S T E V E J O B S
A name that evokes pride, passion, and prestige. Two words that raise scorn, spite and sarcasm. Letters that are equally belittled and adored.
For me, they are a fascination. Hardworking, Enthusiastic, Dramatic and Assuring. Obsessive, Intuitive, Aesthetic and Perfectionist. Steve Jobs was all this and more. He was a romantic like no other.
No one else could have walked into his first board room meeting, on his first day as iCEO, in shorts and sneakers, and proceed to lambast a stunned group of top executives that ‘ the products don’t sell (because) there is no sex in them anymore’.
Everett Rogers, in his theory – The Diffusion of Innovations, tells that not all innovators are equally influential. Simple knowledge of innovation is never enough to retain influence. Even among innovators, there is a certain sector of highly influential people, who he calls opinion leaders, who take it upon them to spread a positive or negative evaluation of an innovation. And among such opinion leaders, stand a breed of certain individuals, called “Champions”. They take it upon them to stand behind an innovation, and breakthrough any opposition that the innovation may have caused.
In this sense, Steve Jobs is the foremost among champion innovators. Agreed, there have been much earlier innovations, like the Xerox Pointing Device or the UNIX system; which an young Steve directed his friend Woz to imbibe into his model of the modern PC. But what sets Steve apart from other champion innovators – those among his peers and even those before him; was his visionary understanding of the consequences of an innovation.
Steve was the champion who was responsible for thousands of our daily take-it-for-granted specifics to have emerged from the dusty bowels of corporate laborotories and academic libraries. Jay Elliot, former VP of Apple from 1980 to 1986, recounts how impishly excited Steve Jobs was on seeing the mouse at the Xerox PARC. Where the bonafide graduates and proven talents around him could not understand what was so special about the pointing device; Jobs, a college dropout, could see how that very pointing device would ultimately be the cornerstone for a revolution in user interface.
Indeed, Steve’s foremost gift was his visionary ability. In an era where people have not known that an ‘Age of Computers’ was upon them; Steve could see the trepidation that would come to be borne out of the confines of technological growth, information sprawl and rampant computerization. He advocated emphasis on strong design as an authentic source of aesthetic experience.
On his second coming to Apple in 1997, Jobs defied conventional engineering wisdom, and trashed 38 reasons his engineers came up on why a certain design was practically impossible, and sternly directed them to do his bidding. The result: The iMac.
Come 2003, Jobs would again shun a number of designs intended for an iMac makeover and then call his Chief Designer, Jonathan Ive, for a walk in the sunny lanes around his house. He then told him he wanted the new iMac to look like a sunflower. The result: a flat screen iMac, the first of its kind, which is balanced gracefully on a flexible metal rod, like a sunflower.
Just like the erstwhile romantics of the 18th century, Jobs elevated revived elements of nature into an industry devoid of art and beauty. Ideas of absolute originality and artistic inspiration were the forte of the individual genius of the man who willed the creation of seemingly awe-inspiring products from nothingness.
For a man so steadfastly rooted in the present, he exhibited astonishing perception of what the future holds for technological advancements. He did not get plain lucky at the helm of a company, which drew unprecedented success in corporate history. He worked his way to it through sheer conviction and gut wrenching audacity. It would be justified if it can be said that Steve’s greatest achievement during his second coming at Apple was not the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone or the iPad. It was the creation of an organization that mirrored his own simple self.
Steve’s passion for Apple is now the stuff of legends – the extreme care he took right from the quality of granite floors in his stores to the secretive meetings with industry leaders. But, Steve’s most remarkable achievement at Apple was instilling this passion of his, across the length and breadth of the organization. The chart above (taken from a March issue of Fortune) shows a deceptively straightforward organizational hierarchy. No dotted-lines or matrix-ed responsibilities that have become commonplace in other organizations. Only one person, the chief financial officer, has a responsibility for costs and expenses that lead to profits or losses. The rest think about functions, not products or processes or successes.
It’s a radical example of Steve’s management: Most companies view the Profit & Loss statement as the ultimate credentials of a manager’s accountability; Steve turned that dictum on its head by labeling P&L a distraction only the finance chief needs to consider. The rest of the employees – the management and the engineering – is free to work passionately on his/her own love without the fear of financial obligations affecting them. Steve Jobs, as most people have realized over the years, has his bouts of anger, frightening the living daylights out of anyone he gets pissed off with. But when the brightest minds on the planet are given the extreme freedom and the necessary challenge to passionately drill away on tasks they love to work on, they un-grudgingly tolerate the whims of man who has given them this opportunity and are willingly eager to assist him in his quest for perfection.
Ah, Perfection! That holy grail of artists – past, present and future. Carl Friedrich Gauss, the greatest mathematician in history, had a personal motto – pauca sed matura (“few, but ripe”). Gauss was not simply the greatest mathematician of all, he was an ardent perfectionist and steadfastly passionate about his work. His personal diaries indicate that he had made several important mathematical discoveries years or decades before his contemporaries published them. Historians estimated that, had Gauss published all of his discoveries in a timely manner, he would have advanced mathematics by fifty years. Gauss usually declined to present the intuition behind his often very elegant proofs—he preferred them to appear “out of thin air” and erased all traces of how he discovered them. He justified this by stating that all analysis (i.e., the paths one travelled to reach the solution of a problem) must be suppressed for sake of brevity. If Guass were to meet Jobs, he would realize he had met an equal.
Steve often spoke about how the most important thing was to say ‘No’ to a number of great innovations and instead concentrate on a select few, an entrepreneurial trait common to startups but not a $320 billion churning corporation. Jobs probably had his own intuition in coming up with the multi-touch gestures or the sunflower style of an iMac, but he never presented them to his audience. He preferred his ideas to materialize “out of thin air” and advocated a simple sense of art to elevate function. A day will probably come, when historians will estimate that, had Jobs taken up a multitude of innovations in a rigorous manner, he would have advanced the digital age by fifty years.
Critics deriding his lack of public philanthropy and his being a non-member of the Giving Pledge advocated by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates forget one important fact. Steve started the Stephen P Jobs Foundation almost a decade before Gates set up his own and two decades before Buffet set up his Giving Pledge. For a person whose apparent non conformist attitude has so often been proven right, I would believe he had his just reasons in shutting down the foundation an year later. Moreover, we need to remember that Steve followed Buddhism which asks to give away alms but not for the sake of giving away alms, nor for the sake of public favor and nor the sake of mercy.
Throughout his life, Steve’s driving force was his magical love for perfection. It is awe-inspiring to even comprehend how much it meant to him. He never craved money for money’s sake and has never given in to flashy displays of wealth. His biography (to be released in a few days) has an insight on how much Jobs was upset that HP discontinued its TouchPad tablet, because its founders Hewlett and Packard had thought they were leaving the company in safe hands. He took a $1 salary every year from Apple in the capacity of it’s CEO, though his stock options from both Apple and Disney have made him billions of dollars.
As a kid, he wished to make a dent in the universe with his products and over a successful adult life, achieved it by his sheer will power. And in doing so, Steve has touched billions of people lives in more ways than one. His structuring of products – their design and quality – has redefined entrepreneurship as we know it. He has ushered in an era of romanticism in entrepreneurship where love for the product and an aesthetic sense of portrayal are the catchwords. He has set the golden standard for young entrepreneurs to emulate.
In an Age of Abundance, where the price for every commodity is expected to become more readily accessible as the years roll by, Steve Jobs stands as the flag bearer of the one commodity that will always be treasured and will be even rarer to find – a creative brain with a penchant for perfection and a dash of artistic fervor.