Scott Belsky & Jen Taylor — In Conversation
Join for a special fireside chat between Jen Taylor, SVP & Chief Product Officer at Cloudflare and Scott Belsky, Chief Product Officer at Adobe.
Hi, I'm Jen Taylor, Chief Product Officer at Cloudflare, and I am thrilled today to be joined by Scott Belsky, who's the Chief Product Officer at Adobe.
Welcome, Scott. Thanks for having me.
Welcome. Thanks for joining. I was really, I've been really looking forward to this conversation.
I'm a longtime Adobe fan. I'm deeply passionate about kind of creativity and the future creativity.
And I just really, I love some of your thinking in your work, sort of on the relationship between creativity and scaling organizations.
So just excited to dig in on this today. Sounds good.
I can talk forever about this stuff, so it's all good. So, you know, one of the things I like to do when I start these conversations is sort of, you know, when I meet with the tech superheroes is sort of step back and talk a little bit about sort of the origin story.
So talk to me a little bit about kind of, you know, how you got into this industry, how you got into this space, you know, what drew you in?
Well, I remember, I was an environmental economics major in college, but I junior year started taking a bunch of classes in the design and environmental analysis major where I was at Cornell.
And I had always used Photoshop and some of these products.
I always had like a design part of me, but I never had formal education.
And it was during that junior and senior year, I basically took all the design classes I could.
And I just fell in love with design and the role it plays in helping people understand the world around them, make sense of data, you know, everything.
It just felt like design was this superpower. And so then I kind of went out the traditional business route after school, but I kept having this kind of interest in the creative industry and in design.
And so the origin of Behance, which was an idea in 2005, was to help organize the creative world at work, help people get attribution for their work, build portfolios of their work, etc.
And that became this long, long journey.
Five years as a bootstrap company, two years as a venture backed company building Behance, which is now 25 million creatives around the world showcasing their work online, and people getting jobs and being able to see who did what work for what agency.
And in the process, eliminating a lot of the headhunters and all the other firms, the agencies that take credit for the work that ultimately is done by people.
And that idea of creative meritocracy of people getting credit for the work that they do, and thus more opportunity, really drove my team to build Behance into what it became.
And then fast forward, we joined Adobe at the end of 2012, and came in, took over mobile and creative cloud services.
And this was right at a time when creative cloud was new. We used to just sell box software and suddenly flip the switch and create a subscription business.
And then we had to deliver value to our customers, you know, based on this new business model, really.
And it just opened up a plethora of opportunities for us to, you know, deliver 15,000 fonts at people's fingertips and cloud documents.
And you know, the story from there goes on.
Now, as Chief Product Officer, it's really just a joy to, you know, oversee these products.
Talk to me a little bit about building solutions and technologies and communities for creative individuals.
I think they're just such an interesting and fascinating, and such a dynamic group of people.
What are some of the sort of opportunities and challenges you've seen as you've sort of approached that?
Well, I think the ultimate challenge is to build products that are accessible to anyone, but powerful enough for professionals, which sounds like a, you know, an oxymoron.
How could that be? How could you do both?
And, and that is, you know, that's the challenge. The interesting thing is that the top of our funnel is everyone.
I mean, there's all types of people, students, 10 year olds to grandparents, touching up photos of their family, you know, to leave a legacy behind them of memories.
And all these folks want to be successful.
Photoshop, Premiere Pro, these are super high learning curve products.
They're intimidating. And so what can you do? Yes, you can onboard people with better learning and templates into tutorials.
But there's also this opportunity to bring that technology in entirely new interfaces, whether it be on mobile or on web.
And so, you know, the challenge really ultimately has been to really respect the legacy of the creative professionals of the world who demand the precision and the performance, as well as accommodate this entirely new customer.
And what's interesting is that the business model shift took, you know, buying a $1,000 plus creative suite to paying as low as $9 a month.
And so suddenly, you had all these new people coming in and saying, I want to be creative.
And it just was a forcing function to change. Well, and also, you know, I live in the world now, Cloudflare, where, you know, we're part of and helping customers with that transformation of going from kind of box technology solutions to looking at the cloud and the network, you know, is that the analogy to Adobe, where you're going from selling box software to cloud, what were some of the challenges in that transition that you guys had to navigate both internally and then also for your customers?
Well, listen, internally, I think it took years to get everyone on board.
And certainly, even after we made the switch, there was a cohort of people who still questioned why are we doing this?
