Steve Jobs, Alpha Male

It’s a little late coming here at the Hut (I sketched this post out late last year, but it lost its immediacy and I moved on to other topics), but Steve Jobs’ passing late last year was a sad (if not unexpected) event for almost anyone with a kick for technology.

Very few people are so intimately identified not just with their company, but with the company’s products themselves. Jobs’ shadow over his field was unlike any other in the western world. Politicians get identified with policies and programs – the New Deal, Reaganomics, Obamacare. CEOs might get identified with campaigns, slogans and overall brands – the Choice of a New Generation comes to mind, as does Lee Iacocca’s leadership of Chrysler. But even good technology is so often esoteric and impersonal, no human stamp can be done justice associated with a lump of plastic and silicon. But Steve Jobs was so instrumental in the development of his company’s flagship products (the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad), and so personally identified with the life and times of his creations, he carried a cult of personality into mainstream technology that has rarely been approached by other inventor/designer/manager/entrepreneur personalities.

Now you might say that it was all an image job, a media manipulation to buy him lo-fi geek cred in an otherwise buttoned-up and socially awkward industry.

You might be partially right. But that’s part of my point. Jobs cultivated a public persona that itself sustained his influence and gravitas in a field where it’s very easy to get typecast as a geek (whose products are too difficult to use for average customers) or as a pointy-headed bean-counter out of touch with the needs of customers (who is unresponsive to customer’s desires). People in business and technology know who Larry Ellison is, the founder of database giant Oracle. But people on the street know Steve Jobs, and they don’t see him as a businessman, his public image is that of a 21-st century Thomas Edison, creating new things that make the average person’s life easier and better.

Jobs has already gone down as one the most influential personalities of two eras – Generation X (whose technology revolution he fueled) and Generation Y (whose icons he designed) – and will probably wind up the most historically recognized technology figure of the information age, with the possible exception of Microsoft founder Bill Gates (more on him later).

THE REALITY DISTORTION FIELD

Even in his early 20′s, Jobs was renowned for his “reality distortion field” – the ability to impress his own viewpoint on anyone in his vicinity, no matter how insane it was with regard to feasibility, cost or time. The broad shadow of his personality could pull the most logical person out of their mind.

One of the stories that went around about Jobs was that the worst place to be in Apple was in an elevator with him. He would start interrogating employees about their work, and if he felt you weren’t adding value you might be fired before the ride was over. Whether it was true or not, it served a purpose – everyone at the Infinite Loop worked under his vision, and wouldn’t be allowed to forget it.

Another story went that Jobs and an underling were interviewing a candidate when Jobs asked “when did you lose your virginity?”

“Excuse me?”

“How many women have you had sex with?”

The interview ended abruptly.

VISION

Real vision, and the discipline to carry it out, is what separates a business leader from your average middle-management douchebag.

Did Steve Jobs lay out the circuit boards and glue the cases together? Hell no, he had thousands of people working under him to do that (prime among them the great Steve Wozniak and Jef Raskin). But they wouldn’t have been working on it had he not brought the concept to the fore. Jobs knew where he wanted the company to go, kept everyone focused and their spirits up, and got rid of people who stood in the way of the prize. He won respect because he didn’t court it – he was great with people, but he wasn’t afraid to cross people in pursuit of the goal.

The most lucid parable of his vision came in the mid-80′s when he was courting Pepsi president John Sculley to join Apple. Sculley protested that he had a great gig going. Jobs replied “you can sell sugar water to kids for the rest of your life…or you can come with me and change the world.”

That’s a ballsy thing to say. It’s ballsier to follow through. Jobs did. So did Sculley (a good leader knows another leader when he sees one).

Forget these fools who say that tech entrepreneurs are betas. Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve been hanging around with too many flip-cupping frat guys who’ll spend the rest of their lives as circle-jerking brokers or shilling tires to suburban housewives, or they never knew what a real leader was in the first place.

Has Steve Jobs changed the world? That’s an unqualified yes. He’s an alpha male.

STEVE INVENTED HIPSTERS

Ever since the original Macintosh, Apple had aggressively marketed its graphics capabilities and rounded user interface to designers and other “creative” workers. They didn’t balk at the price tag and had a personal sensibility that appreciated the soft nature of the user interface.

In keeping with the Internet era’s trend of democratizing everything, in the early 2000′s a new niche sprung up not of graphic designers or semi-professional film editors, but of regular fledgling youth who wanted to entertain the self-concept of being in the creative class. This built on the popularity of the white iPod design scheme, and coincided with the switch to OS X (a stable, kickass operating system that leveraged large amounts of well-worn and highly efficient Unix software).

