Cynthia Stoddard, CIO at Adobe, is an experienced IT chief using her knowledge to help shape the future direction of one of the world’s best-known technology companies, saying: “My number one priority is supporting the business.”
Stoddard joined Adobe in June 2016, having previously been CIO at NetApp and a host of other big-name organisations. She was impressed by the culture of the organisation as soon as soon as she went for an interview.
“The vision they had for improving the experience all the way through from our creative applications through to the person who receives that material just captured me,” she says. “It was a very welcoming company – it felt like a family; a good family. Everybody worked together and there was this sense of belonging right from the start.”
Building enthusiasm for change
Stoddard says she joined Adobe at a fortuitous time. There was a lot of planning sessions taking place, which allowed her to see at first-hand how the executive team interacted with each other.
She spent time talking with people in IT and across the business to find out what they needed from technology. “I wanted to know what was working and what wasn’t working, so I got to know a lot of people,” she says.
These discussions helped her to frame her transformation strategy for the IT organisation. A proponent for co-development processes, she bought people together from across the IT team to help shape her vision: “We really went through: What do we want to be? What does this organisation need to deliver for Adobe?”
Stoddard also used innovative techniques to help visualise the answers to these questions. She created a human scatter chart using employees on a forecourt outside the building to show how close or far away the IT team was from completing its different objectives.
“It showed us how we were aligned, and where we needed to focus – and then we built our vision to improve the experience of everybody that we worked with,” says Stoddard, who feels a great deal has been achieved in the five years since she joined Adobe. “It’s been fantastic to see how the team has matured and how we’ve delivered for the business.”
While some of the team’s projects are big, multi-year initiatives, others – such as the implementation of robotic process automation (RPA) in a single business function – deliver huge productivity benefits in one area. Stoddard says this rapid movement from one initiative to another ensures high levels of enthusiasm across the IT team.
Reorganising the technology function
One of Stoddard’s recent initiatives has involved renaming the IT department as Adobe Technology Services. This newly named function is split into three groups.
One covers traditional IT, which includes information and transformational services, and data infrastructure. This group focuses on the back-office IT projects that help Adobe to run its business operations.
Another group, known as reliability engineering, works on Adobe’s products, such as those available through Adobe.com and applications such as Photoshop. This group provides and maintains the tools that Adobe’s engineers use to create and develop the products the company provides to its customers.
The final group under Stoddard’s remit is cloud operations, which involves maintaining the relationships with Adobe’s large cloud providers, such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services (AWS). This group also deals with technology efficiency, ensuring the smooth running of the corporate IT infrastructure, including internal data centres and networks.
“Those are the three main pillars,” she says. “I also have a horizontal view to the office of the CIO, which includes the project management office and vendor management office, and that deals with how we run IT as a business. There’s also a shared services organisation in India that provides a lot of services, not only to enterprise IT, but to our engineering groups across Adobe.”
Transforming the business with technology
Stoddard says her IT function has delivered some big results in two key areas during the past few years: embracing cloud services and developing internal customer experiences.
“Our tagline has been to have cloud-like characteristics in our DNA,” she says. “One of the things I’m pretty proud of my group for is that they’ve embraced that approach, and they’ve really delivered a lot of self-service for business users. Some of our applications that were more legacy based, we’ve pushed them fully into the cloud.”
Stoddard says this focus on self-service means that business users can exploit data held in cloud applications with confidence. Concentrating on on-demand IT also means the engineering function thinks in a cloud-first manner as it develops new applications.
“I’m not proud of me; I have to say that I’m proud of my team. I’m just a facilitator. I give them the tools and the space to do their jobs well, so they can create and they can be successful”
Cynthia Stoddard, Adobe
Another key achievement centres on experience. Stoddard says Adobe has traditionally provided a lot of tools to its external customers to help them improve their experiences. One of the things her team recognised quickly after she joined was that they should provide similar experienced-focused tools to internal users.
“I took all the pieces that touch employees internally and put them in one group. So desktop support, collaboration tools, telephony – all the things that, in a traditional IT organisation, would be aligned with technology – we put that all in one group and formed the employee experience group,” she says.
“They’ve worked hard to look at what tools we have within the organisation and how they relate to the different personas of our employees, and then they’ve geared the tools and solutions that we have to those personas. That’s what jump-started us to be able to give an amazing experience to our internal customers during Covid-19.”
Exploiting innovative ideas
Stoddard also points to her team’s achievements around innovation, with the attitude of “posing problems to my team, giving them the space to think and explore – and perhaps fail, if they need to fail – and coming back with great solutions”.
She says one key example is the continued application of RPA to different business areas. Adobe started working with UiPath to explore how RPA might be used in a range of situations, including using automation to help with business processes in the finance function, such as contracts, procurement and even acquisitions.
Stoddard says another area of innovation involves using open source technology to create a self-healing framework, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to look for potential issues and fixes them automatically. She gives the example of a dataset that might be running out of space. The framework finds the problem and provisions more capacity on-the-fly to ensure that operations are not interrupted.
“It’s all about dealing with some of those recurring problems that occur,” she says. “They might take a human 25 or 35 minutes to fix. This self-healing network fixes these problems in less than a minute.”
Stoddard says these innovations are providing big benefits to the business, but she’s eager to avoid taking all the credit: “I’m not proud of me; I have to say that I’m proud of my team. I’m just a facilitator. I give them the tools and the space to do their jobs well, so they can create and they can be successful.”
Dealing with rapid change
Like her CIO peers in other businesses, Stoddard recognises that the past 18 months have presented an unusual set of challenges. She refers back to March 2020, when the company switched its staff to home working during the course of a weekend.
“I came to my screen on Monday morning and I expected to get a ton of hate mail because things can go wrong – but I didn’t,” she says. “It was a very smooth switch over. I was monitoring our Slack channels and people were building communities.”
The past 18 months for business leaders and CIOs have been a test of our soft skills. It’s been all about how we communicate with people and how we bring them together
Cynthia Stoddard, Adobe
That process continues today and Stoddard believes dealing with the coronavirus pandemic provides valuable lessons for all business leaders. She says, most crucially of all, senior executives have gained proficiency in how to lead people, how to keep employees productive, and how to help guide them through a trying personal experience.
“I would say the past 18 months for business leaders and CIOs have been a test of our soft skills. It’s been all about how we communicate with people and how we bring them together. We’ve had to think about how we listen to their needs, but also how we listen to our bosses and make sure that the organisation is moving in the right direction,” she says.
“It’s also been about focusing on the tools that we’ve delivered and having open eyes and open ears about whether they’re working or whether we need to make adjustments. It’s also been about making sure that we give people the opportunity to talk and recommend change.”
Boosting employee experiences
During the next couple of years, Stoddard says her focus will be on four key areas: always-on reliability for external products and internal services; using data to help the organisation transform and grow; using RPA and reengineering business processes; and finally, using technology to improve customer and employee experiences.
“As we move into a hybrid workplace, how do we look at the experience in the office and out of the office – and how do we make sure that we don’t lose what we’ve gained during Covid?” she says. “Because what we’ve gained is equality of experience, and everybody has begun to have an equal voice.”
Stoddard believes cloud-based collaboration platforms have helped people to communicate and share ideas. As offices re-open, it’s important to build on these gains. In fact, she says dealing with experience is her key objective going forward because there’s so much to do.
“And there’s so many unknowns,” she says. “We could be in the office and there could be another variant, so that we have to go remote again. The ability to context switch and retain your tools and your documentation is front and centre when it comes to my thinking.”