Farewell to the Empress of Adobe

Remembering a woman who changed lives and technology


I first met Whitney McCleary in mid-2005, the year that Adobe InDesign Server was being created and she was Product Marketing Manager for InDesign and InDesign Server. I had been begging Adobe for an InDesign Server for five years, and I was absolutely thrilled not only that such a product finally existed (it was code-named “Bishop” at the time), but that this woman had actually contacted me for possible work supporting its release.

Before I met her in person I just considered her a high up Adobe person with alot of responsibility for a product that was extremely dear to my heart. While we normally did programming work, we had also done a number of demos and whitepapers for Adobe, so it was in that context that I went up to meet her in Seattle in August of 2005: we were to help with some writing, benchmarks, and demos in support of the initial InDesign Server release. That day is something I can never forget, and it was from then on that I have been in awe of Whitney on a number of levels.

I was so excited about InDesign Server (you can see this post to read about my infatuation with this software product) that I did not sleep the night before my early-morning flight to Seattle. I sat in the lobby of the Adobe Seattle office feeling sleepy but exhilarated, awaiting her arrival. She showed up fairly late, carrying a cup of coffee. She explained that they didn’t have good coffee in the building, but she would be happy to walk with me to get coffee outside. We walked to the nearby Peets and talked about InDesign Server.

It was obvious from the first words of our conversation that this was a special person. Her level of focus, eloquence of expression, and deep knowledge of typography and design were immediately apparent. This was launch time for InDesign Server, and I had seen several Adobe product launches over the previous five years. The responsibility she had was extreme and the timing had no flexibility: dates would be met one way or another (IDS was to be launched at the IFRA conference: timing was set in stone) and invariably she had to produce a ton of content in a short period of time to meet a range of requirements in addition to including participation and review from a wide spectrum of departments and people. While Adobe had other extremely talented people in such positions producing miracles, I could feel that Whitney was uniquely capable.

While I’m sure she had a ton of other things on her plate, on that day I felt like I had her undivided attention. We quickly got into the three projects I was working on, and she clarified the goals and offered a number of resources: documents, people to talk to, ideas for research. We talked about the projects primarily, but got off into tangential discussion about all sorts of things, from typography to server-based page composition to Quark and the competitive landscape (I had never seen so many Quark-related documents in my life as I did in her office; I am afraid that Quark met its match when this woman decided to kill it). We had a few meetings with engineers and others, and I could see from her interaction that she had a deep understanding of software engineering and a rapport with developers that I have not witnessed before or since from someone ostensibly in “Marketing”. She was not about roles but about attaining the collective vision, for Adobe and its customers. And she was wicked smart.

I flew back that night quite impressed with this person and inspired to help her and Adobe in any way possible to advance this product. I had met many great Adobe people, but she was definitely special.

I worked hard in the subsequent weeks to help, but it became apparent that she was better than me in almost everything I was tasked to do. She was a far better writer, she knew the technology really deeply, and I began to feel like I was not really providing a ton of value to this effort. I would craft a document for a week and she would edit/rewrite in 15 minutes into a masterpiece I never would have thought of: had she hired me just to show off?

Whitney advanced at Adobe. Based on her work with CS2, IDS, and probably many other things, she got promoted. “what is your new title?” I asked. “I think it’s Empress…” she replied. I think in then-current Adobe-speak she had gone from “Senior Product Marketing Manager” to “Group Product Marketing Manager” or something like that… “Empress” seemed fitting enough for me.

That was my introduction to Whitney, and in subsequent years we worked with her on a few things, but mainly when I saw her it was a matter of touching base and seeing where Adobe and InDesign were headed and where we were headed with our InDesign-related work. She became more a friend than a business associate, and a very perceptive and supportive friend even with our limited interaction. I saw her about twice a year, at MAX conferences or when we were at the same Adobe location, or when we would eat dinner with some of the ex-InDesign people that had joined Silicon Publishing.

My first wife passed away in 2007 and it was 2007 to 2008 when I saw Whitney’s human side. She really cared. She didn’t know me that well, but the times I saw her when I was enduring that loss and the subsequent joy of finding a new family, that is when I saw the compassion and empathy of this amazing person. Whitney never had time: the more work she took on, the more was piled on her plate, she always seemed to have more responsibility than people are supposed to have. But she made time: she made sure the people she interacted with got what they needed, by hook or by crook.

Forget typography. Forget technology. I met Whitney in a business context, but she transcended all of that; she worked with others as people first and foremost, with love, respect, and extreme energy, as I think few if any on this planet manage to do.

I have met many people, but I am hard-pressed to think of anyone who radiated more warmth, integrity, and passion for doing the right thing than Whitney did. The world is a darker place without her.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Max Dunn’s story.