Adobe's Newest Top Executive Explains How Covid Pandemic Changed His First Year on the Job

  • After a six-year run as CEO of Informatica, Anil Chakravarthy joined Adobe in January 2020 as head of the digital experience business, the company's second-biggest unit.
  • Two months later, he was canceling all meetings and preparing a virtual presentation at Adobe's annual conference, which was supposed to be in Las Vegas.
  • Most of his employee meetings have been over video, though he has been taking masked walks with colleagues in the evenings and on weekends.

When Anil Chakravarthy joined Adobe in January 2020, his job as head of the Digital Experience business was to help customers modernize and take advantage of the cloud. He also had to gear up quickly for Adobe Summit, the company's annual customer event that was set to start in March in Las Vegas.

Covid-19 changed his plans entirely. Chakravarthy, who had spent the previous six years as CEO of Informatica, canceled all travel and started working from his living room sofa. He spent so much time on video meetings from there that co-workers turned his couch into a meme.

Chakravarthy also missed his chance to meet Tom Brady, who was scheduled to be a guest speaker at the Las Vegas summit. Like its tech peers, Adobe converted its conference into a virtual event.

Despite all the disruption, revenue in the Digital Experience division, which includes products for marketing, analytics and e-commerce, climbed 12% last year. And in the first quarter, sales increased 24% to $934 million, accounting for close to a quarter of the company's total revenue. It's the company's second-biggest business, behind digital media, which includes the Acrobat family of products.

Over a year into his new gig, Chakravarthy is now preparing for the virtual 2021 summit next week. He's also getting ready for an eventual return to the office and a chance to meet many more of the company's 23,000 worldwide employees in person.

Chakravarthy sat down with CNBC via video from his home in Silicon Valley to talk about the past year and what lies ahead as the pandemic comes to an end.

Here's the full Q&A: 

(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.) 

Ari Levy, CNBC: You started right before the pandemic hit. What was it like being thrown into the fire like that?

Anil Chakravarthy, EVP and GM, Adobe's digital experience business and worldwide field operations: We had about two months of typical onboarding, we had our employee meetings and I was on the road with customers and partners at our key sites around the world. We were just getting ready to go up to Seattle to meet one of our partners, Microsoft, and I had another road trip planned in March. This was early March. First we put a stop to travel. Then we said, people don't come into the office. Then it became complete work from home.

The big pivot was this event. It was supposed to be in Las Vegas. We were expecting 23,000 people. We had everything lined up. I was looking forward to meeting Tom Brady on stage.

We redirected the entire stage to go from Las Vegas to come to our office so we could record in the office. That plan went through the window. Finally, we all ended up recording from home and made the entire event virtual. That was our first real, hey this is a digital-only world now. Everybody came face to face with that. We went from digital as an important channel to digital as the primary channel to, in many cases, digital only. That was the pattern we saw across industries. Since we had an early exposure to that, we engaged with a lot of customers and worked with them on that over the course of the year.

Were you supposed to interview Brady on stage?

Tom had his own cameo role. I would introduce him and Tom would do his thing — that was the plan. It became a video thing. The video ended up really nice. He was more produced than it was for me at home.

What became your top job when the pandemic hit as far as supporting employees and working with customers?

For employees, the top job just became, what do we do for their well-being and safety? There were things that we never would have thought about. Employees were all over the place. There were people with health issues, people who just don't have enough room to work at home. In places like in India, we have employees who live in relatively small apartments and multi-generational households and things like that. There was a whole range of issues. Some people were super happy that everybody was working remote. Some were like, oh my God, I don't think I can get my job done.

We had people who were going into data centers, and doing things where they couldn't travel to data centers any more or to customer sites to deliver projects. There was a spectrum of events that we had to deal with to make sure that we were delivering a continuous service. We do trillions of transactions a month online. What happened was the volume really went up like crazy. Every day seemed like Black Friday. The key was, how do you help this wide variety of employees with different functional roles and different personal situations really stay effective using a complete virtual environment.

On the customer side, I would put it into two classes. There was a class who were severely financially impacted, especially in the travel and hospitality verticals. For them it was like, hey work with us and become a long-term partner so we can get through this and continue to invest in Adobe. The other was like, hey finance is not the problem but we never anticipated we would be in this kind of situation. A retailer that was experimenting with digital is now like, nobody is coming to store, the website is it and I have to stand up curbside pickup in four weeks. How do I do that? It was mostly going into both a consultative role but also a role where we could really work with them as a partner while keeping our business healthy.

You're from India as is your CEO, Shantanu Narayen. You mentioned employees in India specifically. What was the response there and how did you help employees get comfortable with the situation?

First of all, we helped people with arrangements for how to work from home. In our intranet, we actually had a very useful set of collected best practices, advice from employees. There were these little mini networks you could follow. If you're a young parent and you have young kids at home, what are some things you can do that would help you become more effective while working form home? There was a separate network of people who would share tips about what they were doing. If you were living in a multigenerational household, what would you do? if you are in an engineering role versus a customer support role, where you have to be aligned with customers' time zones while working from home, what would you do? Those were some of challenges, especially with customer delivery of projects.

All of our customers who would typically be in an office situation, they're working remote. How do you make sure you have all the permissions and the access to help them deliver those projects? What proved really successful for us was there was a set of things we did to make everybody effective like tools to work from home, which a lot of companies did. In addition, we then had these specific colleague affinity groups of employees who could really, based on their role and their personal situation, find advice to make their own situation more effective at working from home.

Did you have to send hot spots to people who had weak internet connections?

What proved very effective is Adobe made an allowance. You could expense a certain amount of money and you could use it for whatever you wanted as long as it was reasonably justified. Some people used it to buy office furniture and some people used it for better internet and things like that. We had that open for six months or so.

