I’m greatly saddened by the passing of Steve Jobs. I began working with Steve in 1978 and he was my boss for a good chunk of my four-year tenure at Apple. I am very grateful to have lived in his era, known him and learned from him. He was a great source of inspiration in my life. In my view, his legacy has two parts.
He brought computers to humanity. He took computing from its total geekdom to fit the hand of man like a glove. He uniquely understood how to bridge the chasm between the general public and our most amazing technologies. Before Steve, computers were locked in large meat lockers, toiling mysteriously for the government and large corporations. Because of Steve, every human being now wants to personally own a computer that embodies his fundamental views and ideas. Billions of people already benefit from his innovations every day and for many of them a day without one of his products is like a day without food.
Steve should also be remembered as the greatest CEO in history. Five arguments support this claim. First, he belongs in this discussion because of the financial value that has been created through Apple. Second, I would argue that the social impact of his work is greater than other candidates to whom some have compared Steve. Sam Walton built yet another successful retail chain, but without him things would have barely been different at social, cultural and commercial levels. Rockefeller monopolized gasoline, so what? We’ve seen a long parade of monopolists and they often make things worse, not better. I better appreciate Rockefeller’s philanthropy. And Ford may have similarly commercialized a key product category, but the life of the gasoline automobile will be finite and it represents only one slice of the transportation industry. Edison was perhaps the greatest inventor of commercial products but I would classify Edison as more of an inventor than an industrialist. For example, Edison may have invented the film industry but he did not build it, commercialize it or operate it. And his projector is already obsolete, probably being replaced now by computers that are using principles of human interface that were commercialized by Steve.
Steve did all of those things as a CEO, and in a category that is more fundamental: you are as naked leaving home without your iPhone as you are without clothing. Unlike cars, computers will be with us until the end of human time. For millennia I expect that we’ll be carrying around something that embodies Steve’s principles. He was ahead of his time and here is my favorite example. You are a science fiction writer and are asked to envision the 24th century for the TV show, Star Trek. You invent the holodeck, the warp drive and amazing medical instruments. You also invent the clamshell mobile phone, which Kirk is always using to check in with Spock when he is planetside. You also had to imagine the future of computing and what did you come up with? The computer is still so enormous that there needs to be a Computer Room. Okay, you were smart enough to have it be voice-activated and able to verbalize human language. But consider that when Kirk needed help he had to make a phone call to Spock and then Spock had to go to the computer room and ask the computer a question, and then relay the answer back to Kirk! And this is going to be going on 400 years from now? Well, thanks to Steve we only needed 40 years to get to a point where each of us carries access to all the computers in the world, and it fits in our pocket. Now that’s an example of being ahead of your time.
But I still have to explain the three most important arguments to support my claim that Steve is the best CEO ever.
He was a startup entrepreneur that invented his own industry. This alone is enough to put him ahead of all the Jack Welch clones in the world, that know how to maintain something but neither invent it nor build it from nothing.
And he did it as a turnaround. Some executives specialize in turnarounds but they are often one-dimensional and virtually never do it by reinventing a company or through innovation, which is harder and far more remarkable when it works. Look at the mediocrity of Apple in the period before his return, when the company seemed to have painted itself into a corner. They tried several conventional CEOs but it took Steve to not just revive the company but to make it among the all-time greats.
My favorite argument has been saved for last. Most of us only succeed once, mainly because it is so difficult and when it works we are the beneficiaries of timing and serendipity. Steve not only did it more than once, he did two at the same time, which no other CEO can claim. Steve’s commitment and faith in Pixar are one thing, but his ability to get his head around transforming it from a workstation company into a great film company, and then to commit to such a plan and to actually pull it off, while also giving rebirth to Apple … I am unworthy, a worm in comparison!
