by Martin Veitch

Adobe CIO draws on secret SaaS

Jan 25, 2010
CareersCloud ComputingIT Leadership

Adobe CIO Gerri Martin-Flickinger has some pretty strong ideas about what she wants. Speaking down the phone from the graphics software giant’s HQ in Silicon Valley, she takes a line as straight and unwavering as a horizontal rule in Photoshop or InDesign. While some CIOs zigzag between sectors or shuttle between a couple of verticals, Martin-Flickinger knows where she wants to be – in the fastest-changing of all big sectors, software. “I’m about being an enterprise technology company CIO,” she says. “Adobe approached me as they were moving from a shrink-wrapped model to a licensing model and to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. Adobe was primed for catapulting on both of those areas.” SaaS is of course the delivery, consumption and billing model that is in the midst of changing business software for good. Some people call it cloud computing, others on-demand, but it is a format that has spawned a series of companies from in sales force automation to RightNow Technologies in large-scale customer relationship management and NetSuite in enterprise resource planning. Gartner believes that SaaS will account for about a third of enterprise application- spending by 2012. Other siloes will collapse into SaaS earlier, it could be argued. Martin-Flickinger has form when it comes to service-based delivery of software, having worked in one of the bastions of the model, security, at VeriSign, Network Associates and McAfee. “The early days of antivirus was as close to a SaaS model as you can get and you could turn up or turn down the service crank at any time,” she says. At Adobe, she continues to advocate SaaS, in part as a way to live up to that ultimatum of every CIO – deliver value for IT expense or get out.

In line with this, she also takes a robust view of enterprise resource planning systems, so often the making or breaking of CIOs. Her take is that they are hugely important but often unwieldy. “Over the last two or three years the core ERP systems, because they were carrying so much baggage, have been hard to change,” she says. “There’s increasingly powerful stuff but the ability to move forward with that is increasingly difficult. SAP’s underbelly is being eaten away as SaaS players are taking some core functionality because they can go much faster. They’re going with bolt-ons, not replacing ERP. [Expense management service provider] Concur is a great example. It’s got richer functionality and a faster time to market. With that comes a budget challenge that pretty much only the IT department cares about and I think SaaS has a very important role to play. There have been four or five commercial SaaS bolt-ons where we would have used SAP or custom code. “There’s huge value in SAP. It’s a very powerful engine in transaction management and for recording, audit and compliance you need something buttoned up but they have a shortcoming in terms of the user’s screen. I never met a person who loved using it. It’s hideous. Every project is a multimillion-dollar project and the cost is killing people.” Despite the trenchant views on running IT, Martin-Flickinger is not one to confine herself to the server-room barracks. Like many tech CIOs she plays a full role in defining and developing the next generation of her firm’s products and services. “We’re really using our own environment, engaging with engineers,” she enthuses. “Keep the lights on; that’s the cost of entry into the game. But we make sure we’re aligned with engineering, prototyping and investing the innovation team with a lot of autonomy.” One Adobe theme she clearly adores is what the company calls rich internet -applications, that is, applications that feel as if they are desktop applications but are served through a browser, plug-in or virtual machine. “We created a simple, simple, simple user interface to federate data across multiple back-end sources for users. There was no training or fact sheet; it was viral. After 90 days of usage, [usage of the previous application] went nearly to zero. If you have three apps like that as a CIO, you’re a hero.” Martin-Flickinger also believes modern conferencing tools like Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro can make it far simpler to manage even big IT change projects. “All CIOs have lived through the release weekend where we migrate all these changes into production,” she says. “It’s almost a rite of passage; we’re all used to the big roll-out, ton of training and fanfare. I’ve seen similar projects with more than 100 people involved but with never more than five at Adobe HQ. I went into one at Adobe and I was like ‘where is the red phone?’ It finished early as well. It’s amazing to watch.” Martin-Flickinger also offers some sage advice on taking a long-term view of software development. “Make sure when you build solutions you think about the architecture behind the scenes. CIOs can bring a shared service layer of components or web services so developers can use a service library without touching the back-end. Ensure you have integrity. Some people react to that crisis after the fact and try to cross-correlate. We have got a chance to be on the ground floor. Think about service maturity models. To do it right you have to think about the service maturity within your company. “I’m not a CIO who believes the role is defined as the back office. We have significant value. [Adobe people] don’t care about SOX, PCI, audits, data warehouses; they want to build that next great product and where we will strategically move the needle for Adobe. Business works with us as an advisor or partner that helps solve business problems with technology.” So what’s next? “A CIO really helps prepare you for COO or CTO or maybe CEO in innovation areas,” she says. “We get to see the business processes across the enterprise and there’s no other role like it. The differentiator is whether the CIO’s division is seen as a service or utility. [The important thing is that the] CIO’s at the table with the senior team. I say if I think there’s a gap in Adobe or a company [that’s interesting]. But I’ve been a CIO three times so obviously I love it.”

Gerri Martin-Flickinger: CV

Since 2007, Gerri Martin-Flickinger has been CIO of Adobe, managing the software firm’s global IT team, infrastructure and hosted services.

Previously, she was CIO of VeriSign, where she oversaw corporate IT for 60 offices worldwide. Before that she was CIO for Network Associates and McAfee and held senior systems roles at Chevron.