An Interview with John Warnock
Photo of John Warnock

Interview by Jill Wolfson, San Jose Mercury News; and Denise Cobb, Notre Dame High School

Interview photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News

Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer


Denise Cobb

In 1978, as principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, John Warnock assisted in developing stadards for graphics imaging.

A few years later, he and Charles Geschke founded Adobe Systems Inc., which helped launch the desktop publishing revolution. Today, Adobe is the world's third largest personal computer software company.

Warnock, 56, the company's CEO and chairman of the board, holds three patents and has received many industry awards, including the Rochester Institute of Technology Cary Award. He serves as a director on the boards of Netscape Communications and Red Brick Systems, along with being chairman of the Tech Museum of Innovation. He also serves on the Entrepreneurial Board Advisory Committee of the American Film Institute. With a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Utah, Warnock says that he has long been passionate about art and design, for instance, the beauty of calligraphy and the elegance of old manuscripts.

He spoke with writer Jill Wolfson and student Denise Cobb at Adobe's headquarters in San Jose.

Cobb :   What is your Silicon Valley background?
Warnock :   My family and I moved from Maryland to California in 1972. Actually we moved around quite a bit. We're originally from Utah. We moved to Canada, first Vancouver, then Toronto, and then down to Washington, D.C.. I worked at Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington, D.C., and moved out to California with Ames Research. That had to do with supercomputers, using those to predict weather and things like that.


The counselor told me, "Your probability of having any kind of success in any engineering-related activity is probably zero."

I went to work for Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and worked on graphics primarily, interactive graphics and printing systems. I founded Adobe in 1982, so I've been with Adobe for almost 15 years now.

Wolfson :   I'd like to go back a little further and find out what kind of kid you were. A science kid? The smartest kid in the class? Did you have an early interest in science?
Warnock :   This is really interesting. When I was in the 9th grade, I flunked 9th grade algebra. I couldn't cope with 9th grade algebra. And then I remember taking an aptitude test when I was a sophomore in high school, and they said, "You should probably consider not going to college." Then they said, "Well, what would you like to do?"

Another turning point in my life: I solved a problem that was a fairly substantial open problem in mathematics that had never been solved. All of a sudden, I got brighter.

At that time, I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I said, "Well, maybe something like engineering." And the counselor told me, "Your probability of having any kind of success in any engineering-related activity is probably zero." So the school system, in some sense, had a view of the world that was not the same as mine.

John Warnock and Denise Cobb

I had a teacher in high school who was a brilliant teacher and he got his students into mathematics and reduced their fear of mathematics and got them psyched about it. That was the thing that turned my life around.


Einstein failed 9th grade algebra. It turns out that Isaac Newton flunked his exams in geometry twice.

Almost all of his students went on to get Ph.D.s or master's degrees. He's just an astounding teacher. So when I left high school, I was a straight-A student in mathematics with a strong science background.

But in college, I would not characterize myself as a strong student. I took really hard classes, but didn't get particularly good grades. But I did get into graduate school on probation in mathematics. I got my grades up to the point where I could stay in graduate school. The department, I think, looked at me as sort of one of these OK students.

Another turning point in my life: I solved a problem that was a fairly substantial open problem in mathematics that had never been solved. All of a sudden, I got brighter. Ha-ha-ha.


The system doesn't necessarily identify innovators or the people who are going to succeed.

I got nominated to the mathematics honorary fraternity. The system sort of turned around, all of a sudden, because I solved this one problem. I have the distinction of having both the shortest master's thesis and Ph.D. thesis at the University of Utah.

I was going to be a teacher of mathematics and tried that, and got married, and couldn't support my wife doing that. So I got a job doing computers. So, I think the message for children is that they may not think that they have the aptitude for technology.


Students should have a healthy skepticism about what they're told.
Or they may have predisposed notions about what they could do in life, and I would tell them that there is always more hope than they can possibly imagine. Einstein failed 9th grade algebra.

It turns out that Isaac Newton flunked his exams in geometry twice. So the system doesn't necessarily identify innovators or the people who are going to succeed. Students should have a healthy skepticism about what they're told.

Wolfson :   Did you ever send a note to the high school counselor or to the junior high counselor?
Warnock :   No. By the time you succeed, you don't care about revenge anymore. Ha-ha.
Cobb :   How do you view the Valley's young people right now?
Warnock :   I think the young people are great. But I think the school system is in serious trouble. I think that California has underfunded its schools and the state needs to seriously correct its position on education. It's essential that the students get wired, that the students have access to computers because this will be the communication media in the future. If they aren't given access to it, then they're putting themselves at a serious disadvantage.
Wolfson :   I volunteer in the public schools, and I see a huge gap between kids based on their socio-economic level. And it seems that in some ways, technology can widen that gap. I see 4th graders from homes with computers and they know so much. And then there are 4th grade kids who don't have access to computers.

This is in addition to language barriers, and other educational barriers that the kids already have to cope with. That worries me.


At every point in the technological revolution, the gap has actually come closer, even though we perceive it at first as widening the gap.
Warnock :   Let me give you a counter-example to that.

When printing was first invented in 1450, when moveable type was invented, the number of people who could afford books was tiny.


In reality, the gap is getting closer because as the cost of computing comes down, just like the cost of television, it really acts as a leveling influence among socio-economic groups.
The number of people who were literate was tiny. So there was a huge gap between parts of society that were empowered and the parts of society that weren't empowered.

At every point in the technological revolution, the gap has actually come closer, even though we perceive it at first as widening the gap.

In reality, the gap is getting closer because as the cost of computing comes down, just like the cost of television, it really acts as a leveling influence among socio-economic groups. The cellular phone, for instance, is bringing communication to Third World countries that would never be able to afford the infrastructure for phones. So it is leveling the gap between the have-nots and the haves.


I have seen that technology has contributed to improved communication, that it's contributed to better health care, that it's contributed to better food supplies, that it has contributed to all the basic human needs.

The big hope that I have for technology is that over time, as technology gets better and cheaper, it will actually empower more and more people rather than driving this gap.

Wolfson :   Do you see any downside to increasingly sophisticated technology?

Warnock :   No. I really don't. I have seen that technology has contributed to improved communication, that it's contributed to better health care, that it's contributed to better food supplies, that it has contributed to all the basic human needs.

It certainly has had its darker moments, like nuclear explosions and things like that. But those, I think, are applications of technology with the wrong spirit.