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CIO interview: How Adobe's IT leader is harnessing customer thinking and AI

CIO interview: How Adobe's IT leader is harnessing customer thinking and AI

Digital marketing and creative cloud vendor's global CIO on why she's focusing on customer and employee enablement, and what artificial intelligence is doing to improve IT operations

Cynthia Stoddard

Cynthia Stoddard

The CIO has morphed from back office operator to experience orchestrator across employees as well as external customers, Adobe’s senior VP and CIO, Cynthia Stoddard, believes. So it’s not surprising she sees her remit as one of enablement.

“My philosophy has always been that I want to be an enabler, not a roadblock. I’ve had people in some roles ask how I’m going to shut down all this ‘shadow IT’ going on outside of the IT function. I’ve told groups I won’t do that,” she says. “We need to enable the business, and if we can put technology in their hands, all the better. We want them to be able to control their destiny.”  

Stoddard has spent 25 years in tech management, working across transportation, logistics, storage and high-tech companies including Safeway, APL NetApp and Emery Worldwide. Joining Adobe as CIO two years ago, she reports into global CTO, Abhay Parasnis, and is working on projects stretching from data centralisation to cloud services and building self-healing platforms based on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

During the recent Adobe Summit, she caught up with CMO editor and CIO associate editor to discuss the changing nature of the CIO, how to partner more effectively with marketing and the business, and what it takes to harness new technologies in a way that improves employee and customer engagement.

How have you seen the role of the CIO change in your 25-year career in IT?

The role when I started as a CIO was largely back-office focused. Keep the systems running, focus on ERP, make sure everything is tuned up to run the business. Then it started to become more customer focused. What I would say now is the role of the CIO is customer focused and looking from the outside in. And that’s because of various things you need to deal with as a CIO.

In order to have an impact on the business, you have to understand who your customers are. And to understand customers, you have to understand their journeys, pain points, how they’re using your products and services and how they interact with your company. The way you get that knowledge is by meeting with customers and participating.

I’ve done a lot of that - meeting with customers. We have a briefing centre we bring customers through, which I participate in. It also allows me to share best practices, stories and bring external information back into the IT organisation.

The other part of the role that’s changed is all the work being done with external-facing customer experience, linking up channels and personalisation. I believe you need to bring that inside the company and use those same techniques with employees. We have a project we call ‘advancing the inside’, which takes the same aspects of what we’ve done with customers and focuses on ensuring employees have the same experiences.

To help, I took anything employee-facing and put it under one of my unit leaders. Then we looked at the types of employees and roles we have, and came up with four different personas – builder, enabler, customer-facing and a communicator. We layered two different dimensions over that, one being new employee, the other being international. So if you’re outside the US, you have different work habits and tools you need. The aim is to marry all experiences within the company to those different dimensions.

That’s how the CIO role is morphing – from back office to really focused on experience, both customer and employee.

As part of this employee initiative, how has your relationship with the chief people officer had to change?

My leader covering employee experience has a peer in HR and they work hand-in-hand. It also goes into the facilities and how we design conference rooms, how we design space and so on.

For example, we have an area in Adobe we call Lab 82, named after the year Adobe was established, because the founders believed innovation can come from anyone in the company. We bring different technology in to try it out, see if it’s going to work. If it doesn’t, we’re able to shut it down quickly and don’t spend time rolling it out to the entire organisation.

Tech usage and purchasing can now belong to anyone thanks to mobile, social and cloud innovation. IT doesn’t now have as much control over the way technology is utilised as it once did, even as it still has to ensure security and simplification. How are you coping with this?

At Adobe, we run what we call an ‘entrust program’. What that does is takes care of how you do security and how you think about integration around new technologies. If you stay within the guardrails of the program, then we can enable you with your technology and you have full use of that. I’m really in favour of getting technology into the hands of the employee.

Also within my group, we have a vision statement that we want to have cloud-like characteristics in our DNA. If you think about cloud, it’s easy to use and it’s self-service. I’ve talked to my group and said whatever role you have in IT, think about doing what you do in a cloud-like matter. For example, if you’re interfacing with someone else in IT, or a business department or external customer, think about how you take yourself out of the equation and make it self-service and easy to use. It’s one of our core design principles going forward.

When I joined as the CIO, I had responsibility for all the systems, data, all the infrastructure, and running business IT. Recently, I pick up cloud operations, which runs all our cloud services. It’s perfect for the philosophy I just mentioned, because it gives us an end-to-end view of the customer, from their use of the product to how they transcend into the back-office systems.

