REmembering John Warnock, 1941-2023
As a high school student at Olympus High in Salt Lake City, co-founder and former CEO of Adobe John Warnock, who passed away August 19th at age 82, found a mentor in math teacher George Barton. “His approach was really quite simple,” remembered Warnock.
“He instructed us to pick up a college-level textbook for algebra, solve every problem in the book, then move on to the next subject, trigonometry, and do the same. And after that, go on to analytic geometry. By following his advice and solving a lot of problems, my grades in math and all other classes improved, and I went from C’s to A’s and B’s.”
The auspicious career of Warnock and other brilliant University of Utah alumni who changed the world through computer science was in high relief last spring when a sampling of the scrappy and now legendary bunch assembled on campus to commemorate their roles as 3-D graphics pioneers. The occasion was a celebration of 50 years of the U.’s Kahlert School of Computing, and Warnock was presented with a IEEE Milestone award.
But before he was known as the co-founder with the late Charles Geschke of Adobe, Warnock was propelled by his high school teacher into the U’s math department where Warnock earned a BS and MS in mathematics in the College of Science before decamping to the College of Engineering where he earned a PhD in electrical engineering/computer science. It was an exciting time. The U was one of 15 renowned universities that had a contract with the Advanced Research Projects Agency, prompted by the worrisome launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite during the Eisenhower era. A node on the original internet known as ARAPNET, the U was the first university to offer online registration to its students, and Warnock, as part of his dissertation research was busy at work, days (and long nights), ahead of when the portal dropped, having developed the recursive subdivision algorithm for hidden surface elimination that made computer graphics possible and that would eventually carry his name.
Twenty-five years post Sputnik, Adobe appeared which, inarguably, lofted desktop publishing into the stratosphere with its soon-to-launch PostScript language. The information technology sector has never been the same since.
Commencement in the time of Covid-19
At the university’s first-ever virtual graduation ceremony due to the coronavirus pandemic, Warnock reported that in the previous half century he had witnessed advancements in informational technology that “have been totally unpredictable and quite frankly, mind-blowing. Things that were thought to be impossible have materialized over the years.” (To wit: today, the internet is 90,000 times faster than its ARAPNET prototype.)
“The changes over the coming years,” he continued, addressing the class of 2020, “will probably be much greater and even more consequential for all of our lives. To manage this evolution, the world needs an educated and informed populace. Today, you are being honored and have earned the right of becoming part of that group.” The brick-and-mortar corollary of the change Warnock anticipates, and the workforce that will be needed, is the Utah County-based 38-acre Adobe campus, arguably the anchor to what’s come to be known as Silicon Slopes. A recent addition to the spread, costing $90 million, appreciably expanded the Adobe's original 280,000-foot, four-story footprint.
Adobe’s physical presence in Utah brought an appropriate closing of a circle for Warnock, a native of the Beehive State. Known for developing what is now the ubiquitous Portable Document Format (PDF) as well as its Creative Suite, including PhotoShop software, the company, based in Lehi, engages with the community to build a STEM pipeline. It’s also widely known for its determination to diversify its employee base with, among other initiatives, true pay parity. "Your customers are diverse," Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen said at the 2018 Silicon Slopes Tech Summit. "If anybody thinks that you can deliver great products to a diverse set of customers without having a diverse employee pool, you're in denial."
Tracing a trajectory
Upon learning of Warnock’s passing, Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science said, "In tracing Warnock's trajectory at the U – first as undergraduate and master’s student in mathematics, and then as a PhD student in ECE – one can literally see the evolution of modern computer graphics. Many of the ideas in his famous PhD thesis are foreshadowed in his earlier work in mathematics.” He recommends reading the conclusions sections of Warnock’s dissertation which “is especially forward-looking.”
Likewise, Tommaso de Fernex, current chair of the Department of Mathematics and the inaugural Warnock Endowed Chair in mathematics expressed condolences, thanking the family for their support. “The Warnock Endowed Chair has been an invaluable recruitment tool that has allowed the Department to attract young faculty of outstanding quality. It is hard to overstate the impact that this has had, and will continue to have, on the growth and excellence of our Department.”
A member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery, Warnock in 2009 was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama. In 2001 he was inducted into the College of Science’s Hall of Fame. Through his and his wife Marva’s largesse, the Warnocks have “paid it forward,” not only endowing the Warnock chair but donating millions to the U where an engineering building is named for them.
As commencement speaker, Warnock returned to the foundations of his career, not only at the U but as far back as high school in Holladay with his math teacher, George Barton. “The whole experience taught me teachers have an enormous effect on their students. I hope in your educational experiences you have encountered great teachers and mentors.” He continued, determined to leave good advice to the 8,628 graduating students:
"The rest of your life is not a spectator sport. Your job in life is to be an active player, to make the world a better place.”
Warnock is survived by his wife and three children.
Read the remembrance of John Warnock from the The John & Marcia Price College of Engineering.