CIO interview: Cynthia Stoddard, Adobe

Adobe's IT chief is looking to build on its cloud migration with widespread adoption of AI, machine learning and robotic process automation – as well as low-code/no-code software development tools

Cynthia Stoddard joined Adobe as CIO in June 2016 and developed an IT transformation strategy that drew on a co-development approach with the rest of the business.

Seven years on and Stoddard has seen much of that transformation effort – from embracing the cloud to boosting the employee experience and onto introducing robotic process automation (RPA) – come to fruition. Yet even with all these big achievements in the bag, she remains eager to help Adobe make even more from digital and data.

“I love it,” she says, reflecting on her role at the company. “I love my team. I love what we’re doing. And it’s really fun to see the impact we’re having.”

Computer Weekly spoke with Stoddard at the recent Adobe Summit in London, just a few days after the US executive had flown in from a trip to Romania. As emerging technologies continue to have an impact on business processes, she’s gratified to see disparate members of her global IT team embracing the rapid pace of change.

“The team in Romania came in and presented some of what they’ve been doing to automate certain things and improve service reliability,” she says. “And I just sat there so proud of what they’re doing. I’m pleased they’ve embraced the cultural aspects of what we’re trying to do as an organisation.”

Testing technologies

Computer Weekly last caught up with Stoddard in 2021, when she outlined changes to enterprise technology at Adobe in the post-pandemic era. One of the foundations for this transformation was cloud technology. The company works with big-name cloud providers, such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Stoddard says the shift to on-demand IT, which became crucial during the coronavirus pandemic, is now as good as complete: “Cloud-like characteristics are in our DNA. When our people think about the cloud, it’s just a natural thing that they work with. The cloud is not a foreign concept anymore.”

With strong foundations in place, Stoddard and her team are now thinking about how to use cloud-based services to boost workplace productivity. One of her priorities for the next year is employee experience: “What we’re really focused on is, ‘How do we create a hybrid experience that works?’”

One of the key elements in this process will be Lab82, which is Adobe’s employee experience experimentation engine. The initiative began as a physical space in the firm’s San Jose headquarters. But as Adobe has shifted to a hybrid work model, the vision for Lab82 has expanded to become a broader approach that explores the future of work.

“Lab82 focuses on technologies that enable the worker to work,” says Stoddard. “The intention is to test out technologies for the workplace before they go in. Because many times, you’ll go through a proof of concept for a technology, deploy it, and then it doesn’t work.”

She says Lab82 gives people across the business the opportunity to test new tools, such as those that support collaboration and video conferencing. Her team and the people in the lab also work with the firm’s facilities group to test non-tech products, such as tables and desks.

“It’s all about figuring out what employees will actually use and not use,” she says. “We learned a lot through the pandemic, and now the testing of new technology via the lab has become part of our approach.”

Embracing automation

Stoddard says a broad plethora of tools and services could be tested and adopted as the company looks to improve the employee experience. One of her key achievements during her time with the company has been helping Adobe to embrace RPA.

Two years ago, Stoddard explained how her team was working with UiPath to explore how RPA might be applied and extended. Even back then, she was aware of the importance of not just automation but also of fast-emerging technologies, such as machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). The significance of those technologies has grown exponentially since then, so what do these rapid advance means for Adobe’s internal use of IT?

“I love my team. I love what we’re doing. And it’s really fun to see the impact we’re having”

Cynthia Stoddard, Adobe

“We’ve been using AI and ML and for quite some time,” she says. “We’ve expanded our use case into other areas and some of the operations that support our products as well. We’ve also worked to create an environment where we can serve a lot of different personas, whether that’s basic users who want to start more advanced analytics or onto data scientists who are undertaking detailed work.”

Stoddard says the aim is to give people across the business a technological co-pilot that can help them complete their day-to-day activities more effectively: “Our first use cases were based, for example, on processing invoices or purchase orders and how we could use technology to help with that type of workflow.”

Now, the emphasis has changed – and the objective is to think about how AI and automation can be applied successfully to any element of work. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s look at an employee’s role and think about how we can get them a co-pilot to help them during the day as they do their work’,” she says.

“We are using some of the Microsoft stack for that exploratory work. We are also looking at providing a co-pilot for other specific areas, such as code generation. And we’re using low-code/no-code technology, such as Power Apps. That’s very popular with our sales operations people. We equip them to build mini applications. We’ve set up citizen developer-type guidelines and put them in place, and it’s working out nicely.”

Managing data

The continued focus on emerging technologies brings new pressures for CIOs, especially when it comes to the management of the data that powers these innovations. Stoddard says effective data management is critical to the modern enterprise.

Whether it’s more basic demands from a user who simply wants to get online and look at a dashboard of key business insights every morning or a data scientist who wants to delve into detailed analytics and create their own ML models, IT leaders must understand the disparate demands for information across their organisation.

“What we’re trying to do is look at these personas,” she says. “And then we gear the tools to the personas. Because what I don’t want is to have line-of-business users waiting for us in IT to deliver the things they need. And what we must do is cater our services to each type of user, as one size most definitely does not fit all when it comes to data management.”

Stoddard says CIOs should also match this data management strategy with a commensurate focus on efficiency, which she says is an increasingly hot topic with many of her IT leadership peers today, especially given the mix of rapid technological change and challenging macro-economic conditions around the globe.

“Run IT as a business and look for efficiencies,” she says. “We’ve created a programme that has taken the whole inventory of Adobe software – not just the software that my organisation maintains, but the whole company – and then we’ve added some discovery tools and analytics to place that software into different categories.”

From collaboration platforms to marketing services and onto data analytics tools, Stoddard’s team has catalogued the company’s applications and assigned category owners. Now, her team is looking for more efficiencies. They’re aiming to consolidate the number of tools the business uses and generate further savings.

“We’ve built a corporate catalogue of approved software titles,” she says. “As an employee, if I want to understand how I can do electronic whiteboarding, I’ll go to the catalogue and it will have an approved title. And if an employee has their heart set on another tool for a specific reason, they can go through an exception process and request it.”

Generating value

Stoddard believes the preparatory work she’s undertaking means Adobe has a technology team that’s ready to serve the rest of the business with the data and tools it requires going forward, even at a time of rapid technological change. Just like when she came into the business seven years ago, co-development will be the key to long-term success.

“I see my organisation becoming the second brain to the business. I want them to help with their processes and say, ‘Hey, maybe we should try this or maybe can we bring this generative AI tool into your world?’” she says.

“We want to make the way that people in the business work smoother, so that they enjoy coming into the office. And as part of that process, we’ll have eliminated a lot of the mundane activities that they have to do as workers and helped them to generate much more value for the business.”

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