Erin Bradner of Autodesk: Why as a society, we need to rethink our concepts of intelligence, competence, power, equity and opportunity

Penny Bauder
Authority Magazine
Published in
8 min readJul 24, 2020


As a society, we need to rethink our concepts of intelligence, competence, power, equity and opportunity. To be clear, I am not giving bias, or worse — sexism and racism — a pass by equating it to pattern recognition. I’m saying we need to actively seek, and create opportunities for all if we are to progress as a society.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Bradner.

Erin is the Director of Autodesk Inc.’s Robotics Lab. She and her research team are making robots smarter. She’s giving them ways to sense and adapt to new information in real-time. Under Erin’s leadership, Autodesk’s Robotics Lab is using of artificial intelligence and closed-loop control to teach robots new tasks.

In her past lives, Erin consulted on the first commercial intelligent agents and cloud storage systems; she contracted at IBM, Boeing, and AT&T. Erin is a co-author on patents in advanced design and she works in San Francisco, California.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Erin! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I remember the exact lecture in college when I learned that airplane crashes and nuclear meltdowns were inevitable. I was convinced that my professor was sensationalizing when he classified a litany of tragic accidents as simply a normal consequence of complex interfaces to complex machines. My professor called them Normal Accidents. I was horrified to learn how easily contradicting cockpit instruments could kill hundreds of people. I believed that I could do better. I studied cognitive science and received my PhD in information and computer science. And I’m still fighting the fight. I’m doing everything I can to make sure the hulking, complex industrial robots like the ones in our research lab are simple to understand and safe to use.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

My current company, Autodesk, makes software for architects, engineers, and animators to design and make the world around us. One day I got a phone call from a colleague who invited me to meet him in the parking lot. He was visiting with Buzz Aldrin. They were taking turns riding a hoverboard. And this wasn’t a toy hoverboard on wheels. It was the real deal — a hoverboard that operated on magnetic levitation. Scaled up, this technology could potentially stabilize a skyscraper during an earthquake. Riding the hoverboard felt like flying. I still can’t decide what was more amazing about that day: meeting a man who walked on the moon or levitating on a hoverboard.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Like millions of people around the world, I was deeply saddened when I watched live video of Notre Dame Cathedral burning last year. Since then, I was comforted to learn that architects and engineers used Autodesk tools to create digital models of the cathedral as it was before the fire. This Building Information Modeling software, when combined with laser scanning and planning tools, can create, recreate and preserve important buildings. Autodesk has a charitable foundation that’s fueling innovation in sustainable design. But in addition, Autodesk stands out because our software helps people to interactively explore the positive and not-so-positive impacts their design decisions might have on costs and the environment. They can peer into the future to see how their designs are assembled, how they might potentially be disassembled (or destroyed, in the case of Notre Dame), and how their designs might be repurposed.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Our research in machine-learned robot control is really exciting because it’s the first known application of AI for architectural-scale assembly using industrial robots in construction. The research team taught industrial robots to build timber structures. Industrial robots are the kind of robots you typically see on factory floors. Our robotics researchers also helped robotically assemble a steel footbridge measuring 80 feet. I’m excited about this and the many other projects we’re developing that make people safer and more productive by using robots in factories and on construction sites.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, I’m not happy with the status quo. To change that, we must see more women in leadership positions in STEM-related companies and academia. I want to see more ethnic and racial diversity, as well. Only 25% of science and engineering professionals are women. Some blame a ‘leaky pipeline’. But if we simply consider the relative numbers, women in STEM professions are less visible than men because there are far fewer of us. Inspiring role models — both male and female — give us all a sense of what’s possible. Their achievements motivate us, and their failures make us wary. Fewer female leaders in the world around us decreases the probability that young women and girls will find role models they relate to.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

The instantaneous, implicit biases that all underrepresented people face in an interview or in a conference room are neurologically similar. Stereotype bias is instantly, subconsciously activated anytime we see or hear something that we believe fits a pattern. Of course, we can consciously process incoming information to bypass bias, but that requires awareness of the hardwired patterns that our upbringing and society have shaped. What needs to change are the cultural foundations that create these patterns in the first place. As a society, we need to rethink our concepts of intelligence, competence, power, equity and opportunity. To be clear, I am not giving bias, or worse — sexism and racism — a pass by equating it to pattern recognition. I’m saying we need to actively seek, and create opportunities for all if we are to progress as a society.

What are your “Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Exploit your talents. Mitigate your weakness but play to your strengths.
  2. Be authentic. Acting is exhausting. It’s an unnecessary drain on your resources.
  3. Assess and execute. Good ideas are abundant. Practice quickly assessing the viability of ideas and get great at executing only on the ideas that check the right boxes. Experience will teach you which are the boxes you, the leader, need checked.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Organizations need to be carefully designed to be effective. If organizational design is not your strength, find someone who is great at it and bring them in to consult. Consulting with experts may seem obvious, but it’s all too common for leaders to try to muscle through their weaknesses, rather than actively mitigating for them by tapping the talents of their network.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m outcome driven. I have a compulsion to shape messy piles of ideas into actionable strategy. I’ve been fortunate to have a series of great managers at Autodesk — all of them happen to have been male. They’ve helped me identify my compulsion for organizing ideas as one of my innate strengths. Synthesizing ideas comes naturally to me. Several years ago, one of my managers invited me to a meeting at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena; he needed someone to cut through a fog of potential research projects. This was a windowless office filled with rocket scientists, next to the cleanroom where white-suited workers were assembling the next Mars rover. I felt like I was truly in my element. I helped focus the great thinking in that room into what ultimately resulted in a first-of-a-kind, ultra-lightweight moon lander. My takeaway here is to look for mentors who help you understand your strengths, and who give you enough game time to hone your craft.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I recently joined the board of directors of an organization called Build Change. Build Change is a non-profit committed to reducing loss of life from building collapses due to earthquakes and extreme weather. They focus on building, or rebuilding, resilient houses and schools in emerging nations. I’d like to think that I’m bringing goodness into the world by helping the talented team at Build Change use new tech to scale their operation. A year before the Covid-19 pandemic, Elizabeth Hausler, the founder of Build Change equated the millions of lives threatened by what’s referred to as “informal housing” to a global epidemic. An example of this is cinder block homes with insufficient structural reinforcement. Today, as I work from home during the fifth month of lockdown, I’m even more convinced how achievable it is to “inoculate” against the catastrophic failure of millions of informal, structurally unsound homes and schools around the world. Technology ‘vaccines’ to unsafe housing are available. Build Change has designed a very effective one. A global sense of urgency to fund and distribute the solution is what’s lacking.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

My movement might be to jettison the myth of the heroic, lone wolf who saves the world with one big brilliant idea. I want to convince young leaders that it’s OK to start small. The aspiration to bring the most amount of good to the greatest number of people is important, but all that quantification is really about scaling. Focus first on shaping and reshaping your idea, while it’s still malleable. Collaborate to prove that your core concept is sound, then focus on scaling the idea. Perhaps my thinking here is more akin to myth busting than a new movement. I fundamentally believe that the fear of falling short of fomenting a worldwide revolution out of the gate prevents many talented young leaders from giving themselves time to germinate their best ideas.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The key to human development is building on who you already are.” Tom Rath, Strengths Finder

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

It would be an incredible honor to meet the chancellor of MIT, Cynthia Barnhart. I’m curious if she draws on the systems thinking she learned as a civil engineer in her current role as history’s first female Chancellor of MIT.



Penny Bauder
Authority Magazine

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts