Adobe's Jonathan Knowles knows cool, but prefers interesting applications of technology
New evangelist for Acrobat talks to Planet PDF, mingles with end users at PDF Conference 2002
6 June 2002
By Kurt Foss, Planet PDF Editor
Adobe Systems sent a team of folks to the PDF Conference East to evangelize the virtues of its fastest-growing product, some to lead or participate in educational sessions on topics from Acrobat accessibility to forms to the PDF Library, others to staff the small vendor booth. Throughout the conference the group was conspicuously attired in the company's traditional trade show wardrobe: black shirt with red Adobe logo.
Jonathan Knowles was the notable exception -- Adobe's man-NOT-in-black.
The red "A" logo on his tan, fashionable dress shirt clearly branded him as having close ties to the San Jose-based software company, one that for years has been known first and foremost for imaging products such as Photoshop. Having joined the company just eight weeks ago, Knowles' distinctively different conference look isn't because the company closets went bare, but results from an intentional desire to convey an openness to new ideas and ways of thinking, and perhaps alter perceptions.
Massaging the message is nothing new to Knowles; and as Adobe's new Worldwide Evangelist for Acrobat, it's likely to a big part of his current challenge. With Acrobat having emerged the past few years as a bread-and-butter product for Adobe, and serving as the core of its increasingly profitable, PDF-based technologies and solutions, Knowles has come aboard at a time when the born-at-Adobe Acrobat line is enjoying unprecedented popularity. Not necessarily for being widely considered as "cool," but because in its almost 10 years has shown it can be harnessed to help companies and people solve problems -- many kinds of them, on multiple platforms.
As a former member of Apple Computer's QuickTime multi-media, multi-platform software team, Knowles has done "cool." In fact, he was known inside and outside Apple in his seven-year stint as the "product manager for 'Way Cool Technology'." Years -- and two restful sabbaticals (Apple and AutoDesk) -- later, Knowles admits to being somewhat "less cool," but as enthused as ever about promoting useable, interesting applications of new technologies -- but not merely technology per se.
"I hate technology for technology's sake. What a waste," Knowles says. "I get off on the application of technology."
His Apple ties and performance contributed in part to the new role Knowles began at Adobe roughly two months ago -- the same person who had hired him at Apple is now his new Acrobat boss. As the Senior Director for Acrobat Desktop Product Management, Harry Vitelli has been building a team of vertical-market- and technology-specific product and product marketing managers. He pitched the Worldwide Acrobat Evangelist opportunity to Knowles, who subsequently negotiated the various hiring hoops and won the role over a pool of other internal and external prospects -- despite the fact at the time he personally was still using Acrobat 4.x!
Knowles describes the past weeks' activities -- after installing Acrobat 5 -- as a whirlwind of work-related travel, meetings with corporate chieftains at large and small companies, brain-picking and strategizing sessions with the Acrobat marketing and sales teams, and accelerated enlightenment with the "robust feature set" of the product he's now charged to evangelize. Based on a cursory review of some of Knowles' diverse personal and professional interests referenced on his personal Web site and/or discussed during our informal interview, there seems little doubt he has the aptitude, personality and smarts to deliver. This is someone who, during a recent sabbatical, earned his general aviation pilot's license and Ham radio license, and who serves as a volunteer interpretive naturalist at a California state park in his spare time. In the latter part of his Apple tenure, Knowles was building demos and presentations for CEO Steve Jobs, a reputed perfectionist with a temper -- a high-pressure environment.
"While I was doing that for Steve, "Knowles says, "there was also a person doing that for Bill at Microsoft." He recalls once watching a televised Gates technology demo where his counterpart was summoned to assist. "Her demo crashed and she fainted right there on the stage. I knew what was going through her mind."
Another important part of Knowles' current fast-track learning process at Adobe, is getting more known by and familiar with the diverse world of Acrobat users. "To me, connecting with end users is equal in importance to meeting with CEOs and CTOs of major corporations," he says. The three-day PDF Conference East 2002 provided direct access and an ideal crash course in all things and applications Acrobat/PDF. "I'm learning things at this conference about Acrobat and PDF that excite me even more," he says. "And that's dangerous. Just wait until I'm really knowledgeable and excited."
"I'm slowly becoming more and more familiar," he says, and in turn is finding that the Acrobat evangelism is starting to happen naturally. "I now call my friends and say: 'this will change the way you do things.'" And it's changing the way Knowles does some everyday things, too, such as maintaining his newspaper-reading habit.
"I find myself more and more not having time to do that reading," he says. As a result, Acrobat's Web Capture tool has quickly become a favorite, especially with the frequent flying lifestyle that comes with his job's "worldwide" designation. "I love Web Capture -- it has so many uses." For example, he often uses it now to easily create a portable PDF news journal -- built from an assortment of online newspapers -- to read on the plane. "It's wonderful to do stuff like that," Knowles says.
Something else that comes naturally to volunteer interpretive naturalist Knowles is a sincere belief in preserving trees -- the no-paper mindset implicit in Adobe's ePaper mantra and marketing philosophy fits him perfectly, perhaps better than some who've been espousing it. "I walked in on my first day at Adobe," he says, "and what do I see sitting on one person's desk -- pads of 'ePaper' paper -- paper bearing the ePaper brand. I said 'If you were to crack a dictionary and look up 'irony,' it would probably show this right here."
When he's not boning up on Acrobat and PDF, or spending time with his wife and/or dog, Knowles is likely to be found hiking -- and leading others -- among the majestic Redwoods at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains. "I take people on hikes and talk about the tallest living thing on Planet Earth," he says, "the California coast Redwoods."
If an evangelist is someone who can communicate passion, consider this description of a Valentine's weekend 2002 hike led by Knowles:
"... walking among the Redwoods while talking about courtship, mating and reproduction behaviors of banana slugs, newts, woodpeckers, redwood trees and more ..."
The park is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year, something he's been working to help promote via the www.bigbasin.org domain that he also owns. While at present the park's Web home includes only a few PDF files, that's about to change, Knowles says. He and his wife are currently writing trailguides for the park's 80 miles of hiking areas -- so people will be able to download maps as PDFs into their PDAs and walk around.
For the forseeable future, it appears likely Knowles will be trekking into more corporate headquarters and industry events -- like the upcoming Addy Awards for excellence in advertising, where he'll play host in Miami with event emcee Dave Barry, the nationally syndicated newspaper humor columnist -- than into preserved woodlands. His infectious enthusiasm will likely serve him -- and the Acrobat/PDF cause -- well in either setting.
"I feel like we're on to some really exciting stuff here (Acrobat/PDF)," he says. Among the positive signs he's witnessed in just a few weeks time were conversations with and presentations to people asking to license 10s of thousands, and even several 100s of thousands, of seats of Acrobat.
Fainting for PDF?
Knowles views his role in such situations as not someone sent to close a sale, but rather to inspire and motivate. "I'm successful if they 'get it' and feel they have to go tell someone else."
To achieve that, Knowles aims to "bring a little Apple style and flair" to Adobe's communication efforts for Acrobat, explaining his philosophy: "You have to ask: What is the message you're trying to get across? At the end of this presentation, what one thing do you want these people to stand up and get up and go do?"
If his motivation efforts succeed, Acrobat and PDF will be truly ubiquitous.
And that might be enough to make a few others at Microsoft faint.