Thursday, September 8, 2011

File under 'inspiration': a collection of Steve Jobs stories

Sure, I spent some time mulling over my own resignation letter over the past few weeks, but someone else had one around the same time that was much more impactful and far-reaching (and, honestly, was much better written). Timing is about the only thing that connects my workplace good-bye with the one that had the most impact on high tech in 2011: the resignation of Steve Jobs.

In the days following Steve Jobs’ departure as CEO of Apple, many folks in the industry who had felt his influence – as a manager, a visionary, or news maker – took pen to paper. Actually, many took fingers to backlit keyboard or glass touchscreen, thanks to Steve. And they wrote some interesting stories.

As these stories flew by on Twitter, I found that they were speaking not only about Steve Jobs, but about a whole lot more. I started grabbing links and stashing them to digest later. (Hey, I was busy.) I really didn’t have time and breathing room to process what they meant until now, a few weeks later.

Today’s Chronicle story about the new proposed Apple HQ in Cupertino (the big, donut-like “iCon” that the urban design critic called “refreshing” and “a sci-fi fantasy best viewed from a helicopter”) reminded me about all the stories I’d been collecting. I decided I should post a bunch that had relevance (and were even a bit poignant) here.

I figure that they are good for reference and useful for a little reflection on what kind of impact Steve Jobs had on cynical and/or fanboy journalists, employees, competitors, and the industry in general. They talk about an amazing figure in our industry in particular, but also get to important points about how to be a leader, how to build a company, how to be an entrepreneur, and the impact all those can have on individuals and even on Silicon Valley as a whole. I’m filing them under “inspiration.” Perfect timing for me, actually.

What folks learned spending time with Steve Jobs

Many stories were essentially quirky anecdotes from many of the people that had worked with or crossed paths with Jobs. And what they learned. For example: “CEOs should care about details. Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday.” Read Google’s Vic Gundotra’s story about his phone call from Steve for details. Steve’s interest in design and attention to detail resonated in Glenn Rossman’s story about his day pitching the media about NeXT and IBM with Steve Jobs as well.

Robert Scoble gives a good account of the impact of Steve and Apple had through nearly his entire life, ending with his decision to watch Steve’s iPad 2 announcement up close (and without his camera). “It’s one of the few times when I was forced to just soak in a performance, and not try to capture the event I was viewing,” Scoble writes. And in the age of Twitter and Facebook, that’s a rarity. “Jobs didn’t disappoint.”

What was Jobs like? I’ve never met him, though was in a presentation he gave with Larry Ellison to some of us then-Oracle employees way-back-when showing off the NeXT machine. I know some folks from the NeXT era who all have great stories.

Om Malik likens him to Howard Hughes. Saul Hansell at Tech Crunch called him the patron saint of perfectionists: “Steve Jobs was an impresario, in the tradition, more than anything, of a classic Hollywood studio boss (which he also was in his spare time).”

This impresario approach, of course, didn’t (and still doesn’t) make Apple a “pleasant company to deal with or work at,” noted Hansell. “Everyone at Apple worked with the anxiety that they must meet the impossible demands of Jobs or endure his anger.” Hansell compared Apple to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: “no one went in and no one ever came out.”

The bigger picture: what Steve Jobs meant to innovation and Silicon Valley

Those negatives quickly melt away when talking about all Steve has accomplished, however.

Om Malik wrote a wistful piece that outlined some of the best things to be learned from watching Steve Jobs in action. “If you want to change something, you have to be patient and take the long view. …When you are right and the world doesn’t see it that way, you just have to be patient and wait for the world to change its mind.” Plus, Om highlighted one incredibly difficult piece of advice, especially for big companies: cannibalize yourself.

Chris O’Brien from the Merc noted 3 things that Steve Jobs meant to Silicon Valley as a whole: inspiration, innovation, and revolution. “It wasn’t just the way he bootstrapped an idea from nothing, but the anti-establishment flair with which he pursued his singular vision,” said O’Brien. He believes Jobs showed that even though it is the “harder, riskier road,” innovation can be the key for a company to reinvent itself.

O’Brien also noted that Jobs “saved his best for last” – the iPhone. It and the iPad are helping to end the era of the PC, a comment Paul Maritz underscored onstage in his keynote at VMworld last week.

Intersection of technology & liberal arts

Mark Sigal (@netgarden) talked about Jobs finding a way to be the point where technology and liberal arts intersect. “The realization that one man sits at the junction of cataclysmic disruptions in personal computing, music, mobile computing, movies and post-PC computing is breathtaking in its majesty. A legacy with no equal.”

Sigal notes that Jobs has been about “bringing humanity back to the center of the ring,” not speeds and feeds. He was willing to “think different” and make it look “ridiculously, deceptively simple.”

As someone who was late to the party on iPads (though my family and I have had our fair share of iPods and iPhones), I have to agree. My iPad is easy, elegant, and really useful. My expectations were exceeded so completely, it’s almost embarrassing. Our challenge now is to fit that simplicity into the way the rest of the world (and IT) works.

What do people see for the future of Steve and Apple?

So what does the future hold? As David Pogue’s New York Times article mentioned, most of the reactions to Job’s resignation “read like obituaries – for Steve Jobs, if not for Apple.” It’s one of the reasons I was always leery about investing in Apple stock (though I thankfully gave in). Once Steve left, for whatever reason, would there be any possible way to keep things going, while living up to the standards he had set?

“There’s one heck of a huge elephant in the room,” writes Pogue, “one unavoidable reason why it’s hard to imagine Apple without Mr. Jobs steering the ship: personality.” Pogue thinks Apple will do well for now, but will have a hard time knowing “where the puck will come to rest” once the Jobs-influenced “pipeline is no longer full, and when his difficult, brilliant, charismatic, future-shaping personality is no longer the face of Apple.”

However, Harvard Business School fellows James Allworth, Max Wessel, and Rob Wheeler point out that the “Steve-infused culture” that he is leaving behind is, in fact, the point. When Jobs returned to Apple for his 2nd stint, “he wasn’t just interested in building great products himself. He was interested in making sure everyone else within Apple was able to build great products, too – to be able to think like he did.”

These guys are so confident, they created a Twitter hashtag to follow the mantra they believe Apple will continue to leverage to success for a long time to come: #wwsd. As in: “What would Steve do?”

How would you like to remember Steve’s departure?

Before any of this had come to a head, Fritz Nelson of Information Week had been creating his own script for what a Steve Jobs departure would – or in his view, should – look like. It has a geeky element of fantasy to it, but is an interesting read about how Steve Jobs could have ended his tenure. Cool ideas, though the white turtle neck is a bit over the top.

The one thing I liked best, I think, is the Stanford commencement speech that Jobs did in 2005 (thanks to John Millea of CA Technologies and Jean Bozman of IDC for pointing it my direction again recently). As a Bay Area local, I remember being tempted to go. I wish I had, but the magic of YouTube at least ensures that I didn’t miss what he said. The graduates aren’t quite in sync with Jobs at the start, laughing at weird times, assuming that his speech is about, well, them. They eventually figure out that it’s not about them. At least, not only about them.

The speech has some great insights about how doing what you have a passion for is the most important thing. He talked about serendipity: how a calligraphy class he took (because he loved it) saved the world from ugly PC fonts. He talked about getting fired. He talked about being diagnosed with cancer.

If you can find a way to wrap all those things into one life and build great things from them, you’re liable to make a huge difference for yourself. And for a whole lot of other people, too.

So, I’ll hereby submit my comments to the mix of everything that’s already been said and end with something pretty simple.

Thanks, Steve.

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