In 2012 I made a big play. I came back from Burning Man with a promise to myself that I would never again allow myself to burn out, to work in a way that wasn’t true to myself, to be beholden to a vision to which I didn’t subscribe, all for something “as common as money” [credit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory]. Naturally, this meant I’d be leaving Adobe, because how could such a thing exist in the corporate world?
I consulted my 4 career mentors. All gave great advice. Three of them are employees or alumni of Adobe. Three of them said “before you leave, talk to David Salesin”.
I googled him. His bio reads like that of a Bond Villain or some sort of medieval hero. Also, he is a tango dancer, a private pilot, and bakes his own bread. David was a respected Adobe Fellow with a rockstar career and a reputation of being high maintenance, exacting, innovative, and brilliant. I was a project manager one step over and about a million steps down from him in the org chart, but I told him I wanted to meet him and talk about the innovative work he was doing, and he took my lunch invitation. A quiet, attentive man, David listened intently, asking pointed questions and challenging assumptions. He was not the rockstar I had been promised; he was so much more.
He was a professor who made a habit of challenging his own gut reactions with an immediate, opposite comment. A person who listened to and remembered details of conversations. A person who absorbed information and, weeks later, long after you thought he’d forgotten, would come back with a well-formulated perspective, beyond what you’d considered. By the end of that lunch, I was committed. I wanted to work with and for this man, carrying out whatever vision he had. Thankfully, he agreed. A month or so after our first meeting, David created the project management role within his team, the Creative Technologies Lab in Adobe Research. A few weeks after that, I interviewed for it. A week or so after that, David walked into my team’s area and announced “you got the job!” to me, and a bunch of colleagues who hadn’t known until that moment that I’d been interviewing.
This was David – unabashedly guileless. Enthusiastic. Occasionally maddening.
I was too excited to care about that last bit, leapt up, hugged him, wondered for a second if that was weird, and was invited to my first CTL staff meeting, already in progress. I entered, and the room stood up to hug me. David told me the decision had been unanimous; this is how things were decided in this team he’d created, and it forged colleagues devoted to each other and, more importantly, aware of each others motivations, even when they disagreed. I only sensed the impact of this at the time; it wasn’t until almost exactly four years later, when David told us he was leaving, that I felt the full weight of what I’d been honored to experience.
Imagine, for even a portion of your career, that your manager, the person responsible for deciding how much money you make, never told you what to do. That that person trusted you enough to present you with a problem and know that how you handled it would be the right way for the team. That if you needed guidance, they would never tell you, but let you know the impact you were having, and ask what you might change to get the desired outcome. Imagine the fear, the trepidation, and, eventually, the confidence this would build in yourself, in your abilities.
I have been pushed to the brink of what I am capable of accomplishing. I have had demands so insane placed on me that I felt on the verge of collapse and, when I confided these in a colleague, she said “growing pains, huh?” HUH? “Yeah, that’s how David works. He pushes everyone.”
Of course he does. That’s his magic. But he doesn’t push you. He sets the goal in front of you and lets you reach it, offering guidance but never, ever telling. Your only limit becomes yourself, never bureaucracy, never semantics. And, because he hires well, you push yourself.
We became friends. He and his amazing wife came to Burning Man. He may never go back, but David was joyful watching me in my element. The moment David and Sylvia came into the Thunderdome, heard me open the ceremonies with Je Veux Vivre, and sat with me for the speech and the first few fights, seeing my amazing crew work their magic, I let them into my soul, into the innermost part of myself, and I knew I had made friends for life. Had I known a few months prior what I knew at that moment, I would have invited them to our wedding; I’m still sad I didn’t.
Now, I look back on the last four years. Despite my protestations, he made me a manager. I thrived. I’ve had two promotions, for which I had to scramble, and up my skills and expertise, and show everyone why I deserved the next step (one I was already on – that’s how the corporate world works, you get acknowledged for the job you’re already doing). Every step I took was the most difficult, challenging step I had taken in my career. And for every step I took, David added another one above that, more challenging, more strategic, more demanding. When I look back now, I’ve climbed a mountain I could never have climbed on my own. The heights are amazing, and I share them with colleagues I am honored to know; sensitive colleagues who have met with me multiple times to ask how I am handling the change. You see, we were all impacted by David in this way. We are all under his spell, pushing ourselves beyond where we thought was possible because, under David, it never occurs to you that it might not be.
I’m scared of flying. I once mentioned this to a circus colleague and her tween daughter. Her daughter said to me “I used to be afraid of flying, but my mom isn’t, so that helped me to not be scared.” When the daughter left the room, her mother grabbed my arm. “I’m terrified of flying. But I didn’t want to pass it on, so when I fly with my daughter, I don’t show her that.” For a moment I felt extreme jealousy; certainly my mother’s brandy-in-one-hand-rosary-in-the-other-weeping-during-turbulence method didn’t help my fears. But the main thing I took away from that confession it is that this is life; what we show the world impacts everyone around us. And, under David’s tutelage, I have learned not only that he is not high-maintenance, just very particular, but I’ve learned to at least pretend to not be afraid to fly.
Thank you, David, for the wings you gave so very many of us. We didn’t even know it at the time; you’re that good. Now it’s our job to bring it into the world. The way to honor your legacy is to push ourselves, push our colleagues, our employees, push our company, and make Big Plays.
What’s the next one?