The Steve Jobs Nexus

Your perspective shapes your world.  Like a particle traveling at the speed of light, the twists and turns you make based on what you see changes what you see next.  Combined with inertia, it gets easier to see how people can wander from the mainstream (as the rest of us define it) off into very strange (to the rest of us) places.   Apple’s “Think Different” presumes a beneficent intent – as the rest of us define it.  After all, Jeffrey Dahmer and Adolph Hitler thought “different.”

How Jobs approached his life and work sets up a big question for me about how to conduct my life.

Permit me a short background digression.

I never met Steve Jobs in person, I’ve been working from myth about him, second hand sources and my own first hand encounters with Apple and it’s products.  In 1984 while working at General Dynamics Electronics Division, I had to go to Orange County to borrow an Apple Laserwriter from the regional sales manager of Apple (the local office didn’t have one.)  I had been using sister Division Convair’s Macintosh’s to make presentation materials for the B-1B bomber’s avionics testing program office.

Macintosh and Laserwriter Ad circa 1986

I had come to the Program Office from the Publications Department.  It was there in 1982, my foresighted boss Irv Wasserberg, had me help with capital requests to purchase the Wang OIS-80 typographic system.  We also had charge of the reprographics group and so I had a chance to see the Xerox Star System which used icons to navigate well before Apple deployed them. Working with the Wang word processor for a guy who treasured his Selectric typewriter for writing, I got my third and more lasting taste of technology. (The first was a computer programmable by mag stripe card in 8th grade (1970) and then a class in MIS on college where I wrote three programs on punch cards for a Cyber-175.)

In 1984, my division at GD routinely created 300 slide presentations.  When I wrote my one and only cost savings suggestion to use a Macintosh and a Laserwriter, I counted up the effort those two machines and an operator would replace: 13 people and 8 machines in three buildings.  Turnaround for a change in a slide was usually no less than 24 hours except in an emergency.  I sat in the back of the conference room during presentation review and made changes on the spot.  (I had left GD when my cost savings suggestion was evaluated…judgement: intangible savings. Award: a plexiglas chip and dip bowl.  I told them to keep the bowl and keep my name off of any list of awardees.)

All that to say, I was a fan of the Mac.  However, after I left GD, I didn’t have the cash to pay Jobs for his machines and software.  The PC had come along and there was a forest of free and shareware applications for a machine I could fix myself with parts from many suppliers.

San Diego Computer Journal August 1990

In the August 1990 now defunct “San Diego Computer Journal” I was writing about the competition Apple was losing with Microsoft Windows “the Mac is not dead….but it will need to be vastly more capable and present not just improvements but wholesale innovation to retain its present special position.”  (The editor of the Journal felt compelled to rebut my position with a defense of the Mac as “special” to justify its expense, in part I suspect because he was publishing the paper on a Mac.)  1990 – as it turned out – was in the middle of the Jobs abscence from Apple.

End of digression.

I’m happy with the Macbook I use for video production and traveling, but I use it for different things than I do my Windows PC.  I gave up my Blackberry for an iPhone and would enjoy an iPad, although I wonder about whether I would miss the easy read on my Kindle.  I wonder if I’d have all of that from a reported nice guy like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, just a little later than the hard driving Jobs produced them.  I’m envious of what Jobs accomplished while at the same time glad to be one of the herd using his devices and not one of the employees he squashed – or even being him and dead at 56.  (There are nice people who get cancer and die early, too, I was reminded today.)

The story of Jobs career makes me wonder about how we judge success and what we teach our kids about ethics and overall how we want our world to work.  It also makes me wonder what cost Jobs himself paid for his success.

I’ve heard Jobs ripped off his first partner, Steve Wozniak, early on in Apple’s history.  I’d always wondered when “Woz” found out Jobs told him they made far less than what they’d been paid for their first big order and then split the lesser amount 50/50 with him.  Now, the work was done in Jobs’ garage and Jobs had sold his Volkswagon bus to finance it.  I don’t know what sacrifice Wozniak made except to say that I’m told Wozniak cried years later when he found out Jobs had cheated him from the beginning.

From that beginning, it’s widely known that Jobs “pushed” his people hard.  “Pushed” including calling them stupid and a lot of yelling.  Arrogant and abrupt treatment of people seemed to be a common theme.  Does being smart excuse a person from civility?

And yet, Peter Elkind writing for CNNmoney reported this in March 2008: “Jobs’ personal abuses are also legend: He parks his Mercedes in handicapped spaces, periodically reduces subordinates to tears, and fires employees in angry tantrums. Yet many of his top deputies at Apple have worked with him for years, and even some of those who have departed say that although it’s often brutal and Jobs hogs the credit, they’ve never done better work.”

I’m already unhappy with my appointed high school and college guidance counselors for not telling me what jobs were possible: deputy city manager of San Diego for 5 years can retire on $150,000 income for life; professional basketball coaches fired for poor performance can have contracts paying millions not to coach.  Should I be upset that the culture I was raised in taught respect and courtesy and that some costs were too high?

Is the lesson that Jobs leaves behind that if you’re smart enough and do enough things that people like that we’ll all forgive you for whatever abuse you dish out?  I’m also reminded by the same friend that most people don’t know the nasty Jobs, only that they can play Angry Birds and be happy.

And, there’s a flipside to this conversation.

Socrates rated a Democracy as the worst of 10 possible forms of government because expecting the mob (in latin mobilus vulgus or “moving vulgar”) to vote intelligently was not possible.  In Greek tragedy, the lines given the Chorus were to repeat the “conventional wisdom.” – statements like “if man were meant to fly, he’d have wings” or “if you tax the rich enough the economy will turn around.”  The heroes almost always went against that accepted wisdom to a better end.

Anyone who felt they understood something and could make it work and had others chanting negatives in the background knows about the Chorus. In many cases – and I live this as a web site developer – you’ll make people unhappy, in a Faustian way, if you give them what they ask for.  How can they know what to ask for unless they can do it for themselves anyway and then they aren’t asking you for it.  Knowing how to give them what they really want is an art.  Jobs had a sense of that.

It takes something more than average to accomplish some things. It takes people willing to put themselves in precarious positions, risking failure and derision and economic ruin, to do what conventional wisdom says is impossible.  That’s one part of Jobs I appreciate.   I wonder, though, if he was glad, in the end, for the life he led and… what he thinks now.

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