By: Srikanth Godavarthi
His parents wanted him to be an engineer, but all he ever wanted to be was a journalist. He could also have been a professional golfer or a sailor. But in John Lennon’s words “life happens when you are busy making other plans”. He began a career with Apple, but long before the word startup was coined, he founded the world’s first image sharing website Pictra. Later, he joined Adobe and transformed the company’s creative software franchise from desktop to the Cloud. Twenty-five years ago when he left Hyderabad, technology was in a nascent stage. Now, he’s impressed by India’s rapid strides in all fields and thinks the path he took might have been different had he been a youngster growing up in India. Shantanu Narayen, CEO, Adobe, talks to Srikanth Godavarthi about how AI, Cloud and IoT can be a force for good. He recalls his days in HPS where he was the editor of Eagle, their in-house magazine, the best of times in Ohio where he met his life partner Reni Narayen and also shares his thoughts on the country’s national obsession — cricket. Excerpts from the interview
We are in the dawn of the 21st century renaissance where art and science, human and machines are fueling an age of explosive growth and opportunity. Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) be an amplifier or a substitute for human creativity? Is it going to hurt or help the creative ability of the human mind?
We firmly believe that technologies like AI will amplify – not replace – human creativity. AI is already being used in our products to improve the creative process, help our customers be more efficient, provide creative recommendations and, in some cases, make our tools more accessible and easy to use. But there’s no substitute for brilliant ideas, a compelling story or a creative spark. AI won’t replace the distinct touch that only a human can bring to the art we create and the work we do.
We are witnessing natural disasters like floods, landslides globally causing heavy loss of life. How AI, block chain, IoT can be used to solve some of the large global problems? How can newer technologies help prevent, respond and recover from natural disasters?
We have a fundamental belief that technology can be a force for good. At Adobe, we are always looking for ways to use our technologies to support people and solve problems. This could include using our digital imaging software to help find missing and exploited children. Recently, we were able to use Photoshop to help survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas salvage their family photos after their homes had been destroyed by water. It was a small thing, of course, but very meaningful to those who had lost everything and a great example of how technology can be used for good.
How do you look at the big digital transformation happening in India and the role of Adobe within that?
The world is watching India progress through its digital transformation journey, and Prime Minister Modi’s digital initiatives are playing an instrumental role in building the country into a true digital-first economy. Adobe remains committed to delivering the latest innovation for Indians and is a big supporter of the government’s Digital India agenda. A recent example is an agreement we reached with The Ministry of Skill Development to give a million students access to Adobe Spark – our tool for easily creating high-quality graphics, web pages, and video stories. On the enterprise side, some of India’s biggest brands including SpiceJet Airlines, MakeMyTrip, Flipkart, Taj Group, Airtel, Idea Cellular, and IDFC Bank are partnering with Adobe for their own digital transformation journeys. So, we’re focused on helping our customers in India embrace digital transformation and find success.
Would Adobe be looking at investing in the two Telugu states – Telangana and Andhra Pradesh both states are aggressively pursuing ‘Ease of Doing Business’ and other investor friendly policies?
I’m thrilled to see what Minister KT Rama Rao has been doing to promote technology in Telangana and push an entrepreneurial and innovation-friendly agenda. We’re excited to partner with state agencies to bring technologies like Adobe Sign to market and improve the way organizations conduct business and work more efficiently. We recently announced plans to set up an advanced Artificial Intelligence lab in Hyderabad. Beyond Hyderabad, Adobe has major campuses in Noida and Bangalore. So India remains an important market for Adobe globally – in terms of R&D, sales & support and many other functions. As with other priority markets for Adobe, it will be one of the places we’ll continue to invest.
In the age of AI and Cloud, all big tech companies are trying to do the same thing. Microsoft has Cortana, Google has Assistant, Amazon has Alexa. How is Adobe’s AI tool Sensei different from others tech companies? Can Adobe’s Sensei tackle the complexities of today’s challenges?
