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How Adobe turns cutting-edge research into everyday features

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19.08.2019

San Francisco’s Moscone West convention center has hosted its share of giant developer conferences over the years, from Apple’s WWDC to Google I/O to Microsoft Build. Adobe’s Tech Summit has a similar look and feel, with a splashy keynote, a profusion of demos all around the building, and lavish spreads of food for attendees. But this particular developer conference has one key difference: The developers in question are all Adobe employees.

Last February, at the 2019 edition of the biannual event, there were more than 3,000 of them on the premises—not just Bay Area locals but also staffers from far-away offices, including around a thousand from India alone. Many more participated in the event via live stream.

Back in 1998, Adobe’s current CEO, Shantanu Narayen, was a new Adobe recruit. During his first week on the job as senior VP of worldwide product research, he attended a Tech Summit. “Everybody fit in a small ballroom here at the [San Jose] Fairmont,” he remembers. Twenty-one years later, the event, though massively larger, attempts to preserve the intimacy of its early days. “Increasingly, it’s the collaboration between these people and the ideas that bring together magic,” says Narayen. “And so from our point of view, it’s one of the best investments you can make.”

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen onstage at 2019’s Tech Summit in San Francisco. [Photo: Harry McCracken]Despite its scale, Tech Summit has “almost zero top-down management,” says Abhay Parasnis, Adobe’s CTO. “This is not a corporate ‘rah rah, these are the messages.’ This is really whatever the product and engineering community feels was passionate about.” Which is not to say that the event is without structure and goals. “One of our missions is to stand up and tell the Tech Summit community, which is many of our influential engineers, ‘This thing is coming, and it’s important to learn it,'” says Gavin Miller, Adobe’s head of research.

Adobe cofounders Chuck Geschke and John Warnock at Tech Summit. [Photo: Harry McCracken]Adobe currently has 22,000 employees, but when it was a brand-new startup 37 years ago, its cofounder John Warnock thought it would never have more than 50–or so his fellow founder Chuck Geschke laughingly contended during a Tech Summit Q&A they both participated in. Within a few years of its 1982 inception, their company developed a knack for building products aimed at creative professionals that were not only useful, but enduringly so.

Adobe shipped the first version of Illustrator more than 32 years ago, when a loaded Mac came with a 16-MHz processor, 4MB of RAM, and an 80MB hard disk. Photoshop is 29 years old. Premiere is 28, Acrobat is 26, and InDesign (which I still think of as a relative newcomer) is 20. Among major purveyors of software, only Microsoft offers as many products with decades-long bloodlines. Plenty of Adobe products are far newer, but even those which aren’t even out yet, such as the Fresco painting app for the iPad, live within the ecosystem defined by the company’s oldest and best-known products.

It’s today’s research that ensures that Adobe’s apps, regardless of their age, have a vibrant tomorrow. Once standalone........

© Fast Company