How an immigrant Revolutionised Adobe
Created on 09 Dec 2021
Wraps up in 7 Min
Read by 4.2k people
Updated on 06 Aug 2022
Nantanu Sharayen: It's Adobe!
Shantanu Narayen: It's Adobe!
Both: You! Yes, you reading this! Which is it?
You read Adobe in two different pronunciations, didn’t you? Who gets to decide?
Hi, I’m Shantanu Narayen, CEO and Chairman of the Board at Adobe. But this isn’t a story about just Adobe or my position in the company. Today’s journey is more of a trip down the “personal history” lane. This is the “Shantanu Narayen Origin Story.”
I was born in Bombay in 1963. My father ran an Industrial Plastics Business, and my mother was a professor of American Literature. From my early childhood, I was instilled with a real focus on learning and intellectual curiosity. This, when translated into non-academic reading habits, led me to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other pieces of the mystery genre.
But what is intellect without a little glee? Along with the hunger for thrill and mystery, I would also find myself enjoying humour brought into my reads by P.G. Wodehouse. Something I always admire about his works is how appropriate every word he chose for the context would be.
These habits turned out very useful when the time came to move out to the USA, as this head-start in reading helped me prepare for my immigration tests like the GRE. Well, the USA is in the future; for now, comes my academics. And about my academics, I’d like to say that I was a late bloomer but an underperformer, by no measure.
During my time at Hyderabad Public School (HPS), an institute that I take pride in being an alumnus of, along with other brilliant minds like Satya Nadella and Ajaypal Singh Banga, my education was not just limited to academics but included various co-curricular activities.
A few such activities that I participated in included; sports like table tennis and tennis (I was in the high school and college tennis teams), cricket (due to its near-religious craze), as well as non-sport activities like quizzes, debates, and editing the school newspaper. During college, I even represented India in an Asian regatta (a fancy name for a boat race).
Ambitions, Reality, and Choices
With my early years steeped in literature, when it came to prospective careers, my natural inclination was towards journalism. But “beta ya to engineer banega nahi to doctor”. And that’s how, in a very “3 Idiots” turn of events, the options actually available were to pursue my career as a doctor or an engineer.
Well, engineering ended up being my passion as the sight of blood would have me weak at the knees. (Seriously! Is Vidhu Vinod Chopra directing my life?) With engineering on my mind, I enrolled at Osmania University for my undergrad studies in electronic engineering.
During my undergraduate final years, I realised my love for microprocessors and decided to move to Computer Science as my master’s degree. And to pursue my master’s degree, I decided to move west (California, to be precise), just as my father and elder brother had in their days.
The Big Move
The year was 1984; riding into town on the iconic 101 Freeway to my brother’s place, I never thought my educational stay would turn into such a major part of my life. During the initial week when I stayed at my brother’s before college began, I would watch the Summer Olympics that were being held in California. The sights and spectacles of the west had the immigrant in me hooked on the idea of staying.
As if the pretty lights weren’t motivation enough, my elder brother, aware of my fickleness with education, due to co-scholastic activities, scared me straight with a white lie.
The lie was a threat of deportation if I couldn’t score straight A’s during grad school. A super sly move, indeed.
With the possibilities of both a dream and a nightmare fuelling me, I put my head down and finally let the academic “late-blooming” fully bloom. College was pretty uneventful for me. Studying was pretty much all I did. The aforementioned regatta was a memory that stands out. The “events” come after grad school. And hoo-boy, is it going to be a ride!
A literal Career Fest
After graduation, while my batchmates were eyeing the Silicon Valley Giants, I started at MeasureX Automation Systems in 1986. I believe that in a person’s first job, what they must look for is some good experience. I didn’t start MeasureX; I was part of a startup. And for me, learning in a start-up is much more rapid-fire. It’s like drinking from a firehose, honestly.
With my thirst for experience somewhat quenched, next came Apple and Silicon Graphics, where I held product development roles. All of this was happening in the 90s, with the internet boom, when everyone wanted to start a company. I did too!
And open a company I did. The internet boom was also accompanied by the age of digital photos becoming mainstream. From a business standpoint, this meant that people would now have memories and a medium to share them, completely digitally.
Thus with two co-founders from Silicon Graphics, Pictra was created. The idea behind Pictra was to provide its users with a platform where they could drop off their roll of film, digitise it and be able to share it online. While the idea had great potential, it was a bit ahead of its time, and the business model wasn’t as sophisticated. Alas, Pictra couldn’t quite develop into a great picture, but it opened my viewfinder to greater opportunities.
It was through Pictra though, that I was introduced to Adobe. Some of my software under Pictra often shipped with Adobe’s PhotoDeluxe at that point. During this partnership with Adobe, I met Bruce Chizen and was offered a job at Adobe.
To say that I was excited would be an understatement. As a person interested in imaging, being offered a job at the “Photoshop Company” meant the world to me. And thus began my Adobe journey.
As far as CEOs go, there are the managers that become CEOs, and then there are founder CEOs. Now you might be wondering that if I already had created a company, had that potential and idea, then why did I stick with Adobe as a manager turned CEO when being a founder CEO was just as possible?
To say that the thought of leaving and starting a company of my own hadn’t crossed my mind would be a lie. Yet I stayed. Because as a founder and CEO, I could invent a company from scratch, and the chance to innovate would be mine. While the invention ship had sailed for Adobe, the business still had much room for innovation. Let me tell you how.
In the year 1999, Adobe wanted to launch a product called InDesign, which was attacked by an existing rival in the page layout software market. John Warnock and Charles “Chuck” Geschke decided to completely overhaul the organisational structure by going functional.
This meant that I was transitioning to more technology-centred roles instead of manager (the position I had been hired for). With this restructure, Adobe was reinventing itself, and I earned the opportunity to innovate and make an impact. Thus, I was fulfilling my dreams that would need the formation of a new venture with an already established business.
Another feat that I performed at Adobe was really a stunt that succeeded. It was moving Adobe’s traditionally packaged software to the cloud. With the advent of broadband internet and mobile devices becoming a widespread phenomenon, this was the next move that many companies in the same position as Adobe were naturally going to make.
There were risks involved, of course. Adobe made this shift when the competitors came up with the same idea, but none had executed it. The lack of action was because, with packaged software, the companies had to send physical copies of the software on DVDs to various locations, which merited the high price of these softwares.
Moving to a cloud-based distribution system meant foregoing these significant and recurring revenues and the possibility of losing clientele due to a lack of channels as broadband was still undergoing development.
This meant that no competitor had made a foray into the dimension of cloud computing; I would be at the helm of a ship treading murky waters. Thankfully I wouldn’t be at this metaphorical helm alone, as I had a team of phenomenal minds with me strengthening Adobe to stand firm in the face of new adversities.
While I did get a Master’s degree in Business Administration, it was more so in preparation for the managerial roles I’d have to undertake as I climbed the corporate ladder. Adobe remodelling its internal structure brought me in a full circle back to tech (still close to my heart). I had found my home, miles away from the one I was born in.
The Bottom Line
Before parting ways, at the risk of sounding overly preachy, if there is anything I’d like a reader to take away from this journey of mine, it is to always have your goals and ambitions as you go about life. Also, always remember to be like grass; open to change because if there is one thing that I truly believe in, is- if it feels right, it should work out.
It’s Adobe(Uh-do-bee), by the way.
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