The lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Mumbai is buzzing with suits, men in dark jackets who have gathered for the Nasscom India Leadership Forum. Feeling inadequate, I pull my shirt collar together, tug my rolled-up sleeves down and head to the business centre, which is surrounded by more suits.
In a large room, Shantanu Narayen waits, precisely on time, comfortable in the setting of a boardroom in a way only the head of a $17 billion (around Rs 77,350 crore) company would be. The handshake is warm, the smile easy, the manner friendly and again, precise.
The 47-year-old president and CEO of Adobe Systems Incorporated—the company that makes Photoshop, Flash video operating system and Acrobat programmes—seems the sort who would always be in between appointments. This meeting comes after the day’s sessions at the forum, held earlier this month, and was to be followed by a felicitation and dinner at the same venue. He is busy enough to constantly have something on the agenda, but when he listens, it’s with complete attention.
“Innovation has been near and dear to my heart and the software industry in India has been a matter of pride, to see how it’s transformed itself in the past 20 years,” says the Palo Alto, California-based Narayen, who was to collect the Global Innovator Award at Nasscom’s 7th Annual Global Leadership Awards.
As someone who left Hyderabad about 25 years ago to study in the US, the immediate assessment of change is typical. “The traffic is now 10x, your antibodies are not what they used to be, (and I) can’t eat at roadside vendors like I used to be able to and loved.”
Narayen’s story is as typical as it is unusual. He got an engineering degree from Osmania University in Hyderabad because in those days one did only engineering or medicine, and the sight of blood “scared the heck out” of him.
One of thousands of young men who packed mom’s pickles in a suitcase and headed to the US in the 1980s—“it was a little bit of following your father’s and brother’s footsteps, sort of a ‘Go West, young man’ thing”—he went through the grind of getting a master’s degree in computer science from Bowling Green State University, Ohio, and a master’s in business administration from Haas School of Business, University of California.
So far so good; then he decided to join a start-up—Measurex Automation Systems in 1986, instead of picking an established multinational firm during campus recruitments as some others would have done.
“I didn’t start a company, I was part of a start-up,” he emphasizes. “It was a well-funded (start-up) called Measurex. In your first job, you are looking for some good experience. It’s much more rapid-fire learning when you are at a start-up.”
After he got married, Narayen moved in 1989 to Apple, holding several senior management positions over six years before moving on to Silicon Graphics for a year as director of desktop and collaboration products.
Fore-word: Narayen, who loves golf, has already played at St Andrew’s in Scotland, and says it’s now off his ‘bucket list’. Jayachandran/Mint
“In the mid-1990s, they said you shake a tree on Sand Hill Road (a hub for venture capital companies) and money fell out. It was the Internet boom, everybody was starting a company. We thought that image-sharing on the Web, the need to be social, would be an important attribute. We started one of the first picture-sharing sites, Pictra Inc (in 1996). We thought the whole move from analogue to digital photography was going to happen, so we created an ecosystem that allowed you to drop off your roll of film and get digital pictures.”
“It was a great experience but clear 12-14 months down the line that the funding and business models hadn’t quite matured.”
Narayen says his career progression was never calculated. After his first job, he was never recruited or interviewed for one. The changes came through people he knew. “I have always been one for whom the job has to feel right,” he says. “After my MBA, even then the conventional wisdom was to switch from engineering to product management; I never did that. I was always like: If it feels right, it should work out.”
In retrospect, there is an irony to the fact that he worked in Apple. More on that later, but that company gave him a mentor, Gursharan Singh Sidhu of Apple Talk, who taught him the notion of challenging others and oneself.
“People amaze you with their ingenuity and as a management style rather than set arbitrary boundaries on what can and can’t be done. At Apple, you really believed that you are going to change the world. The statement at that point was, the journey was the reward. It felt like that. I was delivering this software to millions of people and it’s hard not to get excited about that.”
“It was the same thing (at Pictra, which he co-founded), I learnt all about how to plan for the upside and react to the downside, aspirations and ambitions, big-picture thinking. In a start-up you learn a lot. You are drinking from a firehose frankly. At Adobe, I have learnt the whole notion of thinking on the impact we have had on communication in the written form, on media. It’s been phenomenal.” Narayen moved to Adobe in January 1998, as vice-president and general manager of its engineering technology group, moving up the ladder to president and chief operating officer in 2005.
Narayen is currently done with the subject of Apple, which is all he has had to deal with recently, after the computer giant barred Adobe’s Flash from its invention of the year, the iPad (and earlier, the iPhone too). The subject has been a media favourite since the launch of the gizmo last year, with additional media speculation over a meeting between Narayen and Microsoft that led many to believe a buyout was on the anvil.
After agreeing to stay clear of the subject, I plod carefully on dangerous ground and pop the question.
“We partner with both and compete with both,” he says carefully without commenting on acquisitions. “The reality in the technology industry is ‘co-optition’; again it’s a cliché but true. One of our largest ISVs (independent software vendors) is for both those companies and we compete vigorously in certain areas. The press is making such a big deal about it. We have moved on.”
According to The Telegraph, UK, (Adobe chief Shantanu Narayen believes he doesn’t need Apple or the iPad, 14 August) some 23 of the top 25 European companies, as measured by Forbes magazine, use Adobe products, as do 23 of the top 25 global banks. The article added that the US football team’s World Cup match against Algeria last year attracted 1.1 million viewers via a Webcast delivered through Flash—the largest US audience ever for a sports event on the Web.
Today, Photoshop has become a verb, placing Adobe in a position of enviable command in the market but also concerned about competition.
Narayen, who was instrumental in the $3.4 billion takeover of Macromedia (which developed Flash) and the $1.8 billion acquisition of Omniture in 2009, says they need to keep innovating because “there’s always two people in a garage somewhere in the world”—a reference to the kind of ingenuity that can come from anywhere and invent the next big thing. “Unless you are nimble…as a colleague says, failure is not an option. It makes you paranoid if anything.”
Yet Narayen sleeps reasonably well at night, provided it’s in his own bed. He travels about three months in a year, so when on the road—like on this trip to India, where he has been “run ragged”—he gets sleep deprived. After the Nasscom dinner, he was to catch the late night flight back to California.
“I would say this whole notion of balance (work and personal) that people talk about, that’s a myth,” he says. “On the other hand, I have multiple passions. It is true; you think about Adobe a lot. People have been known to say something about a certain competitor to see if that shakes me off my putting stroke (while playing golf, which he manages to do once a week).”
He quotes some research at Stanford that found people with teenage children tend to be more grounded. His sons Shravan, 20, and Arjun, 16, are technology-savvy, giving Narayen more tips on which direction his work needs to go. “It’s a fascinating experiment to see what they do, how they consume their media.”