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‘Don’t be afraid of breaking the business model’

Adobe's Cynthia Stoddard on the changing role of the CIO during a pandemic.

Adobe's Cynthia Stoddard

Adobe's Cynthia Stoddard thinks businesses have realized change can happen a lot faster than it did in the past.

Photo: Courtesy of Adobe

Driving through the California wildfires of 2019, Adobe CIO Cynthia Stoddard realized the company needed to look at its disaster planning more urgently. It's the same reason that so many tech companies happened to have stockpiles of N95 sitting around to donate to health care workers. But little did any of them expect to be putting these disaster plans in place this year over a global pandemic.

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Over the course of 12 weeks, Adobe has shifted entirely to remote work, and as of yet, isn't looking to go back to the office, Stoddard told Protocol. She's leading efforts within the company to expand upon ways to interact and collaborate more effectively — understanding, as Stoddard says, that COVID-19's impact on businesses work will be "long-lived."

Protocol spoke with Stoddard about how Adobe has adapted to this moment, what it plans to do next, and how she thinks the role of the CIO must evolve in the coming years.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How have things been at Adobe? How has the company been dealing with the pandemic?

I think things have been pretty good at Adobe. We're entering week 12 of work from home. It's an interesting transition because we actually started planning a while ago. Everybody talks about DR [disaster response] and readiness, but you really have to take it seriously and look at your plans periodically. Last year, when we had the California fires, I was driving to work and suddenly was like, "Oh, wow, what if some of our infrastructure people couldn't get into the office?"

At that time, we went through a process to really look at what it would take to have a backup plan. Coming into this year with COVID [happening], I started to talk to my staff: "Are we structured for being able to work from home en masse?" I was with [Singaporean shipping company] APL during the SARS days, and it felt a little bit like a SARS was coming, where we had to hunker down and work differently. So we put together a little team. I gave them some off-the-wall scenarios, like I said, "What if the Seattle office had to work from home?" Little did I know that the first outbreak really was in the Redmond area.

We added capacity, we did some network rerouting, we worked with a lot of our providers to say, "Are we at the top of your routing list, and do you have the capacity to handle all of our employees if we were all remote?" Over a weekend 11 weeks ago, I made a decision to move to a remote workforce. And I'll just be honest and say that that Sunday night was like, "Wow, I'm going to wake up in the morning to a whole bunch of hate mail," and I got up and looked at my email, and it was normal. The first week we saw a little bit of a dip in usage of the normal tools, but that same week is where we saw a huge uptick in Slack and things like that. And then after that it went down, and I would say that it's been business as usual.

Has this time changed how you think about the tools that might've been more pertinent in an office space versus working from home?

There's definitely a lot more collaboration, more sharing through Slack. People are writing things down more so that they can share. One of the things we're working on right now is white-boarding software because, as we ideate on new things, we need to be able to get back into that environment where we're actually sharing and collaborating.This is where my employee experience team comes into play — I push them to be there out on the forefront. With the white-boarding software, you can say, "I'm going to bring software in," but part of it is the process and how you use it and how you structure people with the tools and the knowledge and not just say, "Hey, here's a new piece of software."

They've been experimenting with how you have virtual summits and virtual brainstorming sessions. This entails software where you can: have sticky notes distributed to the different team members; have the topics on boards so that you can be productive in the meetings; and have the ability to send people off into breakout sessions and say, "I'm going to give you 20 minutes to work on this topic." Then they bring their individual breakout board back and it gets pasted back into the larger whiteboard, so people can collaborate again. That's really the next generation — looking at tools where we can collaborate as if you were in a room and capture that so you save the knowledge and can bring it forward into other work as you need to.

I was just writing about the collaborative work that can be done in VR, which definitely feels like something that'll happen when that hardware is more accessible.

Yeah, I'm also experimenting with workloads that are really compute-intensive, things like that. For VR, how do we get the right network connections and get the latency out? We've been doing work in that area, and then also what we're calling "desktop as a service" so that you can spin up desktops on demand for different types of workers and partners. We're just looking at the tools that people are using and saying, "How do we do it? How do we do it remote without having to be together?"