I’ll close with a few of my favorite personal anecdotes about my times with Steve. When I started at Apple in 1978 we had only 25 office workers so it was pretty intimate. In those days Steve was like the Wild Man of Borneo. He seemed barely civilized and Mike Markkula told me that the previous year he’d had to teach Steve such social basics as to how to set a table for dinner. He did not, in fact, evoke any of the traits at that time that would suggest he could be a CEO, and of course was already legendary for his bad treatment of people and for his infamous “reality distortion field”. We partied together and shot craps in Vegas, where he observed that the energy of every light bulb on the Strip could instead be powering an Apple. Once he came into my office and said, “Hey Trip, have you ever taken LSD?” I said no. He thought for a moment, and then said, “I thought so,” and walked off. I understood that he was criticizing me about some viewpoint he’d heard about that disagreed with him, and he blamed this on my mental deficiency from having an unexpanded mind. He had a diabolical range of ways to get into your head. Then there was the time he interrogated me about what it was like to date an older woman, because he was dating Joan Baez at the time. The first time I was in his home, he’d been there for a year but only had 2 items of furniture. One was a plain mattress on the floor of his bedroom. The other was a small elegant table in his entry foyer. He was so determined to make every design choice perfectly that the house remained barren for years because he could never get around to it, nor tolerate delegating the task to a decorator. There was a terrible dot matrix printer in those days that Steve had pushed us to distribute, over my objections about its poor quality. He never understood how bad the printer was because he’d never used one. They sold poorly and we had a bunch we could not get rid of so they were sold for peanuts to employees. Even Steve bought one and took it home and into his upstairs office. He came in a few days later and explained that he got frustrated when struggling to use the printer and he’d unplugged it, walked to the open second-floor window, and just dropped the recalcitrant device out the window, to shatter on the brick patio below. He explained all of this with a deadpan expression on his face. This was his humorous and flamboyant way of admitting a mistake. He had a great sense of humor and was always quick to smile and laugh mischievously.
We were great collaborators because of a shared vision. After he visited Xerox Parc on his own, he came back and grabbed me and two other guys for a return visit. I then hired a guy that had worked at Xerox and got him to obtain and bring in our first mouse, which we gave to Bill Atkinson. With great determination we overcame tremendous internal resistance, led by former H-P engineers, about our views of the user experience. Much of this was organized through an enormous document that I wrote in early 1980. Today it is a remarkable document that describes what would ensue in the next 20 years of computing. Back then, it provoked an enormous battle with two engineer managers that ended up getting fired because of their resistance. Even after that there were interesting battles where even the guys we hired from Xerox had it wrong. Some of them wanted up to 6 buttons on the mouse and wanted the scroll bars to point in the wrong direction. Steve and I were in the one-button camp, and I still am, despite the Microsoft mouse screwing it up with the extra button. At least we got the scroll bars right; it’s an industry standard even 30 years later.
Steve had his extremes as I do. But we respected each other, even when we disagreed and had to fight things out. For example, he was livid when I told him he could not launch the Mac with only 64KB of RAM, and he strongly counter-argued, but he knew I was right and subsequently doubled the launch memory to 128KB (within a year the minimum grew to 512KB). He got mad at Shugart and decided that Apple should make its own floppy disc drives, but they never worked. I constantly complained about this needless risk but he nevertheless forced the Lisa system to use it to support “corporate objectives”. When he finally realized it did not work he OEMed the Mac floppy disc drive from Sony. By that time he wanted Lisa to fail and considered it a rival to Mac, over which he had control (For Mac, he borrowed and stole liberally from Lisa, in terms of ideas, assets and people – in fact Mac would not have had printer fonts or any form of printer for another 2 years were it not for Lisa). The ultimate sign of respect was how angry he got when I left Apple. To him it was an act of betrayal, but I had been planning to found my own game company for 11 years.
I founded Electronic Arts with many things that I learned from my time at Apple, including the key foundational principles that drove EA’s strategy for years. Steve’s greatest gift to me was in telling me that I was creative. From him, this was a high compliment and when a big thinker tells you to think big and that you can create, it can result in big dreams and the founding of Electronic Arts, 3DO and Digital Chocolate. I’ve had my ups and downs but would have certainly fared worse without my time at Apple and with Steve. He was a great source of wisdom and inspiration and I will miss him always.