Is this more trouble than it was worth?
How are we going to deliver the value? That sort of stuff. Listen, any change is hard.
And if everyone is comfortable with the change you're making, you've made it too late.
Adobe, we saw tons of customers, tons of new companies, you know, emerging, you know, in Silicon Valley that were all subscription businesses.
In fact, I'm not aware of one venture backed, modern company that isn't a subscription these days.
And it's just it's the way you deliver ongoing value and leverage the power of the cloud and AI and everything else.
So we had to make that switch. And, you know, the company was able to summit the, you know, the doubt and the trauma internally to do so because orgs had to change.
You know, it's very tempting to ship your org chart, as we all know. And it's really hard when you fundamentally change the product, you just have to change the business.
On the customer side, I think one of the challenges that I think we finally have surpassed, but it took years, maybe years longer than it should have, was just to prove to customers that this was better for them.
You know, make sure that we ship the updates on, you know, 10x more frequency, that we deliver things that otherwise would cost a ton of money.
You know, whether it's fonts, you know, 15,000 fonts, or file storage and collaboration services, and, you know, and libraries to connect all your assets across devices, you know, all these sorts of things took years to build.
And in some ways, the business model transition came before some of those product values.
And so that was also a challenge. Yeah, well, and it's, it's just also fascinating, if you think about it, like box software, like used to have 18 to 24 month product cycles.
And if you look at the universe of applications, and then you know, that were the people are building, and then the devices and the platforms and sort of the rate of innovation and change there, like if you're tooling was still on an 18 to 24 month product cycle, like, it would, it would basically slow down progress of pretty much everything.
It would, and there's actually a really interesting cultural thing I'll just mention, which is that we went from a culture of interdependent independence, in the sense that every product wanted as little as few dependencies as possible to ship that date, so that to your point, we could burn those CDs and put them in the box and ship, right.
And, and so the only thing that mattered was removing any dependencies, we shipped it to a world where actually now we optimize for dependencies.
No company, no, no team should build their own share widget, no team should build their own asset management interface, like it should all be common components built by shared teams.
And so to share the chain, that cultural mindset of no dependencies to optimize for dependencies, that that was also a major, major shift.
Well, and I feel like there's, in the world of product, there is such a moment sometimes of like, I did this, I own this.
And there's such that intense identity with that one specific thing, rather than a collective, like, we did this, we did this together.
Totally. I mean, your, your, your set of services are so intertwined that every, every, I would imagine most teams should be able to finish each other sentences.
And like, the strategy needs to be, I mean, no, no, every, every team is working to achieve this, but your service is by default, really.
And, you know, that's not something that we have the luxury of being.
I don't know, you can come to my team meeting and remind them of that.
Because, but like, how did you, how did you lead the organization through that, that transition, and that sort of transformation, and that sort of scaling to kind of get to that mindset shift?
You know, I always, I love relying on this sort of tip of the spear model, where it's always about finding a product or a team to set the bit for how something should be done.
And then having everyone else look at that and say, all right, yeah, exactly.
And also, if they did it, you can do this. And in fact, sometimes transplanting those leaders that did it into the teams that haven't done it.
And, you know, when, when necessary. It's hard to make a blanket change across everyone.
And the things that I call federal initiatives, where you just force everyone to do something different tomorrow are really, really, you know, messy.
And I try to avoid them. Well, and also because they kind of come down from the top, right?
There aren't things that, I mean, the most impactful things are when teams internalize the problem to be solved, or they internalize the effort.
And they get to a point where they're like, no, no, we need to go do this versus, you know, everybody needs to spend 10% of their effort this quarter doing blah, blah, blah.
I think it's a great point. And, you know, we have processes where everyone has to be in the room for us to approve a concept for the next year, but people don't speak up when they're not aligned.
They just stay quiet. And so I think part of the challenge of leading a change like this is also to pull it out of people to call them out and say, you know, what, what do you think about this?
What are your doubts? Let's get them out there. No elephants is kind of my saying around elephants in the room.
Yeah. Any tips on that for folks who are going through that had to kind of draw, especially in large groups of people?
Yeah, well, I mean, I actually literally, where is it?
Oh, yeah, I have my no elephant sticker that I would put up in our meeting rooms physically.
But what I do have leaders do oftentimes is I'll ask them to send me their elephants in advance.
