Friday, 14 October 2011

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

I’ve spent the last few days trying to resist the temptation to write about the life of Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, who died last week. I’ve tried hard but I can’t resist it.

I thought of writing about my passion for Apple products, about the overwhelming level of innovation Apple seems to possess and about how utterly, completely and staggeringly cool Apple products are. But everyone else has done that already.

And anyway, I was beginning to get a little overwhelmed by the sheer level of nauseating hero worship the tech world was giving him.

My problem is that I don’t think Steve was a hero and I don’t think he saw himself as heroic either. What Steve Jobs was so good at was leading an incredibly talented team of people. I think that real heroes are slightly different. All of my heroes are people who fought, often alone, and against their peers to achieve things. Heroes like Churchill, Gandhi and Mandela all fought against their own people as much as they did their opponents. Churchill fought hard in Britain to keep his nation fighting the Nazis, Mandela fought to achieve reconciliation rather than the (frankly understandable) desire for retribution and Gandhi was one of the few voices against violence during the partition of India.

Steve Jobs was never faced with such a situation. He had his conflicts with the management of Apple at one point, so much so that he was fired by the board of Apple. A few years later he was back, but only after founding NeXT, which changed the IT industry, and Pixar which gave us some of the best animated feature films of all time and he then managed to turn Apple into one of the most valuable and best loved brands in history. However, what I think was special about Steve was his abilities as a leader. When I listen to his speeches and presentations I genuinely get the impression that he was proud to be the leader of a team of extremely talented people.

One of the most popular speeches he gave was the now famous “Stanford speech” when he addressed the students at Stanford (text here). This has now been seen by over 11 million viewers on YouTube.

However, I prefer another clip that’s only been seen by a mere 400,000 people. On YouTube search for the “Steve Jobs Insult Response”.

The clip shows Steve talking to an audience of techies in 1997 shortly after he was re-hired by Apple. In it he explains Apple’s approach to business. Responding to an audience member’s rather rude question about some obscure technology issue he said:
“One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re gonna try to sell it. I’ve made this mistake probably more then anyone else in this room and I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it and I know that it’s the case. And as we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple it started with what incredible benefits can we give to the customer, where can we take the customer, not starting with let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and then how we going to market that.”
On various occasions in the speech he spoke with enormous pride about his team, naming them and saying how hard they were working and how they needed support as they “work their butts off”.

Later he came out with one of my favourite management quotes:
"Some mistakes will be made along the way. That's good 'cos at least some decisions are being made along the way. And we'll find the mistakes. We'll fix them.”
I think the difference between Steve Jobs and a lot of other CEOs, particularly those in the technology business is that I genuinely think he meant it. You can certainly see that in the products Apple have produced. Of course no product, even an Apple product, is perfect but here’s a personal example. The laptop I’m using to type this is almost exactly 3 years old. At no point in those 3 years has it crashed. Not once. Not once has the laptop itself failed me. I think that’s probably down to the attention to detail for which Apple is famous. Much of that came from the top.

Vic Gundotra, one of Google’s senior managers blogged about an incident that illustrates this. Just before Google launched an application for the Apple iPhone, he got a phone call on a Sunday morning from an anxious Steve Jobs. He was worried and explained:
“Vic, we have an urgent issue, one that I need addressed right away. I've already assigned someone from my team to help you, and I hope you can fix this tomorrow" said Steve. "I've been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone and I'm not happy with the icon. The second O in Google doesn't have the right yellow gradient. It's just wrong and I'm going to have Greg fix it tomorrow. Is that okay with you?"
A CEO that concerns himself with details that small and on behalf of an entirely different company is the CEO of a company whose products you can rely on.

So, please, no hero worship of Steve Jobs, just massive admiration for someone who had enormous attention to detail, offered inspirational leadership and had an overwhelming concern for the customer experience. He’ll be missed but he’s left a legacy that I know will live on for a very long time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice, well put.