Riding to the Top of the CAD World: A Profile of Elise Moss

Engineering spans a broad array of disciplines, technologies and personalities. Even though the world of engineering is expansive and much of the skillset of an engineer overlaps in different spaces, many engineers often end up in specialized—or hyper-specialized—areas of industry.

Then there are engineers like Elise Moss. She literally wrote the book on CAD… well, one of the books on CAD.

Her introduction to the world of engineering came early with a grandfather who was a civil engineer for the city of Chicago, designing their sewer system. Her father was also an engineer, but his specialty was the world of metallurgy for the aeronautics industry. He specified the metals that were used on the Apollo, Mars and Gemini missions.

“When I was a little kid, he used to take me into mission control. The historical significance was kind of lost on me then, but my dad likes to brag that I was one of the first human beings to see Mars,” Moss shares.

Obviously, engineering runs in her family, so it wasn’t a surprise that Moss decided to go into the practice herself. Initially, she considered entering the world of civil engineering, but she was concerned that the gender barriers that existed at the time would inhibit her ability to succeed. After scoring “off the charts” in spatial analysis and being able to visualize in 3D (remember, this is pre-CAD) she decided to pursue mechanical engineering.

With an engineering degree in hand, Moss got her first job designing equipment for core samplers in mining operations. This work was done on paper on big drafting boards—the old-school engineering way. While the concept of operating with CAD in the cloud was still decades away, Moss saw firsthand why that concept holds water.

“One of the first projects I worked on was designing the control panel for one of these analyzers. We designed all the software to use Imperial units, but the customer was in the UK and that  wasn’t caught until we shipped it,” Moss says. Cloud communication in CAD has revolutionized the challenge of catching such mistakes. Minor challenges like forgetting to spec a hole size before sending a drawing to a fabricator and correcting the missing measurement without having to dig through files and iterative paperwork, are much easier. “This is the kind of stuff that doesn’t really happen today, because we can quickly and easily pull a drawing up on the computer.”

In 1982, Moss recalls, salesmen started to show up looking to sell a new software called AutoCAD. “They were trying to sell AutoCAD to engineering departments, but the engineering managers didn’t even want to talk to them. The drafters didn’t want to talk to them. Back then, if you worked on a computer, you were either a secretary or an accountant.”

The stigma of doing design on a computer kept a number of departments from even considering the new tool. Moss recalls that at the time many drafters felt as though computers were beneath them. Drafters were considered technical artists who had really refined the craft of drawing and designing on paper. They assumed that computers were beneath them. They also assumed that drafting on a computer would lead to a cut in pay.

As they often are, the salesperson was relentless, and eventually found a way into the company through the finance department. After explaining how much money the organization could save by using CAD instead of cutting-and-pasting iterations and spending time revising drawings, they were sold.

While there was resistance within the engineering department, Moss—the most junior drafter—saw a potential opportunity.

“I was not particularly good at drafting. I was good at visualizing, sure, but I wasn’t good at actually drawing… I was a dirty drafter. I tended to have to erase all over, and I smudged drawings all the time. So, when they brought in AutoCAD, they said somebody in the department had to learn it. And everybody turned around and said ‘we’re not doing it. We’re not taking a demotion’ and I was like, ‘I’ll do it.’”

Eventually, Moss became the CAD manager for the company and was in charge of training everybody in the department, until the company was sold and moved to a different state. Not wanting to move, she found a new job in the ramping-up economy of Silicon Valley in the late 80’s.

In the late 90’s, Moss found herself working with Dean Villegas, who founded one of the first AutoCAD user groups in the country, SVAPU. The user group got so big that they were renting out movie theaters for meetings and events,  and these quickly morphed into user group conferences like 3D EXPERIENCE WORLD and Autodesk University. She recalls that one event in the mid-90’s was attended by over 100,000 group members.

Eventually Villegas decided to retire from the user group life and Moss took over as president until the user group shifted from a user focus and became more corporate -run, as most user groups and events are these days.

When the dot com crash rocked Silicon Valley, Moss found herself shifting to a new employment opportunity in education. As an educator, she taught AutoCAD, SOLIDWORKS and, surprisingly enough given her mechanical engineering background, Revit. Moss was so impressed by Revit software, she called some of her connections at Autodesk and recommended they buy the company—which Autodesk did.

When it came to teaching, Moss was not able to find a textbook to her liking. So, she wrote her own. As she was teaching AutoCAD, she developed the book for her students. At the time, she just used the university printing services to print her book and sell it in the bookstore for her classes. But there was an issue.

“The book was sold for whatever the cost of printing the copies. They only printed enough for my students. This was common practice. On the second day of class one semester, I ask the students if they’ve picked up their textbooks. And they tell me that the bookstore had sold out.”

She ordered enough copies from the university printer for her class but the bookstore didn’t have any more copies. Upon investigation, the bookstore manager explained that people were coming in off the street to buy her book. That’s when Moss started looking for a publisher and found SDC Publications.

To this day, the book is still published by SDC. “My book is still one of their best sellers.” A quick search for Elise Moss on Amazon finds many books under her name.

Eventually, Silicon Valley recovered and Moss went back to working with various startups and eventually as a contractor for Google. With her broad knowledge of CAD, including SOLIDWORKS, Creo, Revit and AutoCAD, she helped the Silicon Valley behemoth design data centers, combining designs that were developed in all four software programs into a cohesive, interpretable design, Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. During lockdown, Google wasn’t building data centers, so she and her husband decided to hit the road. But this was no ordinary road trip.

Veteran writer and rider, Elise Moss on Mercy (short for Mercutio) a 17-year-old Tennessee Walker.

In the early 2000’s, Moss’ publisher gifted Moss some time at a dude ranch (think City Slickers). Wanting to get more out of the ranch experience, Moss and her husband took horse riding lessons. They enjoyed the ranch so much that they got horses of their own. As you read this, they are traveling the U.S. and trail riding every state in the lower 48.

But Google wants her back, so they will be headed back to California soon so she can get started on the next project. Currently in Florida for the winter, their journey west will start when the temperature gets higher. They have seen 46 of the lower 48 states and plan to hit the last two (West Virginia and Minnesota) on the way back.

From junior drafter to CAD guru, Moss has run the gamut of the world of engineering. When asked what she found most interesting in the broad spectrum of opportunities that engineering offers, she says, “You know, I have never met an engineer who is happy with whatever he was shown.” You can always figure out a way to make it better, and as engineers, that’s what we do.”

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