Adobe CEO Narayen on Hiring, E-Mail, and Apple

Software maker Adobe Systems Inc. is responsible for many of the big-name products in Web publishing, including Flash, Photoshop, and Acrobat. Under CEO Shantanu Narayen, the company in 2009 acquired Web-metrics firm Omniture, advancing Adobe’s goal of changing the way Web users engage with digital information. As part of our partnership with Kaplan University, NEWSWEEK chairman Richard M. Smith spoke with Narayen. Excerpts:

What was your first management job?

It was at a small startup after I came to this country [from India]. Pretty soon I realized that I liked the aspect of bringing things together, and about nine months after I had joined that company I was promoted to be a project manager.

Did you have mentors along the way?

[When I worked] at Apple I had an absolutely great mentor. He kept challenging me, and at times it was a little stressful because nothing I did was good enough. But he really taught me that when you challenge people, people step up.

You don’t respond to an e-mail unless you’re the only person in the address line. Talk about managing your information flow.

As you grow in your career, constantly thinking about what pieces of information are really relevant to your job is important. I try not to read an e-mail twice, so you’ll get a response from me really quickly or you’ll never get one. I delete it as soon as I’ve read it because if it’s important enough, it’ll come back. And my belief is that unless I’m the only person on the “to” line and people are actually asking me for a decision, somebody else will step in.

What do you look for when you’re hiring people?

I look for passion before experience, because I think people can be taught the specifics of what they need to do, but I want to see that spark in the eye.

How do you navigate a world with Microsoft, Google, and Apple?

When you think about the impact of Adobe, [we] actually distribute more software than probably any other company because with Reader and the Flash Player, we have two of the most ubiquitous pieces of software in the world. But Apple and Microsoft and Google are multiple times the size of Adobe. There are a couple of core tenets that have helped to navigate Adobe through this treacherous terrain. And it really is first about the focus on the customer and our belief in this open, multiplatform world. Customers want software to work incredibly well on Macs and PCs and mobile devices and on TVs. And the DNA of the company is not [that of] a fast follower.

Those three companies—we compete with them in certain places and we partner with them in other ways. I think recognizing that a world where you compete with a company in one place and you cooperate in another is reality. And so you create the relationship even though you may compete vigorously on another front.

And if the relationship is strained, as with the recent dustup with Apple over Flash on the iPhone, how do you get that back on track?

You focus on the customer, and in this particular case you don’t do anything rash that is not in the best interest of the customer. And specifically we believe that people who want to consume information on the Internet want to consume it on all devices.

Why is Omniture a critical addition to your business?

We see two massive trends happening in computing. We see this movement from content to content plus applications. Also, our customers tell us, don’t just help us create content, help us monetize it and optimize it. As the media industry thinks about transforming from where they make a lot of their revenues through newspapers or magazines to their online presence, we’ve been asked if we can step up and help them with their entire workflow. Omniture helps you really track where that content is being used, how it’s being used. We have a product called the Flash Media Interactive Server that allows people to protect and monetize that content. We announced that we bought Day Software, which allows you to manage content. So it really is a transformation of the company.

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