I'm like, okay, we're going to a meeting where you're going to have all these different teams and dependencies and people from other organizations that are not even under my organization.
Yeah, tell me up front. Like, what do you think people don't want to talk about?
Because it's too dicey? What are the third rails? What keeps you up at night?
There's always an answer to these questions. And as a leader being empowered with this information, I can start to read the room, understand what's underneath certain comments and pull it out.
But at the end of the day, alignment is what it's all about.
And one of my key codes is also design.
So, you know, that idea of a prototype being worth 1000 meetings, I totally subscribe to.
Yeah. Well, okay. So talk to me a little bit about kind of building and scaling the design team that can be and help drive this transformation, right?
Because, I mean, I manage product design myself as part of my organization, you know, managing and inspiring creative individuals is a unique opportunity, a unique challenge at the same time.
Yeah, it's, you know, I think that designers get excited by problems.
And I think that, you know, a problem starts with empathy. And, you know, you can't be too scientific sometimes about the solution, you have to like, instead be very empathetic with where the problem is, who's really suffering this problem?
And what do they need to see, feel, experience, you know, to get over it.
And sometimes you find surprising solutions, you know, when you look at it that way.
We have a centralized design organization, for the most part, with a few exceptions.
And I love the fact that the designers, you know, really are trying to achieve consistency.
I think one of the challenges our customers have is, well, why does shared InDesign look different from shared Photoshop?
You know, why is this interface different than that interface?
And so that's an opportunity always to, that's where design can really lead better product experiences.
And I think that from a motivation perspective, I've just always had the idea of, you know, design needs to have a seat at every table.
And so when it comes to product concepting, and planting the flag for three years from now, design needs to be represented.
When it comes to commitments for the next year, design needs to be represented.
When it comes to reviewing what's going to be shipped, and the final stamp of approval, design needs to be represented.
Otherwise, you end up having a design organization that doesn't feel sufficiently empowered.
Yep, yep. Yep. Um, well, it's interesting, if you think about it, kind of back to sort of the the notion of sort of people having kind of swim lanes and individual products to sort of the notion of dependencies to kind of a collective whole, right?
I mean, you're kind of failing if customers are doing exactly what you want to do, which is using your portfolio of products, but everyone they go to has a different muscle memory feel, right?
Yeah, you're getting you're preventing, you're adding friction into your likelihood of losing retention by having people know how to use all of your experiences, right?
Yeah. How do you structure then the design organization kind of in relationship to the product organization?
So it depends. And, you know, give you the shortest answer possible, which is on when, in an organization where design, you know, finishes product sentences, and is so aligned, and is, and is respected, you know, it's not like a throw over the wall, now design this, and then throw it back to me, and I'll implement it the way I want to.
If it's, if it's, if it's not that, if it's a, it's all in partnership, then I think design should just be a partnership.
And any product. However, in instances where it's a little more of a traditional old school setup, where, you know, engineers are leading the process, and, and a lot of changes can be made, you know, and designers cannot be included at various times.
My idea is that designers, design needs to unionize, design needs a union to represent themselves, right?
And that's the role of a centralized design organization. Yeah. And so that's why I said we have both.
And, you know, in some, Behance, for example, we were so design driven, our designers are part of the product team, because there's no need for a union, unionization, when it comes to Behance design.
And there's a few other examples as well.
Yeah. Well, I love the idea too, of sort of the thinking of sort of the union is the place where designers can kind of go off and participate in, in sort of their individual kind of product roles, but then come back and have conversations about the different problems they're seeing and the different ways that they're solving and using that place as a place where there is collaboration and collectivity and kind of glue right there.
And I think there's a benefit, you know, what Jeannie, she is our VP of design and the way she says it is that everyone's a extended union member of design, every designer in the company.
She has her like full-fledged members that live there and then the ex officio, you know, the family members.
They all come together annually for various things and to strategize and to critique and whatever.
But there are people, I think there are designers and certain products that actually need to be advocated for, that need to, you know, be in some ways protected, you know, by the union to some degree.
Yeah. Yeah. The other thing I'm thinking a lot about too is, you know, some of the stuff that you've been talking about is really sort of leaning into moments that are hard and uncomfortable.
And I think you said a moment ago, like if it's comfortable and easy, you've waited too long.
But it's hard sometimes, like I think about like somebody coming into a problem, it's hard and they kind of get to a point where it's hard and it's like, ah, it's too hard, it's too uncomfortable, kind of lift up.