It quickly became a trend that to own a Mac and display it proudly was itself a signal to society that you were “creative” and “artistic.” You might never had even opened iMovie or Garage Band, but it didn’t matter – image is image, and Apple catered to the kids’ desire to finally make the A/V club cool. Then finally, Apple built up the iTunes store, enabling the granular distribution of indie music to warm the cockles of the young aesthetes’ hearts.

In other words, Steve Jobs opened the door to today’s modern hipsters.

THE PHOENIX OF THE VALLEY

Two-time success at the top is really not a common thing. Douglas MacArthur** vowed “I shall return” when he fled the Philippines – and he did, to final victory in the Pacific, but ultimately to ignominious censure and dismissal after his arrogant diplomatic actions in Korea. Then-vice president Richard Nixon lost a nail-biting race to Kennedy, and returned to the White House in 1968, only to be run out of town in the wake of Watergate.

Jobs founded Apple with Steve Wozniak in a garage, built the Apple II, rolled out the Macintosh, and was then fired by the CEO he himself had hired. After his technologically-notable but commercially-limited startup (NeXT)*, Jobs returned to the leadership of Apple in 1997 for the celebrated salary of $1. Thus began an aggressive program of simplifying Apple’s product line and image, and making long-term-oriented background investments to advance Apple’s core technologies which ultimately culminated in OS X, the switch to Intel processors and the horizontal unification of music players, computing and media distribution.

Roissy (or one of his commenters, I don’t exactly recall) witnessed countless women at bars and clubs glued to their iPhones, completely oblivious to the men who wanted to talk to them, and nominated Jobs as Cockblock of the Decade. That’s being at the top in my book.

*NeXT was notable for being the platform on which the first-ever web server was deployed.

**Edited – I had put George MacArthur, confusing the five-star with George McClellan, who also served as head of the Union Army twice only to be sacked both times and then get crushed by Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election.

COMMENTS ON MICROSOFT

In Robert X. Cringley’s excellent documentary “Triumph of the Nerds,” filmed during Jobs’ exodus from Apple, Jobs waxed on his former company’s bitter rival. “My problem with Microsoft is not their success. I have no problem with their success. It’s that…it’s that they have no taste.”

In an extraordinary side-by-side interview before Jobs’ death, Bill Gates repaid Jobs by saying he had always admired Steve’s aesthetic sense.

Such was the complementary dynamic of the two men’s companies – one guy eating up market share that no one could argue with, the other selling it better and cleaner than the other guy.

As long as we’re on the topic, I want to mention that I believe Bill Gates’ popular-culture image as a geeky computer programmer to be one of the greatest public relations hoodwinks in modern American history.

Only in the very beginning was Gates’ primary contribution that of code, of direct product. Gates’ value to Microsoft has overwhelmingly been his business acumen and willingness to make aggressive and even ruthless deals with other market players to acquire technology, dictate licensing terms or push competitors off the table. Gates, like Jobs, liked technology but ran on vision – the vision to have a computer on every person’s desk.

Vision is especially important in high technology because you’re marketing a product that literally didn’t exist before, a disruptive offering that requires fundamental changes in the way people go about their daily lives. Lots of people will say no, unable to imagine why they need it, only coming around when the product has caught on with more risk-tolerant, novelty-seeking citizens.

Although Gates apparently fancied himself a code expert (as alluded to in the opening sequence of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs), he’s always been front and center anticipating the features and products average people would need and figuring out ways to get those products into schools, businesses and government offices where his dream of universal computing could come true.

Like Jobs, Gates’ image serves as self-reinforcing for his business needs. While Jobs’ artistic shtick opened customers’ hearts, the geek image is disarming, and hides the spectre of the one-sided deal that is about to unfold. To get an insight into the feisty nature of the management team, consider that Microsoft president Steve Ballmer’s Harvard roommate was none other than manic financial journalist Jim Cramer (maybe baldness is contagious?)

It has been discussed in several arenas that Gates has no game and may be horrifically awkward around women. This has led to some pronouncements that Gates is a hardcore beta, a true geekboy. I think it’s better to view Gates as a corner case – a high achiever who has changed the world with his ability to navigate business and society from the top, who was never good with women but nonetheless never felt the need to leverage his success to bag chicks with supercharged beta-provider/rich-guy game. Not a paper alpha, a guy who is superficially successful but lacks the ability to take advantage of it, but a guy who was probably not that interested in the game in the first place, and with the demands of his enterprise never had time to develop the skills that would make the game worthwhile (or to taste enough success to motivate getting more of it).

About these ads

13 Comments

Filed under history, science+technology

13 responses to “Steve Jobs, Alpha Male

  1. Asf

    Great post. I can never get tired about reading this part of computer history.

  2. deti

    It was Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
    Glad to be of help.
    Sincerely,
    Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D.

  3. johntheeditor

    You know your stuff. It’s good to see Jobs’ and Gates’s core strengths correctly identified for a change.

