STEVE JOBS, VISIONARY?
Steve Jobs passed away two years ago today. I’ll admit there’s always been something intriguing about Steve Jobs and the products he was credited with developing. From everything I’ve read, he was clearly a bright kid, born into circumstances that helped to foster both an insatiable desire to prove himself and an irreverent attitude towards leadership. But what separates Jobs from most other smart guys was a relentless pursuit of completion. Completion you ask? It’s often an unspoken work in technology development because ideas are many, but getting them to market can be an insurmountable task. Anyone who’s even been involved in dreaming up a technology product knows that completion is what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. After Job’s recent passing, a lot of prominent characters have praised Jobs as a visionary (see this month’s Wired Magazine for more on that). Indeed, he had an amazing ability to shape the future with ideas that became realities.
But was Jobs a visionary, a cult of personality, a genius, all of the above? I’ll leave that for the historians to decide. But there was something about the products he helped to create that shaped my thinking about technology and the way technology products should look and function. When I was a junior in high school, I was fortunate to meet John Couch. John had just moved to San Diego from the Bay Area, and as luck might have it, was an early Apple employee serving as General Manager and Vice President of the Lisa project. He worked alongside Steve Jobs. After making a fortune, he decided to spend more time with his family and lend his skills to helping Santa Fe Christian, a small private school in Solana Beach. One of the first things John did was to purchase 20 new early generation Apple II computers for the school. Thankfully I was asked to help set them up.
My adventures in computing began at age 8 when someone donated a PC to my elementary school. None of the teachers knew what to do with it, so my good friend and I learned BASIC and I never looked back. But at age 15, the Apple was a whole new world for me, and setting up one of the first Apple labs in high school was an epiphany about the future. John talked a lot about the Apple culture, Steve Jobs, and how things got done, “the Apple way.” I remember, even then, thinking that Jobs was something larger than life. Here’s what I heard then and now know be true.
Jobs was obsessive about product design. Back in the day, when you received an Apple product, the packaging, the documentation, everything was minimalist elegance. It’s still that way. You knew you had something special before even turing it on. When I was in college, I bought my first Macintosh (SE 20 – 20MB HD + 1MB RAM). I’ll never forget when I set it up in my dorm room and someone walked in to see it. They said, “Wow, there’s something that happens to a room when a Mac’s on the desk.” At that time, having a Mac was a statement about your design aesthetic, not so much about your computing ability. Everyone who knew me well, knew that I could do a lot of damage on a DOS machine (what happened in College stays in College), but the Mac was a whole different world. I soon began to think about computing as design, publishing, communications. Once I had a Mac, my PC began to feel like a blunt instrument.
Jobs was ridiculously focused on shipping a product. I’ve known some really bright technology people. Without question, the main ingredient to their successes was the ability to design and deliver. As much as Jobs was painted as a perfectionist, he understood the need to ship better than anyone. Think about it…Apple II, Macintosh, iMac, MacBook, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, etc… all game changing products. As CEO or product inventor, Jobs made sure that Apple released a steady flow of new products. He said, “no” countless times to stay focused on core deliverables.
Jobs was about invention, not innovation. Generally speaking, Apple was not about polling the markets to find out what people wanted. They invented the products they themselves wanted to use and expected users to embrace them. This is an important distinction because few companies have taken this approach, and even fewer have been able to monetize like Apple.
“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Steve Jobs – BusinessWeek, May 25 1998
With the exception of a couple of bad years for Apple, I’ve always owned an Apple computer. I don’t think anything compliments a technologist more than someone using what he or she thought up and delivered to the marketplace. In the end, technology that works is technology that wins. I’ve since read a few books about Apple and about Jobs, and I don’t think he viewed himself as a visionary. He wasn’t about riches even though he died a billionaire. He let the Apple products do most of the talking. He was ultimately about the users of Apple products. No matter what you read, it’s clear Jobs had to kick a lot of butts along the way (read John Scully’s book Odyssey for more on that). But in the end, in terms of products shipped, his accomplishments were remarkable (and I haven’t even mentioned Pixar).
Perhaps the myth of Steve Jobs is really more about a smart guy with an uncompromising focus on delivering world class products. In today’s single serving world, that’s at least one trait you have to respect.