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May - 2007 - issue > Leadership
Where the mind, heart and gut work in sync
Pradeep Shankar
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Adobe India Head Naresh Gupta may not be the name that is top of mind when it comes to high-tech leaders of Indian IT industry. But it probably should.

He is a fine example of someone who has been able to look ahead, think forward and experiment. In 1997, at a young age of 30, having spent just a year at Adobe in the U.S., he managed to get a buy-in from his CEO to start an India R&D Center. While the phenomenon of expatriates returning after a short stint in the U.S. is commonplace today, it was quite unheard of during
the late 90s.

Gupta is at ease doing the non-commonplace though; it follows his mind-heart-gut trajectory, for he belongs to a rare breed of leaders whose mind, heart and gut work in sync. Backed by these three pillars and his technical and managerial acumen, Gupta has taken Adobe India to astounding heights.

Over the years, Adobe India has grown to 1000 employees, rolled out several products of Adobe completely engineered out of India and has filed more than 50 patents. From rolling out software components (phase 1) in the initial years to developing complete products (phase 2), today India owns the responsibility of running one of Adobe’s six business units (phase 3). Added to this, the center is leading charge in several new areas for Adobe’s future rollouts (phase 4). With one-third of Adobe’s engineering force based in India, one could easily gauge that the India center’s efforts are significant to the overall growth of the company.

Heretic at Heart
Integral to Adobe India’s success is Gupta’s relentless passion. He himself has moved rapidly up the corporate ladder and as Senior Vice President, he influences what happens at Adobe. Not many get to play roles like this. In fact, there is no other Fortune 500 company which has made its India head a part of the executive management. Gupta was also a part of the senior management team that led Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia globally.

Underlining the success of Adobe India is Gupta’s signature strength—that of getting things done. And it all begins in choosing people who can do it. “I believe that the right people are the core ingredient of a successful organization, for they have the right understanding, and the right zeal to do things in the right way,” he says.
He doesn’t compromise on hiring quality people. Anybody who is below the bar, he doesn’t hire even if it were to delay a project. “Hiring quality people is my biggest strength and a big concern as well,” he quips.

The concern reflects in the ranks of Adobe India as well. If you look at the top 100 people in the company, they were all hired by Gupta during his early years. “One ‘mantra’ I have followed is to never penalize people for failure if they have tried their best. The outcome is not within their control for it depends on many external factors. That helps people focus on the core issue and inspires them to succeed rather than passing the blame and finding excuses when things go wrong,” he says.
Not only does he hire the right people, he grooms them too. In his early years, Gupta noticed that engineers were not forthcoming with their views in technical meetings. He knew that in order to foster innovation, having dissenting views was more important than consensus. He would call one or two engineers and plant questions that would challenge his own views. Over a period of time, other engineers observed that putting forth their views was beneficial to the organizational road map. It led to them voicing their opinions on varied work-related aspects; in a unique way, Gupta had introduced a culture of challenging existent norms in the company.

Gupta’s unconventional ways can be traced back to his days at IIT Kanpur, where he was pursuing a computer science course. “One of his passions was astrology. He would aggressively pursue the hobby even though not many 19 year old understood why one of their class mates would want to do so; that needed both courage and belief in oneself,” notes Junglee.com founder and presently a partner at Helion Ventures Ashish Gupta, also a classmate of (Naresh) Gupta.

Gut and Gumption
To put it straight: Gupta is a Smart Techie. A gold medalist from IIT Kanpur, he has won several accolades during his master’s and doctorate degrees in computer science from the University of Maryland, College Park. He has been widely published as a computer science expert in the areas of shape, motion and AI research. His work as a computer scientist in Adobe’s corporate research group led to six technology patents and resulted in key features of Adobe Photoshop and other Adobe products.

What has aided him in these conquests is his undying spirit and strong gumption. Within five minutes of meeting him, you know he’s a no-nonsense person who values commitment and perseverance above anything else. A lost cricket match by eight runs during his childhood days made him realize that had he not lost hope and just tried hard, things might have worked and his team might have just won.

“This particular incident reinforced in me the spirit to try my best in all situations. Since then I have become more conscious of the fact that one should not give up. Try, Try, and Try. While playing tennis, even when I am trailing at love - 5, love - 40, I still give my best. You never know,” he says, adding a note of caution almost simultaneously; “There are situations when one has to give up, accept whatever the situation is and move on. At any given time, one should be worrying about and focusing one’s energy on things that matter most and could have the maximum impact. The critical point is that the battles to be fought must be decided with care and evaluated continuously. Once the decision
to fight has been made, give it the best shot.”

Mind over Matter
It isn’t as easy as it sounds though. Gupta has mastered the art of detaching himself from the problem before hand to get a big picture of the same and decide whether it is worth fighting for. “In many situations, I step back and look at the problem from 10,000 feet. When you do that you get a better perspective of what you are fighting for and why,” he notes. For him, mastery of such an art was probably possible because of owing to his interest in history; more so, the evolution of science and technology. He consciously tries to match past patterns to the reality that he sees today.

Gupta is a person who is aware of what he knows and has a decent idea of what he doesn’t know. He looks at things from a global perspective: “In today’s environment, to be a successful leader one needs to have the ability to anticipate the future, be analytical, track multiple things at the same time, coordinate and communicate with customers and employees in a distributed environment and have a very global perspective.” And he has all those skills.

He is quick to look at data and react to it. He is at ease while he deals with missing information. He knows how to fill the gaps and connect the dots. “We live in an era
of uncertainty. One has to accept that nobody knows everything accurately. One has to have assumptions, hypothesis, and a working model to fill the gaps in information and understanding. The working model allows one to continue to function and move forward as new and missing information becomes available. At the same time it is important to be receptive to data and be ready to include it in your calculation and change your hypothesis, model and the strategy if the new data dictates so,” says Gupta.

While he speaks there is logic, humility and passion. It’s quite infectious. And that makes Gupta a leader of different breed.

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