Oct 6, 2011
Steve and Me
Posted in: Miscellaneous
I remember the first time I ever saw a computer. I was four, and my family's basement, which contained my father's office, flooded during a terrible rain storm. My father, an electrical engineer who had swapped a soldering iron for a slim-cut suit and gotten into semiconductor sales, was wading around in the rising water, making sure that everything essential was stored on top of a tall cabinet out of harm's way.
The very first thing he put up there was his treasured Mac IIsi.
Later, I would come to love that MacIIsi for its games. Shufflepuck Cafe, Oregon Trail, Stuntcopter. I think for a time there I thought my dad must play fun games for a living, because that's what the computer was clearly for. When I found out he used it for his job, I asked why. "Because," he said, "it just works."
And it did work. And even today, more than 20 years later, it still does.
I've always been a Mac guy. I don't fall into the stereotype of the "Apple fanboy." Neither does my dad, who is about as far as you can get from an artsy hipster farting around coffee shops and indie record stores. I always used Macs because, for me, they "just worked."
Granted, some of this was because I grew up on Macs, and so I've always thought in Mac. I can make a Windows machine go, and I can bumble around a *nix system without breaking too much stuff. But on an Apple product, I find that I move about as skillfully and comfortably as if navigating my own kitchen. It's like a native language: it's not so much about whether you know the vocabulary and syntax as much as you understand, intutitively, how it operates, the innate and unspoken cultural references and use patterns.
To the extent that this is true - and to the extent that Apple products, from my Macbook to my iPhone, are omnipresent in my life - Steve Jobs was one of the most influential people in my life. Not because I knew him, or because I followed his dictums and philosophy. But because the technological environment in which I exist was created by him. If I were a fish, he'd have provided much of the water in which I swim.
When I was in college, I took a job working for Apple as a Campus Representative. During my second year Apple flew all of the Campus Reps to the Cupertino campus for training.
Cupertino was a strange, terrifying place. Everyone there lived very much in fear of Steve. No one ever joked, or even referenced, senior leadership. When some fellow reps made a skit which likely poked fun at Steve, they were threatened with expulsion from the program. All of the trainees watched, in a dark room a la the acolytes of Goldstein in the legendary 1984 Mac ad and with irony which apparently escaped Apple, a frankly cultish video about reproducing company culture. There was soft white light, ambient music, and Jonathan Ive speaking about how Apple was trying to make its stores seem like a church, a sacred space, where its followers would gather and share in the experience.
But it also showed, to a degree that can never be sufficiently told, how much Jobs' vision guided Apple. He was truly a "visionary", not only in that he was farseeing, but because he took that vision and was uncompromising in manifesting it in reality. Steve Jobs personally approved the design of the receipts in Apple stores. Not so much as a single pixel passed through the Apple environment without his approval.
Here's a story Vic Gundotra - senior VP at Google - wrote about Steve's devotion to design:
One Sunday morning, January 6th, 2008 I was attending religious services when my cell phone vibrated. As discreetly as possible, I checked the phone and noticed that my phone said "Caller ID unknown". I choose to ignore.
After services, as I was walking to my car with my family, I checked my cell phone messages. The message left was from Steve Jobs. "Vic, can you call me at home? I have something urgent to discuss" it said.
Before I even reached my car, I called Steve Jobs back. I was responsible for all mobile applications at Google, and in that role, had regular dealings with Steve. It was one of the perks of the job.
"Hey Steve - this is Vic", I said. "I'm sorry I didn't answer your call earlier. I was in religious services, and the caller ID said unknown, so I didn't pick up".
Steve laughed. He said, "Vic, unless the Caller ID said 'GOD', you should never pick up during services".
I laughed nervously. After all, while it was customary for Steve to call during the week upset about something, it was unusual for him to call me on Sunday and ask me to call his home. I wondered what was so important?
"So 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?"
Of course this was okay with me. A few minutes later on that Sunday I received an email from Steve with the subject "Icon Ambulance". The email directed me to work with Greg Christie to fix the icon.
But in the end, when I think about leadership, passion and attention to detail, I think back to the call I received from Steve Jobs on a Sunday morning in January. It was a lesson I'll never forget. CEOs should care about details. Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday.
Jobs was not without his faults. As I said earlier, the Apple environment could be cultish. He could, according to popular accounts and to others I knew at Apple, be a real jerk to employees in pursuit of his vision. He most certainly stabbed Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak in the back several times. To draw just one example from Rotten.com's biography of Woz:
When Steve Jobs worked at Atari, the company was working on creating the arcade game Breakout, which required 80 Integrated Circuits (ICs). The less ICs there were, the cheaper the games would be to produce, so Nolan Bushnell (Atari's president) offered $100 for every IC that could be knocked out of the design. Jobs brought Woz the challenge, and over four days and nights at Atari they put together a design that only required 30 ICs. Bushnell gave Jobs his $5000 bonus, which Jobs "split" with Wozniak by telling him it was a $700 bonus, giving him "half," or $350. Woz was delighted, but years later found out the truth. And cried.
He quite publicly cut corporate charity from Apple entirely. The production conditions at Foxconn and elsewhere are terrible. In these respects, Jobs was perhaps no worse than any given industrial magnate. But that's an incredibly low bar to trip over, and he was certainly no better.
The legacy of Jobs, however, will not be the terror he was as a boss, or the degree to which he hamstrung developers with capricious censorship in the App Store, or even the degree to which he was ruthless in his pursuit of production.
It will be the fact that he possessed an unmatcheable unifying vision. It will be all of the times he saw what the market wanted before the market did. It will be the fact that his devotion to something as simple as a calligraphy class completely changed the way people thought about user experience on personal computers. It will be the fact that for decades past - and maybe decades to come - Apple has consistently produced technologies that have changed the way the personal computing world works. It will be the recognition that user experience and a devotion, above all else, to good design, matter. And it will be his uncompromising - to a fault - dedication to making things that "just work."
Like it or not, Steve Jobs changed our world.
Now he has left it.
And I will miss him.