    That said, I don’t think either of those guys achieved what they did because they were alpha. They became alpha as they successfully managed their increasing responsibilities.

  4. SomeGirl

    “They became alpha as they successfully managed their increasing responsibilities.”

    I like that thought

  5. It has been discussed in several arenas that Gates has no game and may be horrifically awkward around women. This has led to some pronouncements that Gates is a hardcore beta, a true geekboy. I think it’s better to view Gates as a corner case – a high achiever who has changed the world with his ability to navigate business and society from the top, who was never good with women but nonetheless never felt the need to leverage his success to bag chicks with supercharged beta-provider/rich-guy game. Not a paper alpha, a guy who is superficially successful but lacks the ability to take advantage of it, but a guy who was probably not that interested in the game in the first place, and with the demands of his enterprise never had time to develop the skills that would make the game worthwhile (or to taste enough success to motivate getting more of it).

    I’m not sure if I can agree with this assessment. Little known fact: a young Bill Gates pumped and dumped model-turned venture capitalist Christine Comaford. Her autobiography talked about their short lived sex-life. [& people say the knowledge of celebrity sex-lives never comes in handy!] Since Gates didn’t sue Comaford for libel, there’s no reason to believe she wasn’t telling the truth. She mentioned Gates used his naive appearance to his advantage. Yeah, It was an interesting book…

  6. Anon

    Jobs was a brilliant visionary. He was also a deeply-flawed, brooding narcissist. While I admire what he did, I do not admire the man.

  7. @Anon

    I’m with you on this. His personality and character have been described as assholish to the 9th power. Also, he really is the cockblock of the decade because of so many young women deeply attached to there iPhones. Jobs was a tech nerd and I really loathe tech nerds.

  8. Donny

    “The cockblock of the decade”…that is a great fucking line, and totally true.

  9. “That said, I don’t think either of those guys achieved what they did because they were alpha. They became alpha as they successfully managed their increasing responsibilities.”

    I don’t fully agree with this. Both of these guys were born with(/socialized into at an early age) mental habits of creativity, vision and dominance that you can’t cook up “on the fly.” That’s why they were so on the spot when challenges arose.

    “Jobs was a brilliant visionary. He was also a deeply-flawed, brooding narcissist. While I admire what he did, I do not admire the man.”

    I do, and I’m not ashamed to say it. People are complicated, and people who do great things are especially so.

    Do you think Eisenhower phoned up Field Marshal Rommel and kindly asked him to please move those troops off the Cotentin Peninsula if it wasn’t any trouble, and only when he refused launched the Normandy invasion?

    “Jobs was a tech nerd and I really loathe tech nerds.”

    You say this in a comment on a weblog, typed on a personal computer and sent over the Internet. But as I said in the post, Jobs was not a tech nerd, he was a visionary and an entrepreneur who happened to use technology as his tool of implementation.

    Maybe people who haven’t worked close to technology don’t really get it but there’s a huge difference between the chief product designer and the IT guy who restarts the servers. In the same way that there’s a big difference between a restaurant owner and a bartender.

  10. “a young Bill Gates pumped and dumped model-turned venture capitalist Christine Comaford.”

    Had never heard of her before this, but a Googling turns up that she also had a fling with Oracle honcho Larry Ellison. Again, I don’t know the woman, but it’s just as easy to presume that she’s an alpha-chaser of the technology world (a fact she would shirley spin and downplay in her own book). The truth is probably somewhere in between.

    “Since Gates didn’t sue Comaford for libel, there’s no reason to believe she wasn’t telling the truth.”

    This is not at all true. First, Gates’ sexual reputation is hardly something he’d have a lot of interest in protecting. Secondly, if you’re a public figure you need to prove malice to sue for defamation. Thirdly, suing for defamation over a one-night stand would be a difficult case to argue with all the he said she said. Where are the damages in being falsely talked about as a sexual partner for somebody?

    And then there’s the issue of if Bill Gates was intent on using his geekiness as vulnerability game, why aren’t there legions of gropees coming forward to cash in, a la Arnold Schwarzenegger or other public figures who can’t keep their hands to themselves? This all supports my theory that Gates is just not that interested in wild romps with strange women.

  11. Apollyon

    Is being Alpha absolutely nessessary for success in Corporate America? It never hurts, I know this. But isn’t being Alpha becoming more and more important since more and more women are landing high-status positions? We know men will hire women just because they are attractive. So, by the same logic wouldn’t a female HR person hire a guy because he’s Alpha, or simply because they crept his Facebook page and saw that he is preselected and shun the betas from the workplace?

  12. Bob

    Bill Gates has the ability to see opportunities and the will to run with them. He saw opportunities everywhere and often snatched them from in front of other people. Often the other people resent that.
    I’m old enough to remember MS DOS and the hell of a different video driver for every combination of hardware and application. Windows solved that problem, though it took years to make it viable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s