.  The hours I spent with Visual LISP, VLIDE, menu editing, customizing profiles, building deployments and dealing with license servers, were fading.  My new goodies were then Active Directory, Group Policy, SUS, then WUS, then WSUS, SMS 2003, then Configuration Manager 2007, VBscript, Javascript, WMI, ADSI, LDAP, COM and so on.  I also began working more with ASP web development and SQL Server backend data management.  This soup of stuff began to intertwine and soon I was building web apps that interfaced with all of these things to help manage and see what was going on throughout the environment.

All of this ramped up more when we were hit over the head with SOX compliance, and ISO certification.

As for my involvement with Autodesk products:  From 2000-2003 I was still heavily involved with customization.  I had joined ADN with a team of four others, and acted as our ADN administrator.  We went to a lot of Autodesk University conferences and we had a lot of fun.

From 2004-2006, I was building deployments, creating custom menus and profiles, dealing with FLEXlm license services, lots of phone calls with Autodesk involving technical support or licensing or contracts and purchases.  I had shifted the role of ADN lead and development lead, over to one of my team members.  He took off with it and pushed into .NET development with ObjectARX and it was awesome to see the baton passed to such an eager group who ran with it in the right direction.

I worked with Autodesk products from version 2000 and 2000i (remember that?), through 2007.

In 2007, our company was sold and split and I left for a small consulting firm.  That didn't last long, as the economy went off a cliff and they closed our fledgling office in early 2008.

After getting laid-off, I went back to the big defense contractor I worked for in the 1990's.  This time it was all about packaging and deployment of applications in general.  I shared Autodesk product duties with my buddy Dave (another Dave), but we also dealt with dozens of products from other vendors.  Our team of 14 supported over a thousand products for the organization.  It was a busy place indeed.

I left that job for another consulting firm in 2010, focusing on Microsoft platform technologies. I now had my MCITP 2008 certification and was finally diving into that world head-first.  I still bring my development skills and bag of tricks along because it always comes in handy.  I still believe that a developer in the systems engineering world has a leg up.

Late 2000's and Today

From 2008-2010:

  • Building and customizing  Autodesk  network deployments (v. 2008 through 2010)
  • Implementing and managing FLEXlm and FlexNet Manager services and reports
  • VBscript, KiXtart, CMD scripting
  • Packaging applications with Wise Package Studio and Wise Script for Altiris deployments
  • Building web applications to track and report applications inventory and licensing
  • I wrote a book or two for Amazon Kindle
  • I joined Facebook in late 2006
  • I started this blog early 2007, killed it and started it back up again
From 2010-Today:
  • Building and customizing Autodesk network deployments (v. 2010 through 2013)
  • Deploying "deployments" with System Center Configuration Manager
  • Packaging applications with InstallShield and AdminStudio
  • VBscript, PowerShell, CMD script development
  • Working with MDT 2010, WSUS, Group Policy
  • Building web applications to track and report all sorts of things
  • I wrote a few more books for Amazon Kindle
  • In early 2012 I tried to retire from this blog, but that didn't last
So, there it is.  My story, or at least part of it.  The tedious and excruciatingly boring part.  I hope it helped you get to sleep.  Cheers!



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