With Adobe Sensei we’re focused on applying AI and machine learning to solve customer challenges in the unique areas Adobe has domain expertise: creativity, digital documents, and digital experiences. Sensei is fueled by the volume of assets – from the tens of millions of content assets to the trillions of transactions we process for customers – which give Adobe a view into digital experiences that no other company has. Our customers benefit from Sensei in many ways, whether it’s a Creative Cloud customer automating mundane tasks and spending more time ideating and creating; a Document Cloud customer extracting the meaning and sentiment of several documents more quickly; or an Experience Cloud customer identifying an anomaly in a marketing campaign and optimizing that campaign
Can you recall memorable moments in your days in Hyderabad Public School? The school has produced the best global brains like Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Prem Watsa of Fairfax Financial Holdings, Karan Bilimoria of Cobra Beer. The list is long.
HPS was an awesome experience. In addition to a rigorous academic curriculum, it was amazing to participate in extra-curricular activities. I was the editor of the Eagle magazine and participated in both the school and inter-house plays, and in debates across Hyderabad. It was a great leadership experience as well since I was Deputy Head Boy at HPS. I’ll always be grateful for my time at HPS and for the instructors who dedicated themselves to inspiring and educating me and my fellow students.
Your parents wanted you to be an engineer, but you wanted to pursue journalism and mass communication. It was your teenage passion to be a journalist. Do you regret not following your passion? Has life taken you to a place better than you thought?
I had several passions when I was younger: sailing, sports, debate, theater and yes – I once aspired to be a journalist too. All those experiences and passions helped shape the person I am. If you’re lucky, while some of these pursuits might not turn out to be your “career” there are still plenty of ways to continue pursuing them and enjoying them as you get older. I still enjoy sports, reading and attending theater in my spare time. And given Adobe’s contributions to the publishing industry, I’m still able to help those who have a story to tell.
You founded a start-up, Pictra, a company that pioneered the concept of digital photo sharing. Pictra was a way ahead of its times. Can you recap the success journey from starting companies to heading Adobe?
I started Pictra because I believed in the benefits of digital photography. Sharing pictures is a core social need, and through products like Photoshop and Lightroom, I’m fortunate to have an even greater platform here at Adobe to continuing transforming photography.
What’s your take on the US policy on immigration? The recent tough policies on immigration in the US and the UK is hurting the Indian students and IT professionals. Immigrants, historically, have been assets to the IT & manufacturing industry. Does the growing protectionism hurt you?
As an immigrant, US citizen, and CEO of a US company, I am a direct beneficiary of an open, progressive immigration policy. Welcoming people from all countries, religions and cultures is not only a hallmark of American values but is critical for our country’s future innovation and economic success. Adobe would not be the company it is today without our rich diversity of employees, and that continued diversity is vital to our future.
How do you see the India today to the India you left as someone who left Hyderabad about 25 years ago after receiving an engineering degree from Osmania University to study in the US?
25 years ago, I left to pursue graduate studies at a time when the tech industry in India was still nascent. It’s amazing to see the advances made in India since that time. Every time I return to India, it’s impressive to see the progress that’s been made in the business and technology climate, and the opportunities that exist for the younger generation that simply didn’t exist when I was growing up. If I was a young person growing up in India today, who knows? The path I took might have been very different.
Ohio played an interesting role in your life. At the Bowling Green State University, you received master’s degree in computer science but also met your wife Reni Narayen. What are the recollections from the Ohio days?
The American Midwest is such a remarkable and welcoming place. Ohio was a special place to begin my life in America. Not only was I living in a foreign country, I was also living outside of my parent’s home for the first time. So I had to balance learning to do things like cook and clean for myself and, on top of that, dealing with all the challenges that come with being thrown into a completely different culture. And I was dealing with all of this with trying to achieve what I went there for in the first place – to study, get good marks, and to graduate. At BGSU, studying Computer Science was an incredible learning experience and a challenge since my undergraduate degree was in Electronic Engineering. But I have many fond memories of my time in Ohio and, yes, meeting my wife there would clearly rise to the top of the list.
You once represented India in sailing at Asian Regatta. Did you follow cricket and who is your favorite cricketer in this generation?
I still stay up late some nights, much to my wife’s dismay, passionately following the Indian cricket team. I’ve always been a big cricket fan and often joke with my friends here in America that cricket is baseball done right.
Source: The Times of India