Learnlets
Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

11 October 2011

Vale Jobs

Clark @ 6:32 am

My first job out of college was designing and programming educational computer games. I had to do the TRS-80 Model I before I got to work on an Apple ][, but I finally bought a ][e, and sold it to my company shortly thereafter as I headed off to graduate school.  I was a grad student in an HCI lab (with Donald Norman, who went on to become an Apple Fellow), and so I was very aware of the Macintosh (I'd coveted a Lisa before that), and bought a Mac II to write my PhD thesis on.  Since then I've only used Macs as my main machine (tho' there has been the odd PC around the house).  And that's quite a few; in my office right now is an iMac DV, a Powerbook Wallstreet and also a G4, as well as an old and a new MacBook Pro, iPhone, and an iPad.

And let's not dismiss the software.  Despite some quirks, the OS has a solid foundation, and the interface experience on top of it is pretty good.  I learned HyperCard (even though I'd moved on from programming), love Keynote, think Pages is *almost* there (the outlining is not quite yet industrial strength), etc.  So you can imagine it was with some unexpected sadness that I learned about the passing of Steve Jobs.

Enough has been said about the fact that it wasn't just the surface design, but his insistence on a comprehensive user experience.  It has also already been covered that it was much more than that, it was the insight into the market, e.g. not just the iPod, but iTunes.  Not just the iPhone, but the whole reengineering of the relationship between hardware provider and telcos.  Industry-changing stuff, and absolutely true.  But I want to talk about one other thing that has somewhat passed under the radar.

How many of you would have liked to work for Apple? You didn’t hear much about it, like you might with Google, but it seemed like a pretty cool place to hang out.  And there are two aspects to this.  One is that you didn’t hear much.  In the notoriously gossipy Silicon Valley, Apple was remarkably resistant to leaks.  I think this is reflective of the other component. While you can install some pretty rigorous constraints, I think you do better if you instill some loyalty. And I think that while Jobs was at times dictatorial, as has come out, I think he did it through selling a vision inside the company as well as outside.

It has been said that the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship (the only problem is ensuring the benevolent part), and I think Steve Jobs made a company doing things worth getting behind, and I suspect that it was pretty easy to go along with some of the constraints because you knew why they were there.  But it has to also be a place where you can make mistakes, as Steve made them himself, starting with the Apple ///.  I think that Apple has wanted the best, but rewarded folks for being that, too.

This is all inference, as I never worked there, and haven’t discussed it with the few people I’ve known who worked there.  But some pretty fabulous stuff has come from there, and it can’t all be one person.  So I just wanted to acknowledge that he not only built products, and a company, but a culture that allowed the company to succeed, wildly.  I’m somewhat skeptical of the ability to use a university model to develop executives who can perpetuate the Apple success, but the fact that they’re trying is worthy of consideration.  I think they can continue to succeed, but I hope that they have some other approaches too.

And, that, to me, is a lesson to take away from this.  Steve Jobs was inspiring, but he recognized it was more than just luck, it was a habit of mind that can be developed. Not only do you have to pursue your dream, but there are skills and habits of mind that go along with it.  And if you recognize that, identify those skills, model them, develop them,  and reward them, you can build a successful company.

RIP.

2 Comments »

  1. The thing I’ve found most interesting about the obsessive media-frenzy over his death, is the things that Jobs _doesn’t_ get credit for, and should.

    Apple was never a particularly big commercial success his first time round with it. And the Next completely tanked. The thing Jobs made his money and his first stratospheric success at doing was making movies. Under his leadership, Pixar completely re-invented the idea of the animated film. I don’t know how much was him and how much was people he worked with, but they pretty much invented an entirely new genre of entertainment. They got their own Oscar category practically named after them. And when they sold it to Disney his share was literally worth _billions_.

    And then he went back to Apple, and created the iTunes store; the single greatest marketing success pretty much ever. Until that point Apple had been straying into the Microsoft model of licensing their hardware to other producers, and selling their software to work on other people’s hardware. Even going open-source in places. Jobs put a stop to that and went back to a vertical monopoly model; only Apple makes our hardware, our software only runs on Apple hardware, and the media you buy in the iTunes store only runs on our software. (Once they established the market space they let iTunes out onto other hardware, of course, but it started exclusive. And they’ve always carefully treated PC iTunes customers as second-class citizens.) By restricting all aspects of the user’s interaction to be directly under Apple’s control, they could make sure it just worked, out-of-the-box. Which was what the vast majority of people wanted. They didn’t care if it wasn’t the best-quality file format, or if someone else sold better video at a cheaper price, they just wanted to buy a box, take it home, and immediately be able to start listening to their music or watching their shows; thats what Apple delivered. The iTunes store grossed over a million dollars in its first _week_. They didn’t invent digital music – that had been around for ages – they invented a way to get it to people, effortlessly. Apple – and given the timing and the turnaround, I think you have to give a lot of the credit directly to Jobs – were among the first to realise that the user experience they were selling didn’t start at the power switch; it started before you headed out to the store. That strict control over the user’s experience, cradle-to-grave, is still what differentiates the iPhone from the various Droids, and the iPad from a dozen cheaper, technically identical or superior tablets. We control it all, so we guarantee that if you buy it, it’ll work, no fuss. Its like the difference between playing games on a games console vs. a PC.

    I didn’t mean to rant. I just find it strange that he gets more credit in the obits for the Apple II (which always seemed to have been more Woz than him) and yet the iTunes store (clearly his, equally important, and far more successful) rarely gets a mention.

    Comment by Rob Moser — 11 October 2011 @ 11:54 am

  2. Like you, I never worked for apple, so I’m not sure what the experience was like. I know, for example, that Jack Welch was universally hated by all those that worked for him, but loved by Wall Street and academics for his style of management. However, it is interesting that you don’t hear of how his workers felt about him. I do remember, however, that HP in the 1980′s (where apple came out of)was a place where new ideas and a laid back work environment was promoted. Google, up until this year, also had that image. So I wonder if there is something to be said between the link with the public and a laid back work environment. If a company treats their employees well and respects their ideas, won’t that carry over to their customers? Customers don’t necessarily want the newest and greatest (look at the great New Coke debacle) but rather to have something that works for them.

    Comment by virginia Yonkers — 17 October 2011 @ 6:05 am

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