The first Photoshop feature Jeff Chien helped create was the renowned Healing Brush. Learn about Jeff's journey from working with his school's mainframe in Taiwan to working magic with the Photoshop team. (The following was excerpted from oral histories taped with Jeff Chien and other Photoshop team members in the summer of 2010.)
Q: Tell us about your background with computers.
A: I grew up in a developing country and we only had access to a mainframe and had a scheduled time to get into the punch-card room. You typed the program, waited for a couple of days, and then came back. The PC is something I learned when I came to the United States for graduate school. I was trained as an engineer to build ships.
In a developing country, you don't have much entertainment. You don't have a GameBoy; you don't have home computers. You spend a lot of time learning, so I have a really good background in math. And I was, in general, a very boring guy. An engineer. I was looking for something interesting and challenging in terms of engineering.
Q: What was your first industry job?
A: When I graduated from school, my first job was at Apple, where I worked on AppleTalk. After a couple of years at Apple, I realized that I didn't have much of a future at Apple because Apple is a hardware company and I'm a software engineer. And that's when Adobe came on my radar.
Q: What was your first job at Adobe?
A: I spent a couple years in Display PostScript where I started understanding how imaging works and the UNIX world. Basically, without having taken any computer graphics class in graduate school, I didn't know anything about imaging. RGB? What is RGB?
Q: How did the Healing Brush come to be?
A: Todor Georgiev, senior research scientist at Adobe, asked me, "Jeff, do you want to work on something interesting?" We started to work on a scratch remover. Then we talked for days and days and days, and finally said, "This will be solving a heat equation, right?" And all of a sudden, I realized that it was something I knew when I was back in school—I took a heat transfer class.
Todor is a physicist, so he likes to have a deep understanding of the problem and wrote the mathematical equations to model it. In plain English, if you put hot rod and a cold rod together, what happens? The heat transfers from one to the other. That equation explains how the heat transfers, and it's a very smooth diffusion. The same thing happens when you take a piece of an image from one to another—it diffuses. It is like the pieces have different temperatures. You can see how they start to blend, and that process is very smooth, very seamless. When you apply that equation to your image, you can fool your eye. You don't see the transition; it's all smooth.
For more information, see http://www.tgeorgiev.net/Healing.html.
Q: How did people react to the Healing Brush?
A: With the Healing Brush, there's something really special about it. At the time, we really didn't know it was going to be a hit, because we were just busy cooking in our kitchen. One day, our UI designer came back and hugged us; we made her day because she got a huge response from customers when they saw the Healing Brush. They couldn't believe a program could do something like that. You take a piece of data from one part of the image, and after the blending, the Healing Brush has done the post-processing; it's just seamless blending into the background. That was magic at the time. And, to us, we just solved a very simple heat equation that I learned in my junior year in college!
Q: What does being on the Photoshop team mean to you?
A: Being able to work on the Photoshop team is a privilege, because you really have an opportunity to make people's lives different. They have less trouble with their work. They have less stress with their project. I really feel that you're changing people's lives if you can make them more productive, and they can spend their time with their family.
Q: How does the team tackle new development challenges?
A: We try to put people with the right skill in the right place at the right time to attack a very difficult problem. None of the problems are simple and easy because all of the low-hanging fruit is done. After 20 years of development there's no small problem left; you have to reach higher ground.
One thing that is very important with Photoshop, an application with so many features, is that a customer may only give you one chance to try out a feature. If it doesn't work, they walk away. They won't try it again. I believe you've got to make it work and it's got to be right the first time.
Q: What does Photoshop mean to you?
A: Photoshop is very important to me on a personal level. In a sense, I slowly discovered myself by working on it. Photoshop helped me to understand myself better.
Q: What do you want your legacy to be?
A: I want to be remembered as a person that helped other people to grow, helped other engineers to grow, helped Adobe to grow, and helped our customers to be more productive.