Like, how do you help the organization kind of breathe through that discomfort and sort of kind of break through?
Well, I mean, one of my, I don't know, beliefs in leadership is you have to be very optimistic about the future and pessimistic about the present.
And I really take that to heart. You know, when we're dealing with problems, I like to lay it out and I like to be very explicit and very honest and say, this is what's going on and it's just not working.
And, you know, it can be very blunt and difficult conversations, but always followed by, but we have the right team.
And I know where we're going. We're all aligned. This is ours to win.
And, you know, I think that's the, every meeting, in some ways, every difficult meeting needs to end or have that cadence.
Every annual plan, every major change, you know, has to have that approach.
I think some leaders try to gloss over one of those two parts and that can be hard for a team.
Yeah. Well, just kind of coming back to the notion of like really putting the team at the forefront, at the center and sort of the optimism in that.
Given our current environment, I appreciate the sort of pessimism about the present and optimism about the future.
I can internalize that on a lot of levels this week.
You know, you're running a pretty big team at Adobe these days, yeah?
It is a big organization.
A lot of products. How do you, like, talk to me a little bit about kind of building and scaling a team like that and like the diversity of the team that you have.
Like, talk to me a little bit about, I mean, you went from sort of founding your own thing, and again, granted, it's been plenty of time, so you've built lots of great skills along the way, but it's a really different thing to go from building and starting your own thing and leading a venture-backed company to being a chief product officer at one of the world's leading enterprises.
Talk to me a little bit about that transformation for you as a leader and then talk to me a little bit about how you've approached it for your organization.
Well, I think that with scale, it just requires a lot more repetition and a lot more thought around the narrative of why we're doing what we're doing and how to merchandise it.
And I think that the thing I've realized over the years is that if you think that that's going to happen naturally, you're going to fail.
It does happen naturally in small teams.
When you're in a startup, I mean, everyone knows why they're there, and everyone talks all day about what it's going to be, so you don't really need much alignment exercise to get there.
In a big company, of course, with everyone in different regions of the world with different incentives, with different levels of hierarchy and leveling, whatever, you just need to have that narrative and find ways to drive it.
You also have to have a real sense of when you have to correct it, when you have to jump in.
I think you have to have your pulse in the organization.
I mean, certainly through COVID and the death of George Floyd and a lot of the various things we dealt with over the last year, it also was very critical to have a lot of all hands, frankly, just hearing people and saying that this isn't business as usual, as opposed to pretending that it is.
So at this scale, again, ambient conversation doesn't cut it.
You have to be very, very thoughtful on that front.
And then in terms of organizational design, you have to kind of be into that.
It wasn't something, obviously, I had any background in with a small team at the hands before coming in, but it became very interesting to me.
Why do you move this group to this group, and what would it do? Or that leader who had that background, what would she be capable of if she was over there instead?
It's a really fun discipline, actually, to organization design. It's super rewarding when a year or two later, sometimes sooner, you get the sense of, wow, that was the right move.
Just like, boom, something unleashes in the org. But kind of back to being able to look at sort of the essence of that person's skill and being able to sort of assess the problem and then kind of enable or kind of get behind that person as they're going through a kind of a potentially uncomfortable moment as they're stepping up or growing into that.
And again, kind of getting behind the game.
Yeah. And I think no one should ever be fully qualified for their role.
Otherwise, what are they doing there? We all need to be stretched in some way.
And I try to, you know, whenever people get sort of struggling or in a struggling moment in their career, I do try to remind them that.
And also, my wife is a psychologist, always used to tell me that everyone is either struggling or they're in denial.
So it's true.
We're all in this struggle. We should all be stretching ourselves. Yeah, I think there's something about normalizing the struggle as part of kind of how this all should go that is, I think, really powerful.
I agree. Yeah. You know, you kind of have a unique purview on sort of the intersection between technology and creativity.
You know, what are you seeing in the creative community today in terms of how they're thinking about or embracing the technologies that are in front of them?
I mean, I guess two quick trends I would share, aside from like feature stuff like 3D and immersive and other things that get me excited, but two really interesting trends.
I would say one is that this next generation creator is multiplayer as opposed to single player.
You know, the idea, if you ask any of our established legacy customers, the idea of more than one person in their Photoshop document is a freaking nightmare.
You know, creativity is a siloed, personal, emotional discipline that you do on your own.
And then you have the next generation coming in.