When you arrived at Adobe, what was the high-level expectation?

The experience cloud is the business I'm responsible for. Also, for our enterprise customers we have a sales team that will cover all of Adobe. I'm responsible for the enterprise go to market team as well, which is not only experience cloud, because we want to represent all of Adobe to our enterprise customers.

In terms of the experience cloud, we've been investing in this now for well over 10 years starting with the acquisition of Omniture. We're the clear leader in providing the customer experience. The nature of how customers provide this customer experience is changing rapidly so it's much more data driven. It's driven off a common understanding for the customer. Think of it as a unified profile of the customer and then how we deliver content to the customer, how we help them do online commerce, how we market to them.

It's all being driven off this common platform, the data-driven platform. That, by the way, is what made Adobe successful. The Adobe transformation was the result of moving online and really driving the personalized journey with customers. We call that our data-driven operating model. How do we make that available to all of our customers? Coming from Informatica, which is where I was before, I had that background in enterprise and driving data-driven platforms. That was my charter was how do we accelerate that journey. We're making good progress on that front.

What was it like for you working from home?

I have a couch behind me that you can see. I was sitting on the couch before I got this — using my allowance I got this desk and everything. The couch became very famous inside the company, because I think people are bored and everything became a meme, including my couch. I don't why it became a meme. I was just sitting on the couch. I guess not too many people sit on the couch all day. It became like, hey he's on the couch again.

Our chief human resources officer has a Dr. Fauci bobblehead behind her. So that became a big meme. This couch became a meme. If I could explain memes, I'm telling you I'd be in a different line of work.

Now I have this standing desk. It's a nice setup. Somebody from the security team brought my office monitor and everything here. I waited like six months. I was fighting it.

Now that we're over a year into the pandemic, how much of your job is still dealing with personal issues and making sure people are OK?

A good 10-20% of my job is that, a coach and consultant and sounding board and just being able to help people work through that. One of the good things we've been able to do is for several of the people who are here and are open to it, I go for a walking one on one. We mask up and go for a walk. That's provided a nice way to balance both the human aspect of life with what we're trying to get done at work. I do about three or so a week, typically during workday evenings and sometimes over the weekend.

Did you find yourself front and center at the company faster than you expected because of Covid?

The digital experience is a big business and we have lots of employees. The part that was a little bit unexpected was I had not had the chance to meet in person as many people as I would have otherwise met. We had a whole lineup of international events. Our summit events, once we do the one in Las Vegas, we do them in many markets around the world. I had decided that I would travel to those events and that would give me a chance to meet our employees and customers in the regions. All of that became virtual. The good news is virtually I've met a ton of employees and a ton of customers. That has worked really well.

Typically when you go into a new company or you take over a new role within company, as part of doing that job you get a lot of incidental contact. You meet employees and customers in situations where you just have a lot of casual conversations and you pick up a lot of things about what's really going on and what are the issues they face in doing their jobs. That incidental contact is much harder to create in an online environment. I had to work around that. It doesn't happen naturally. I have to work at making it happen.

What 's been the biggest surprise for you?

The biggest positive surprise has been the resiliency of our company and the employees and how they've worked around these constraints. With 23,000 people, we support trillions of transactions. The volume has really gone through the roof. It's been crazy. Being able to keep all of that up and running and scaling, working in a virtual environment, the resiliency required when people are scrambling and trying to make sure they're taking care of their families and themselves and so on.

The surprise we're continuing to work on is, from a customer perspective things have changed. Customers have also done a really good job of pivoting for the most part. But it's not done. Right now as everybody starts to think about the future of work, that's the unknown that we're all working through.

Where are we now in the reopening of the economy and returning to work?

We're at the beginning of that process of reentering and coming back. Everybody is thinking it through and figuring out what's the right way to do it, the right pace to do it at and what should be required and what should be recommended in terms of employees and customers. We just had our employee meeting and there were lots of questions about that. We have been doing a lot of — our HR team working with our facilities team — has done a lot of work, both our own surveys and our own thought leadership but also comparing notes with our peer companies on what this future of work will look like and within the Adobe employee base what people would like to do.

We do believe that this idea of working from home for some portion of the week is going to stay as the norm for a large number of employees. The piece that we are moving to is, hey there are certain types of activities where we will require people to be in the office because that's more productive. That's brainstorming about new products, for example, or key planning sessions and things like that. As more people get vaccinated, that gets easier.

I went into the office to record my session for [the] summit. We were super duper careful. I got tested that morning and made sure everybody got tested before going in. Some of that might continue and some of that might get relaxed. 

Give me a little more detail on this year's summit and how how it will be different from last year.

We have Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, doing a fireside chat with Shantanu. We also have the COO of FedEx. One as a partner but they've also had a huge role in the pandemic distributing vaccine. This year we have Serena Williams. I know I'm not meeting her this time so there's no let down, unlike last year. We have hundreds of customers and lots of partners. We expect that we'll have well over a half-million attendees virtually.

What we've learned from last year to this year is how to really personalize it at scale. Last year, because we moved so quickly, it was like we made the content, we put it out there and people came. It was all in a couple weeks. This time, we opened up registration a while ago and people have indicated what they want. We know what they're interested in based on our relationships with them. It's a lot more targeted, a lot more personalized and essentially built from the ground up to be a digital experience.

Finally, how did you meet Shantanu and did her personally recruit you?

Informatica was a partner of Adobe's. At that time, Informatica was a partner for the Adobe Experience platform, especially in the data integration space. It was complementary. That's how I met Shantanu. A lot of the reason I came was the opportunity to work with him and work with the leadership team at Adobe.

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