Baby-boomer in the boardroom: Carol Bartz is the most successful woman in the American PC software industry. Phil Reeves talked to her in San Francisco

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The Independent Online
THROUGH glass ceilings and serious illness, Carol Bartz is at the top. At 44, she is chief executive of Autodesk, one of America's foremost software companies, a front-runner in the baby-boomers' move from middle management to boardroom.

As the most powerful woman in her industry, she has caught the eye of President Bill Clinton. Invited to his pre-inauguration think-in, she captured the headlines with some characteristically blunt words. 'I applaud the fact-finding you are doing,' she told Mr Clinton. 'I do that in my own business, but then I get on with it. If I don't get on with it, I'd be out of business. And so, so much for consensus. You are a very smart man. Get on with making decisions as fast and quickly as you can.'

Getting on with it is Ms Bartz's style. For nearly a decade she spearheaded sales and marketing at Sun Microsystems, the world's top manufacturer of computer work stations.

She moved nine months ago to Autodesk, a company with a peculiar reputation. It was known in Silicon Valley as a 'theocracy of hackers', a cluster of brilliant programmers who wanted to be left to pursue their interests without management meddling. Decisions were often reached only after lengthy employee debates; personnel managers were regarded as spies; workers were allowed to bring their cats and dogs to work (one has a boa constrictor). There was, Ms Bartz said, a 'blatant lack of infrastructure'.

This counterculture evolved during Autodesk's astronomical growth, driven by the success of its core product - AutoCad, computer-aided design software used by architects and engineers. After it was set up 10 years ago, profits grew by an average of 40 per cent a year.

But the pace began to flag. Net income in the last fiscal year went up by only 2 per cent to dollars 57.8m. It was time for a change. As Jim Warren, the head of the board that chose Ms Bartz, was later heard to comment, business couldn't be done in the 'dope-smoking acid-eating style that is common for Silicon Valley start-ups'.

Ms Bartz did not make a happy beginning. On her second day in her new job, just before she was about to hold her first board meeting, her doctor called to tell her she had breast cancer.

'It was not good timing,' she said. 'What I did was spend an appropriate amount of time understanding what my situation was all about and figuring out pretty quickly it wasn't a life-or-death situation. It was, as I call it, an ill-timed inconvenience of the grandest proportions.'

Anxious to get on with the job, she asked for surgery to be postponed, and for five difficult weeks remained silent about her illness for fear of creating panic among investors. She finally broke the news to a employees at a company convention.

The following morning, she checked into hospital for a radical mastectomy. Her doctors advised spending six weeks recuperating. She was at her desk in four, having already worked from her hospital bed.

One of her first moves was to introduce a management hierarchy, including five new vice-presidents. She also sold two businesses and began pushing Autodesk towards new products and larger markets, including software for computer-aided manufacturing and virtual reality. She wants to treble Autodesk's size to make it a dollars 1bn turnover company within seven years. It was a big shake-up (although the pets were allowed to stay) but the shares are glowing, having doubled since hitting a low of dollars 23.25 a year ago.

But Ms Bartz has her critics. There have been rumblings from programmers who resent the arrival of top- down management. Others have complained that they should decide the contents of new products.

Ms Bartz has countered with a series of informal lunches with her 1,500 employees in which they are invited to air their grievances over sandwiches. 'I was surprised by the degree of passion which had built up over the years,' she said.

But she makes no apology for her style. 'I don't micro-manage people, but it becomes very clear to me when there is an area which needs extra help, and then I am in there like, as they say, you know . . . (whispering) a fly on shit.'

Although the software industry is more open than many to the advancement of women, her candour has no doubt helped her rise to power, which has not been without obstacles. She recalls many incidents in which she was told by men to do tasks - clear desks, fetch coffee - that they would never have considered asking of a male colleague. The thought that several of these men now work for her causes loud laughter.

One incident stands out. After rejecting her for promotion to marketing manager while still in her twenties, her superiors were perfectly frank. Yes, she was the best qualified but, no, she couldn't have it because 'women don't get those jobs'. Ms Bartz quit on the spot.

'I don't know whether it's hitting mid-forties, or having a four-year-old daughter, but it has become more clear to me in the last couple of years that I have a bigger responsibility in this area,' she said. Men won't be discriminated against, but she is committed to ensuring that women are never overlooked on gender grounds.

She was one of only two women at the University of Wisconsin in her year who read computer science. But while she says she did go on demonstrations, she had other priorities.

'Where I went off-track was that I was already way into the idea that I was going to have a good job and make a lot of money. I was in computer science. I loved it. I wasn't screwing around back then. I had my head down and was going for it. I had been on-track a long time to becoming a very successful capitalist.'

In the past 25 years, her views appear to have changed very little.