August 26, 2011

The Steve Jobs Difference

Yesterday's news that Steve Jobs resigned from is position as CEO of Apple hit hard. I, like everybody, knew this day would come but Jobs had many times cheated reality by creating a whole new one out of thin air (apparently thin air is made of hard work, insane attention to detail, knowing what the future looks like, hiring great people who can execute from that vision and have equal attention to detail along with knowing the deep underpinnings of everything they touch to to make something great, and not compromising on the way to making something great) and I had selfishly hoped his health and longevity would dance on some of that magic as well.

I was a fan of Apple products in the mid through late 80s when the Mac and MacBooks were the new and inventive darlings and also options I had to use at work. But, it was not until Jobs returned to Apple and the release of Mac OSX that I paid attention closely nor personally cared. In 2001 I was losing my laptop when I left a work project that loaned me one and was a web project built on UNIX that I went looking for a replacement as a personal computer for me. I went with a Titanium PowerBook from Apple because of Mac OSX as it gave me not only the new Mac OS and classic Mac OS to test with, but OSX is built on UNIX (Darwin, which Jobs' created at Next based on BSD) including access to the command line, and it could have a Windows emulator running to use the tools required when dealing with large organizations. All of this was in a less than one inch Titanium encased laptop, with a lovely screen, and battery that could last a flight across the US.

But, something happened I did not see coming, after a few months I was only using Mac OSX. My purchase choice was based on the capability and need to use all the various operating systems, but my use showed I only used one. Mac OSX was a giant change and revelation for me, I no longer was battling the operating system it just worked, I was able to do my job (that does not include keeping my personal computer functioning properly) and things were much easier to use. I noticed the attention to detail and careful design not only in the operating system and Apple software, but also the hardware. My hardware was lasting like no other manufacturer (my last laptop was 4.5 years old before replacing).

It was after purchasing my PowerBook that I started closely paying attention to Steve Jobs keynote presentations. The keynotes were a blast as Jobs seemed as giddy as we were about the newest things (iPod, iMac with extendable screen, iPhone, iPad, etc.) and at the same time deeply proud that Apple (his baby) was shipping yet another product that dared at greatness and changing the way things are done and the way we live our lives. (Josh Bernoff of Forrester counts 5 game changing innovations in technology as well as how these innovations deeply changed the music, film, telephone, internet, and other related industries). There has been no other single person nor company that has had that much impact.

There is No Other Like Jobs

I have long been accused of being an Apple fan boy, but I'm not so sure that I am that as much as I am a fan of nearly perfect execution of ideas that truly lead and are driven by a goal to ship things that are great. This is very much at the heart of what Steve Jobs has done for Apple. It is not only the vision, but he is the one that pays attention to the details and things that are insanely small and even things that can not be seen, but need to be there.

I have had the fortune of chatting with people at Apple in the cafe, being invited to speak to them, and pulled aside at events by a couple groups at Apple to "chat about some things" that lasted a few hours. These glimpses inside left me in greater awe of not only Apple and its very different and secret way of doing things, but of Jobs himself. I heard stories of Jobs product reviews and the level of detail of things he gets to (wire color inside a laptop, the symmetry of left and right invisible to sight laser drilled holes next to the laptop cameras in MacBook Pros - the right for an on light to show through and the left for balance, yes of something you can not see). But, I also had somebody recount a review he was responsible for the product and it didn't meet Jobs's standards and I watched the person physically recount the pain of that dressing down I imagine he got as he asked for suggestions for alternate paths to get it approved. The explanation and constraints around the feature and functionality were really well reasoned and I could see why it didn't ship. But also I was more in awe of Jobs and the realization of the breadth and depth he not only pays attention to, but the detail and quality that he demands. Not only did Jobs lead a company he checked it line by line as it was part of the vision and passion, but also he has the serious depth of understanding to have a company make things that are great.

The Measure of Things

Yes, not everything Apple ships has been perfect nor great and it would be foolish to say that. But, those teams and people do not last long who do not ship greatness. Apple will and has shipped things that are iterations on their way to something else as well as blown up products for a rebuild from square one (Final Cut Pro is in the midst of this) as well as things that are experiments (Apple TV). But, where Apple has and does stand apart is the expectation of greatness of product and having products that ship.

I have had senior executives of many tech companies as well as non-tech companies sit and ask about what I think is the difference between their company and Apple (I find this odd as I never publicly mentioned any interaction with Apple other than customer until this post).

This questioning has repeatedly come from senior management at Microsoft, whom I really like, but hasn't shipped anything great (perhaps other than Xbox) even though they have always had great things in R&D for years. The answer to Microsoft about the difference comes down to expectations and rewards. At Microsoft employees are reviewed on a sales and marketing model where the top third get really good salary increases and good bonuses, the middle third based on reviews get moderate increases and most years some bonus, and the bottom third has to reapply for their job or find another one. What this model of reward does is have nearly every employee game the system to be the white knight at the end of the day (just before review) sweep in with a great solution. The problem with this approach is the systems are so complicated and complex that they are not integrated nor tested well enough (often this needs many months of planning, if not years) to make a seamless solid product. Then I get asked what the Apple model is, which is really simple: All teams are given the task of making a great product and if the product meets expectations and review of the one with the insanely careful eye as well as does well in the marketplace the whole team is rewarded well, if not the team is reconfigured to better meet expectations (rumors of whole teams being dismissed have not publicly confirmed, but that would never surprise me).

Apple works and is set up as a whole to work together in clusters of people focussed with one driving mission. There is an also a culture of "what would Jobs do" that is more than myth and that matching of vision and expectations really extend broadly and deeply. But, the one thing I fear and have seen in the past year or two in Apple products is a slipping of quality and attention to detail in tiny ways. Not having the Steve Jobs with final insane attention to detail and vision review doesn't catch the things that make a deep difference. There is a lot of magic in Steve Jobs that can not be replaced (I strongly believe everybody has a gift that make them special and the world a much better place for having their gift in it, but Jobs has had this in volume like no other).

More Than Product

In 2005 I was moved by one rather short presentation like I had been at no other time and moved to make change. This was Steve Jobs' commencement address at Stanford given after his return to Apple after stepping away to battle cancer. The Jobs 2005 Commencement Address - Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. was and still is amazing. It was amazing in the craft of it in writing and delivery, but also the message. I grabbed a copy of this a day or two after I heard about it and listened to it nearly every time I travelled (which was a fair amount then). I continued listening to this about once a month for years and need to return to it.

For all of this and more I wish Steve Jobs deep thanks and wish him peace and comfort moving forward. Steve is the embodiment of of the Apple Think Different mindset and we are all better off for it.



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