I feel like everyone is talking about how COVID-19 pushed years of transformation into a few weeks, but other than remote-work software, not much has changed yet. What sorts of tangible things do you see happening as life slowly starts to return to normal?

I think people have realized that efforts that would traditionally be scoped out to be months and quarters can actually be done in a lot shorter period of time if you put your mind to it. I've talked to other CIOs that have had the same reaction with their own teams. It's like, "Yeah, we did it in a week and normally we scoped it out to be nine months." Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but I think what it has spawned is a certain type of creativity: How do you get things done in a different manner, and how you work in a different manner. And I don't think that that memory is going to be short-lived. I think that that's going to stay on in people's minds because organizations have experienced what can be done in a short amount of time.

The other area that I think is happening is eliminating as much of the human touch and moving to digital. It could be digital signatures, digital documents or no-touch digital payment systems. I think that those trends are going to be long-lived, because people have realized that if a good portion of the population can work remote, then there's the possibility that the digitization of the enterprise can really take place and add a lot of value.

I think the digital trends that we have been hearing about are going to be accelerated in areas where people need to change their business models to be competitive. It will be accelerated in areas where they need to help the employees out with being more productive, eliminating manual activities that maybe can't take place anymore. People are going to reinvent themselves.

Has the pandemic shifted your own thinking on where digital investments should go?

One of the areas that I would put in the forefront is really focusing on our customers, any of their interfaces with us, and operational excellence. We have call centers that customers can call for assistance, and this was an area where we had to shift to work-from-home, equipping them with the right kind of tools — what we've seen is a transition to more chat from phone. So making sure that we are equipping the people with the right tools so that they can be effective and service our customers.

The other area is making sure that we have the right tools internally. What does the workplace of the future look like? Some of the areas that I talked about are more in the intermediate stage. But then when we get to the next stage when we start going back into the office, what does that look like and how does the office workplace coexist and integrate with a work-from-home workplace? How do we look at automation, how do we look at applying more robotic process automation into the right areas so that we have the right level of productivity and knowledge?

Is Adobe thinking about a return to the office?

Adobe keeps up to date on everything from many different angles as far as our work-from-home policies. And there's a lot of thought going into what would that look like, but right now, we're still working from home. We'll continue to look at what's going on across the world and the right thing to do. And I will make sure that the workplaces are structured for the safety of our employees first.

Has the pandemic taught you anything about Adobe that you didn't know before the pandemic?

Adobe has got an absolutely great culture — people help each other out. That was evident while we were in the office, but I think that it has come out even more. The level of communication from the executives into the workforce has been amazing, and I know that people really appreciate it. The care about employee well-being has really resonated. These are all things that are part of the culture, but I would say that with COVID, it's just a little bit more amplified, and maybe you notice it a little bit more because you're stuck in your house and you can't really do anything else.

How do you feel Adobe has changed in the time you've been there?

I think about what we've done with our data infrastructure, we've created what we call a "D-DOM," or the "data-driven operating model." It really looks at our customer journeys and gives us different touch-points along the journey, and allows us to make those points more pleasurable for the customer — and gives us the internal information so that we can prioritize what we do. I think that being able to have those data-driven decisions has been an absolutely amazing way to look at data in a digital environment.

And I think that how we took all the different employee components and put them all in one group — you have your collaboration tools, your messaging, your mobile devices, your desktop, phone and video equipment — has allowed us to design really powerful experiences for the employees based on their persona. Because we believe that one size does not fit all, and that really comes into play in COVID. You need different tools for the different personas. We've been able to say, "How does the collaboration tool fit with our engineers, or how does it help out back-office finance, or how does it fit into our customer-support organization?"

What advice would you give to the CIO looking to take on the kind of digital transformation we've been talking about? What would you tell one of your peers having that conversation right now with their board?

When you think about digital transformation and what is possible, look at what those pressing business problems are and how digitization can help. It could be something along the lines of how do we get our workforce more productive with tools — that can also be used to free up funds to do other projects. That's one way of viewing it, but even more importantly, there's the aspect of how we deliver services and products to our customers. Don't be afraid of breaking the current business model because the current business models right now are meant to be broken.

We should be thinking about things in a totally different way. There are many industries that haven't really looked at digitization because maybe they didn't need to.

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