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A journey from high school to NASA to digital-manufacturing leadership

Feb. 9, 2022
“You can add onto work experience with book smarts, but don’t discount skills.”

Autodesk's Sean Manzanares

By Ann Marsh for MxD

The story of Sean Manzanares’ fortuitous, unforeseen journey to a career in digital manufacturing begins with his father.

My father was a blue-collar worker before rising to management, says Manzanares, a global business and industry strategy leader for Autodesk.

The elder Manzanares, a 55-year member of his local pipefitters’ union in Denver, helped build nuclear plants around the country. It was the kind of tough, high-security work, mostly conducted outdoors, that made an indelible impression on his son.

“He never said explicitly, ‘I want you to be a pipefitter,’” says Manzanares, who has a salt-and-pepper beard and an infectiously sunny smile. “But you look around and think, ‘This is my path.’”

So, naturally, when given the chance as a high school sophomore, Manzanares picked up the triangle and pencils and began to learn drafting, a core skill for any pipefitter.

That was 1981. The next year—right around the time his future employer, Autodesk, would launch its flagship product AutoCAD—he got a novel opportunity. 

After morning high school classes, he began commuting from his hometown of Broomfield to take one of the world’s first computer-aided design courses at Boulder Valley Area Vocational Technical Center (now Boulder Technical Education Center), on a new mainframe computer purchased with a government grant.

“CAD was just getting started,” Manzanares recalls. “I loved drafting and, if I could do this indoors—because my dad worked outdoors—I thought this was a much better path for my future.”

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From the get-go, the lure of a four-year college degree couldn’t compete with opportunities in the marketplace.

“I graduated on a Saturday,” Manzanares says, “and on Monday started working at Ball Aerospace doing computer-aided design work. I determined there was no need for me to go to college, if you were to class success in terms of money earned. Immediately the momentum started.”

Family pressure did persuade Manzanares to bag an associate’s degree in applied science and machine-drafting technology by taking night classes while at Ball. He thought about sticking around longer for the bachelor’s degree his dad wanted him to get, but the classroom couldn’t hold him.

By the time Manzanares was 23, he says, his father was “shocked at how much money I was making.”

Manzanares’ newly minted vocational skills fed a yawning need in a fast-burgeoning industry, which could not find enough qualified people fast enough.

More satisfying still, he says, “I was doing what I liked.”

From Ball, Manzanares went to work for a variety of companies doing mechanical design. In 1992, just over a decade after his first high school drafting class, he received a call from the government.

“They wanted me to go to work for NASA in Houston. Here is this non-degreed person [and] I was hanging out with astronauts,” Manzanzares says, still a bit wide-eyed at the recollection.

For the space program, he helped design structures for use at its Weightless Environment Training Facility, which enabled astronauts to operate underwater to simulate movements when working outside of their spacecraft.

“We would drop the structure into this pool where astronauts would practice working on it in a weightless environment,” he says. “The whole NASA experience was huge fun and a catalyst for my career in digital manufacturing. More importantly, I could not have got there without my vo-tech training.”

Manzanares eventually burned out on the intensity of the NASA job and went to work for Unigraphics in California, now part of Siemens, and then moved to Boston in 1996 to work for the startup SolidWorks, which was acquired by Dassault Systèmes.

Months after moving east, the company asked him to move a bit farther: to Singapore to oversee a 13-country region. The opportunity proved irresistible, if a bit challenging given that he had just met another SolidWorks employee who would become his wife.

This two-year stint opened up a new jet-setting phase of Manzanares’ career and personal life. He and his future wife met up in Bali, Thailand, and Paris while courting.  

Looking back, he realizes, none of it would have happened if he hadn’t taken that first drafting class in high school and then deepened his abilities with practical training.

Today, his twin 19-year-old daughters are sophomores in college, pursuing four-year degrees. While academics are (of course) worthwhile, Manzanares notes that Autodesk still promotes employees to positions of greater responsibility as long as they possess the right degrees or the “relevant experience.”

The latter is something Manzanares has never lacked.

“You can add onto work experience with book smarts,” Manzanares says, but “don’t discount skills.”

MxD is partnering with Drexel University in developing The Drexel Digital Design and Advanced Manufacturing Program, launching in Spring 2022. As part of curriculum development, MxD invites anyone interested to participate in a survey to collect data on awareness of digital manufacturing concepts and processes.