Leadership

Coworking with Debbie Clifford

CFO of Autodesk
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· 3 min read

Coworking is a weekly segment where we talk to CFOs and others in the finance space about their experiences, their companies, and the larger economy. Let us know if you are—or you know—a CFO we should interview.

Debbie Clifford is EVP and CFO of Autodesk, a company that produces 3D software used to design, paint and draw architectural and engineering products. Before joining Autodesk, Clifford was CFO at SurveyMonkey, where she joined shortly after their IPO and helped scale the business.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How is the CFO role changing?

My father was a CFO, and my father and I are close, but for years, I thought, “I don’t want to be a CFO, because I don’t want to be like him.”

I spent the bulk of my childhood fighting against what turns out to be a gravitational pull in my personality to become a CFO. The CFOs that I admire the most are ones that came through the financial planning and analysis track; they have the stronger experience living closer with the business.

Autodesk laid off 250 employees. I’m wondering if the finance organization was impacted, and then also what that process is like as a CFO?

We did just a nominal reduction in our workforce, and it was 2% of our workforce. And it was really a rebalancing of when we do this as a part of our normal ongoing operations, where we look and identify areas where maybe less strategic for us and reduce our headcount there and then reinvest in other areas. It didn’t impact finance; it was predominantly in our go-to-market teams, as we look to make sure that we’re toggling our investments into the areas that are going to drive the most growth.

In terms of what it’s like for a CFO, these processes are never easy, because of the human impact. Even though I started at the top of this answer by saying it only impacted 2% of our workforce, those are still real people and so they’re never easy processes. I think the key is making sure that we execute with dignity and sufficient communication.

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What advice would you have for future CFOs?

Get a breadth of experience…even if it’s lateral experience. A lot of people are always looking to get that next title and feel like securing that next title is going to be the path to success. In my experience, it’s all the lateral moves that actually gave me the most interesting experience and the most learnings on my path to CFO. The second is there’s no perfect job. So don’t wait for the perfect job. Take every job that you do, and crush it.

What’s an example of a CFO you admire?

I love Elena Gomez from Toast. I also really respect Zane Rowe from VMware. Those are the two that stand out.

And then of course, I’ve had mentors as CFO—I’ve been really fortunate to have that. Scott Herren, who was the CFO just before me at Autodesk, and then the CFO before him [Mark Hawkins]. Scott Herren is now the CFO at Cisco. Mark Hawkins was the CFO at Salesforce for many years, and now he’s recently retired, but those are the four names that come to mind quickly, and I really admire and have learned from.

What’s something we can’t tell from your LinkedIn profile?

If I could have done anything, I would have wanted to be a DJ or a chef. Music and food are my passions. I sit around on weekends, much to the chagrin of my family, and I make Spotify playlists. And every time I hang out with my friends, I’m always the one that brings the playlist to the table. When I do my all-hands [meeting], I have walk-on songs and I dance in an embarrassing way in front of my team, and it’s a big part of who I am.—KT

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CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.