We’ve talked for years about how important it is for marketing and technology to collaborate. While things have progressed, many are still struggling with this relationship. Why do you think it’s still an issue? And have you done at Adobe to address it?

We do have a very collaborative working relationship at Adobe between IT and marketing. My team has a seat at the table. I have a great leader that handles our marketing systems, and she understands the business, which is very key for IT. But she also understands that based on the role marketing has had in organisations for a long time, they do already know a lot about technology. This shouldn’t be discounted – it’s a collaborative effort.

Where problems occur with IT is where they still want that wall and to control things. I’d encourage people to break down that wall and let people use the technology. I also think it’s important for each side to understand the problems and point of view of the other. Then work on those uncommon understandings and figure out how to work together.

IT has a unique view – we have the infrastructure, we’ve been working with data for a long time, and we have access to a lot of data marketing may not have access to. Bringing that knowledge and showing what is the art of the possible goes a long way. Experimenting and having that relationship is part of that.

As we go into development, we also include marketing people in our scrum teams, so they’re able to participate in the day-to-day of how we develop and look at solutions.

The question of digital ownership raises particular challenges in where responsibility sits within an organisation. In some instances, these skills have shifted into marketing. Have you witnessed similar shifts between IT and marketing at Adobe?

Yes, there have been changes. We’ve had people within our marketing analysis organisation shift with their databases into IT, for instance. That’s allowed us to look at the data and bring it into our central source of information. It gives us one source of truth, which is incredibly valuable.

Over the last year, we’ve built out our data-driven operating model. As we looked at these different source systems – there are more than 10 – we’ve brought them to the table into a common data Hadoop environment. We also had five different satellite systems we’ve been able to bring in. It’s about the consistency of the information and making sure everyone is on-board.

From there, the priority has been making sure everyone understands common metrics, and when you’re looking at actual data, you’re translating it not only into actions, but actionable insights. And that we have the proper governance mechanisms around that. We started working small, then bringing people on-board. Once you have that footing and start showing quick wins, other people want to get on-board.

IT has historically been about risk and cost reduction and simplification, whereas marketing is supposed to be about growth, which is arguably more risky. Have you had to go so far as to make sure you have common KPIs across teams?

We haven’t gone to the level of KPIs, but we do have shared goals and that’s getting back to understanding what it is you’re trying to accomplish, versus what it is I’m trying to accomplish, then bringing it together.

We’ve also geared our data-driven operating model to the customer journey, from discover and try, to buy, to starting to use the product, and renewal. This resulted in a common set of metrics and everyone talking the same language.

Do what extent do you think IT needs to think like marketing?

It’s important. My team member running the marketing systems portfolio came out of marketing. She has that knowledge and is able to speak the language, understand the problems, and do the translation to her team very nicely.

I’m a real proponent of people having subject matter expertise in the area they’re supporting. There is an alternative mindset that says anyone can support any group in the company. That’s probably OK for more vanilla functions. But when you get to marketing or sales operations, it’s specialised and you need some of that core knowledge.

Because you not only need to understand what their pain points are, but also what’s going on in the industry. You have to keep up to date on industry trends, what software is available and what is emerging, so you can bring those ideas to the table.

AI is the buzz technology of 2018. How are you gearing up Adobe as a business to embrace an AI future?

AI is a very important area for us. Internally, we’re running training programs for our engineering and IT groups, so everyone has an AI mindset in order to understand how they can incorporate it into what they do, both on the product side and across the business.

In IT, we have been using AI to create self-healing platforms. If issues occur on the run side, both in IT operations and cloud operations, it’s about how we use AI to look at the patterns and come up with solutions that take the human element out. Then we can switch humans to working with algorithms and things like that.

We’re looking at running some business operations, too, using AI. For example, we have been working with the finance group on how we can inject robotics into their operations to help them with repetitive tasks.

So is the first stage of AI deployment really an efficiency play for IT operations?

Think about it as efficiency with the thought of improving the level of service. What we’re also finding with the self-healing framework we’ve put in is that you don’t even see problems in certain cases, because they just fix themselves.

If you’re not even seeing the problems, how you articulate IT’s success back to the business?

With our self-healing framework, we’ve built metrics in so we know how many we heal, and we have a knowledge base that tracks what time it would have taken to fix it in the past. We can say this is the contribution the self-healing framework is making from a response time perspective.

What skillsets do you need in the IT department as you start to roll AI-based solutions out?

It’s innovation, creativity, understanding of AI methods and algorithms. Another one is how to manoeuvre and work in the open source market. We do use a lot of open source as we create these frameworks.

  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Adobe Summit 2018 as a guest of Adobe.

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