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Q&A: Adobe's Martin Newell, David Story talk up R&D, new projects

They were at last week's Siggraph show in Boston

By Dan Tennant
August 11, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The Association for Computing Machinery held its annual Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (Siggraph) conference in Boston earlier this month, paying special tribute to Martin Newell, an Adobe Fellow at Adobe Systems Inc. Computerworld's Dan Tennant spoke with Newell and David Story, Adobe's vice president of Digital Imaging Product Development, about their work at Adobe, how the development process unfolds, and kinds of products they'd like to be working on. Excerpts from the interview follow.

One of you is an Adobe Fellow involved in research and development; The other is a software engineer working on end products. How do the two of you interact with one another?

Newell: I run a group of eight people -- I'm recruiting at the moment -- called the Advanced Graphics Technology group [also known as the Labs], which has been around for 10 years, doing research and development that's relevant to Adobe's product groups. In the past, my guys would effectively become members of the product teams and actually see products through to shipping.

Story: We'd have a guy from Labs come and sit with us for six or nine months to debug a product, to get the UI right, to make it work on Macintosh and Windows and wherever else it needed to run, to make it run a lot faster, and to file all the bugs.

Newell: The people in the product groups are software engineers; they know all that stuff, and they're really good at it. But my guys are not -- they're not trained for it. It was a misuse of their true skill, but that's the way it was for many years. Then Dave came along, with a background in and frustration with the same kind of problem. He took engineers from the Photoshop team and made them responsible for bringing technology into the product groups from outside. Now, those guys work closely with us, and it's made our lives way, way easier. Though we work with a product group on a technology right up until shipping, we're working on the stuff underneath -- the engine, not the small things. It's way more efficient, and while our R&D groups are not very big compared with some other companies, we pride ourselves at being extremely directed.

What kind of evolution have you seen transform the development model since you two came together two years ago?

Story: If you look at a [typical] product that's been in development for five years, the feature development time out of that five-year cycle is probably less than a third. In a traditional waterfall model, a third of the cycle goes to design, a third to development, a third to debugging. Design, develop, debug, and then start over. But we've been radically changing the development process with products like Adobe Lightroom, where we're putting it out in public -- every two months, we're doing releases. Lightroom has been in development for almost three years; We've got several hundred thousand people using it right now. One of the product groups actually lived in Labs to incubate the idea. We moved the whole team over to my group to continue to develop it and now we're doing a development model where we actually put it out in public. We experiment with a lot of different models, and we can't afford to have [Labs] tied up for six to nine months to make an idea come through. We've had to change the way we think about the pipeline of innovation.

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