The slippers were pink and fluffy, the oversize kind a teenage girl might wear at a slumber party. In fact, the slippers were on the feet...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The slippers were pink and fluffy, the oversize kind a teenage girl might wear at a slumber party. In fact, the slippers were on the feet of a 15-year-old when Autodesk Chief Executive Carol Bartz admired them.

Dan Warmenhoven, Network Appliance’s chief executive, was so tickled by how much Bartz raved about his daughter’s slippers that he presented Bartz with an identical pair at a board meeting. Bartz, a Network Appliance director, exuberantly threw off her pumps and wore the slippers during the meeting.

“She’s a very fun, genuine person,” said Warmenhoven, whose family vacations with Bartz’s. “She mostly loved that they were so comfortable.”

The story reveals much about Bartz: her down-to-earth personality, her sense of humor and, more subtly, a Midwestern pragmatism that has helped establish her as a well-respected Silicon Valley executive. She’s also one of the few women CEOs of a major technology company.

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Autodesk, based in San Rafael, Calif., is the leader in computer-aided design (CAD) software, which revolutionized drafting in the 1980s by bringing it inexpensively onto a personal computer.

Products diversified

Along the way, Bartz has transformed Autodesk from a single-product firm serving architects to a company that offers an array of products at the heart of many things that are designed today, from dams to buildings to Hollywood special effects.

Now after 13 years as Autodesk chief, the biggest challenge for the 56-year-old Bartz is to find new opportunities to expand a mature, 23-year-old company. She thinks globalization may be key.

“We’re in a networked world where an architect in New York could be bidding on a dam project in China. This changes how our customers have to manage their work. They want to control their costs, [get] better productivity, more connected supply chains,” Bartz said. “This is when we shine.”

If the strategy works, it would be largely due to Bartz, say those who know her.

“She’s one of the best minds in the business,” said Warmenhoven, who recruited her 10 years ago to be on Network Appliance’s board. (Bartz also sits on the boards of Cisco Systems and BEA Systems.)

“She’s good at understanding market opportunities and developing vision. She’s very determined and pragmatic about the way she deals with everything,” Warmenhoven said.

Bartz’s longevity at Autodesk stands out in Silicon Valley, where job-hopping is common. It’s rare that a CEO who is not a founder sticks around this long, many in the valley said. Bartz says she owes it to a “patient board” and a job that keeps her challenged.

Along the way, Bartz has earned a reputation for being a hard-charging, outspoken and determined leader.

Bartz came to Silicon Valley in 1983 when a friend at Sun Microsystems recruited her away from Digital Equipment in Massachusetts.

In many ways, the Silicon Valley ethos was a perfect match for Bartz’s up-by-the-bootstraps thinking, forged from a Midwestern sensibility and a childhood of adversity.

Her mother died when she was 8, and her father eventually dropped out of her life. She and a younger brother were raised on a Wisconsin farm by her grandmother, “Gram,” from when Bartz was 12.

She was the second in her family to attend college, paying for her own education at the University of Wisconsin with loans and by working in the college cafeteria and as a cocktail waitress.

As a student, she gravitated to the sciences and excelled at math. “I always loved math and science because you could get answers,” she said. She took her first computer-science class as a sophomore and “was totally hooked.”

She came to Sun in the days when it was still a startup, and dazzled colleagues with her marketing and sales acumen. She stayed for a decade, serving as its vice president of worldwide field operations.

Bartz took the helm of Autodesk in 1992. Her first day on the job, she learned she had breast cancer. Friends say Bartz dealt with it in her typical style, head-on and very matter-of-factly. After a mastectomy, she took just a month off work, though her doctors recommended six weeks. She went in for chemotherapy once a month — and always came straight back to the office.

“Deal with it”

“I wasn’t in a situation where I thought I’d go watch the waves roll in or anything like that,” Bartz said. “It didn’t change my outlook on life. My grandmother had breast cancer, too. Her philosophy was you get up and go. If it’s an obstacle, fine, deal with it.”

It was that same determination that she brought to Autodesk. When she joined in 1992, Autodesk, which posted $285 million in revenue, was a “quirky niche company” that served mostly architects, Warmenhoven said.

Through the 1990s, Bartz expanded Autodesk’s product lines. It went from its core in architecture into manufacturing, which now accounts for 35 percent of its sales; civil engineering and mapping, which account for 20 percent of sales; and media and entertainment, which make up 15 percent.

The company posted $1.2 billion in sales in the 2005 fiscal year that ended in January, up 30 percent from fiscal 2004. Profit nearly doubled to $222 million, compared with $120 million the previous year.

Bartz sees her tenure at Autodesk as the equivalent of three lifetimes: overhauling the flagship AutoCAD software in the 1980s, expanding the product lineup in the 1990s and now, capitalizing on globalization.

The next growth area for Autodesk will be products that help businesses better manage data, taking into account a workplace where projects are worked on by a team working in various parts of the world, Bartz said.

Bartz’s success as a woman chief executive is rare in Silicon Valley. While others marvel at her longevity at Autodesk, she rails at the lack of women in top tech jobs.

“There’s all sorts of excuses,” she said. “I think very simply, CEOs and senior people are picked by boards who are still comfortable picking people that seem more like them. That happens up and down the management chain.” (Of the six top executives at Autodesk, three are women, including Bartz.)

Asked how that situation can be rectified, Bartz offers her dose of pragmatism: “We have to do it one step at a time, no swooping big changes. It’s about me being good at my job and you being good at your job, and eventually, we’ll get there.”