And by default, they're like, I just want everyone to see what I'm doing.
I'd be like Google Docs, you know? And so we're taking that really seriously, this collaboration first grader.
And how do we help them?
What are the defaults? What are the technologies we need to unlock for them?
What's the role of web and everything else? So that's trend number one.
Trend number two, I call the content first creators. So these are the folks who come in and they don't want to start with a blank page and they don't want any learning curve.
They actually want to find something that someone else did or something that's really inspiring.
And they just want to make it their own. And I think that's true, whether you're in a big company presenting like data and you want to find a great looking graph to like throw your Excel sheet into.
Or if you're a student that wants to make a great history book report and wants to find a cool way of visualizing this.
I think it's a content first approach that is different than what we've seen in the past.
Yeah. Well, it's so interesting just going back to the first one you were talking about in terms of collaboration.
I mean, five, ten years ago, if you're shipping shrink wrap software and people are working with files in their local system and they're working with proprietary file formats, that just wasn't possible.
You were lucky if you got check in and check out. But we were not designed for that.
It is amazing how the move to the cloud has opened that up. I agree.
And I think that imagine every creative document being a cloud document that works across all your devices and all platforms.
And anyone can come in with different levels of permissioning and do different types of work.
It makes design more inclusive too.
The copywriter jumps in and maybe that person has another idea for something that can be changed in the design.
Why do we make these artificial boundaries around who does what in our organization?
We're all people. We all have ideas.
We're all creative to some degree. Well, that's the benefit of diversity, right?
Is that we all bring different perspectives. And while I may be a copywriter, I may have some unique perspective on color or something that I bring to the table.
People talk about why do you do diversity and inclusion? It's exactly for that.
And creating the tools that support that and facilitate that is really powerful.
To me, diversity is a shortcut to innovation. Obviously, you're stacking the deck in your favor if you have more people around you that literally look at things differently based on their backgrounds.
And their own biases and their own experiences.
How can you expect to see the edge that will someday become the center unless you have a ton of people who are looking at it differently?
These collaboration technologies make it easier to engage people wherever they may be.
And I think that's actually the part of the remote work thing that people don't talk about as much.
It opens up the aperture to throw more people into the mix from more places.
And brings people to a place where more of the work is being done in a shared playing field, a shared tool.
Versus who's in the room, who's on the remote call. Who's in the right place.
The other thing I love when you talk about that second theme about content oriented.
I personally, I get blank page anxiety. Sometimes I wake up and I do something and I look at a blank page.
It's actually so much easier for me to start from editing.
So that makes sense. It is daunting. The other thing is, I've never met a creative professional who would like to take three hours to do something that could be achieved in three minutes or three seconds.
So even though a lot of creative pros say, oh, I want to make this from scratch.
In truth, actually, everyone loves leveraging building blocks. It was always interesting in Behance, one of the most popular search terms has always been free PSD.
Free Photoshop document. Everyone's looking for PSDs to leverage. Other people's repositories of creativity that they can then do something with.
What I was also thinking about as you were talking about that, coming back to Behance and the importance of the recognition and ownership of those creative individuals who create those foundational building blocks.
And the way that you are continuing to build on that community.
Yeah. It's exciting. One of the ideas actually back in the origin of the acquisition of Behance in 2012 was the idea of not only having attribution at the portfolio level.
Like I did this to make a portfolio project, but at the tool level.
So we can know what you did in Photoshop since you're logged in.
It's your Photoshop, right? And only actually this year, finally, did we ship something that actually does that.
And we're calling it the Content Authenticity Initiative.
And what it actually does is it's meant to actually address a lot of the fake media problem that we have right now.
What people can do in Photoshop with this new public data that we just launched is you can actually add your attribution to the document itself.
And you can track everything that you did to that media.
And then when that shows up in other places around the web, you can actually track back to the source and see what was done to it.
And that, of course, helps people know what they can trust. But it also helps people know who did it, which I think is a big career opportunity.
It's totally huge. It's like a dynamic wandering watermark in many ways. It is.
For resume purposes as well. Yeah. And also to help us understand and appreciate the originators of the content and appreciate them.
Scott, I could talk to you for another hour.
This has been fantastic. Thank you so much for making time to talk with me today.
And I hope we get a chance to do it again. Well, thanks everyone for tuning in.
I'm a proud investor. I love your product and your company.
And thanks for having me as a guest. Thank you very much for joining us. Thank you.