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?”
“How many women have you had sex with?”
The interview ended abruptly.
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).