How Adobe's CIO is turning her team into customer and employee experience orchestrators

Adobe's global IT leader shares how she's improving the marketing-IT relationship and why employee experience lies at the heart of successful leadership


Adobe’s CIO, Cynthia Stoddard, is so committed to ensuring employee experiences are as personalised and strong as customer experiences, she’s dedicated one of her team leaders to the task and launched a program to make it happen.

“With all the work being done with external-facing customer experience, linking up channels and personalisation, I believe you need to bring that inside the company and use those same techniques with employees,” she tells CMO.

To do this, Adobe launched a project called ‘advancing the inside’, which takes the same aspects of what the vendor is doing to improve customer engagement, and focuses them on ensuring employees have the same experiences.

“To help, I took anything employee-facing and put it under one of my unit leaders. Then we looked at the types of employees and roles we have, and came up with four different personas – builder, enabler, customer-facing and a communicator,” Stoddard explains.

Cynthia Stoddard
Cynthia Stoddard


“We layered two different dimensions over that: One being new employee, the other being international. So if you’re outside the US, you have different work habits and tools you need. The aim is to marry all experiences within the company to those different dimensions.”

The program is just one example of how the CIO role is morphing from back office to focus on experience, Stoddard says.

“My philosophy has always been that I want to be an enabler, not a roadblock,” she says. “I’ve had people in some roles ask how I’m going to shut down all this ‘shadow IT’ going on outside of the IT function. I’ve told groups I won’t do that.

“We need to enable the business, and if we can put technology in their hands, all the better. We want them to be able to control their destiny.”  

The CIO as experience maker

Stoddard has spent 25 years in tech management, working across transportation, logistics, storage and high-tech companies including Safeway, APL NetApp and Emery Worldwide. Joining Adobe as CIO two years ago, she reports into global CTO, Abhay Parasnis, and is working on projects stretching from data centralisation to cloud services and building self-healing platforms based on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

With tech usage and purchasing arguably now belonging to anyone in an organisation thanks to mobile, social and cloud innovation, it’s clear IT doesn’t have as much control over the way technology is utilised as it once did. This is despite the fact IT teams still have to ensure security and simplification.

To cope, Stoddard says Adobe runs an ‘entrust program’. “What that does is takes care of how you do security and how you think about integration around new technologies,” she says.

“If you stay within the guardrails of the program, then we can enable you with your technology and you have full use of that. I’m really in favour of getting technology into the hands of the employee.

“Also within my group, we have a vision statement that we want to have cloud-like characteristics in our DNA. If you think about cloud, it’s easy to use and it’s self-service. I’ve talked to my group and said whatever role you have in IT, think about doing what you do in a cloud-like matter.

“For example, if you’re interfacing with someone else in IT, or a business department or external customer, think about how you take yourself out of the equation and make it self-service and easy to use. It’s one of our core design principles going forward.”

It’s all part of how CIOs have to get their heads around looking from the outside in, Stoddard says.

“In order to have an impact on the business, you have to understand who your customers are. And to understand customers, you have to understand their journeys, pain points, how they’re using your products and services and how they interact with your company,” she says, reflecting the language more commonly associated with the marketing leader.

The way you get that knowledge is by meeting with customers and participating, Stoddard says, adding she’s heavily involved in Adobe’s customer briefing centre to achieve this aim.

The marketing- IT relationship

There’s been plenty of talk about how important it is for marketing and technology to collaborate. But while things have progressed, many still struggle to build relationships.

One thing helping Stoddard overcome such issues is having a highly collaborative working relationship between IT and marketing.

“My team has a seat at the table. I have a great leader that handles our marketing systems, and she understands the business, which is very key for IT. But she also understands that based on the role marketing has had in organisations for a long time, they do already know a lot about technology,” she comments. “This shouldn’t be discounted – it’s a collaborative effort.

“Where problems occur with IT is where they still want that wall and to control things. I also think it’s important for each side to understand the problems and point of view of the other. Then work on those uncommon understandings and figure out how to work together.”

Stoddard points out IT has a unique view in organisations. “We have the infrastructure, we’ve been working with data for a long time, and we have access to a lot of data marketing may not have access to. Bringing in that knowledge and showing what is the art of the possible goes a long way. Experimenting and having that relationship is part of that,” she says.  

“As we go into development, we also include marketing people in our scrum teams, so they’re able to participate in the day-to-day of how we develop and look at solutions.”

The question of digital ownership has raised particular challenges around where responsibility sits within an organisation. In some instances, these skills have shifted into marketing.

One example is at financial services company, Mercer, where the CIO handed over significant headcount to the chief customer officer as a way of ensuring more seamless customer experiences.

Read more: 6 ways Mercer’s CMO and CIO are addressing customer-led transformation – together

At Adobe, things have gone the other way, and people within the marketing analysis organisation have shifted - with their databases - into IT. Stoddard says this allowed the vendor to bring data into a central source of information.

“Over the last year, we’ve built out our data-driven operating model. As we looked at these different source systems – there are more than 10 – we’ve brought them to the table into a common data Hadoop environment,” she continues. “We also had five different satellite systems we’ve been able to bring in. It’s about the consistency of the information and making sure everyone is on-board.

“From there, the priority has been making sure everyone understands common metrics, and when you’re looking at actual data, you’re translating it not only into actions, but actionable insights.”

While Stoddard says Adobe hasn’t gone so far as enforcing specific KPIs to bring marketing and IT closer together, shared goals have been an important element.

“That’s getting back to understanding what it is you’re trying to accomplish, versus what it is I’m trying to accomplish, then bringing it together,” she says. “We’ve also geared our data-driven operating model to the customer journey, from discover and try, to buy, to starting to use the product, and renewal. This resulted in a common set of metrics and everyone talking the same language.”  

It is important IT thinks like marketing, too, and Stoddard says her team member running the marketing systems portfolio came out of marketing.

“She has that knowledge and is able to speak the language, understand the problems, and do the translation to her team very nicely,” she says. “I’m a real proponent of people having subject matter expertise in the area they’re supporting.

“There is an alternative mindset that says anyone can support any group in the company. That’s probably OK for more vanilla functions. But when you get to marketing or sales operations, it’s specialised and you need some of that core knowledge.

“Because you not only need to understand what their pain points are, but also what’s going on in the industry. You have to keep up to date on industry trends, what software is available and what is emerging, so you can bring those ideas to the table.”

Read more on the CMO-CIO relationship:

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  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Adobe Summit 2018 as a guest of Adobe.

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