I didn’t know Steve Jobs. Like many others I’d seen Steve on stage a few times; we’ve been in the same small room once, but didn’t actually meet. Until this year, when I was at the iPad 2 launch on 2nd March: Marc Benioff had been invited, and he gave me the opportunity to go in his place. At the end of the launch, Steve came off stage and talked with some of his guests. A nod, a smile, hello, and that was that for me.
I didn’t know Steve Jobs. So why am I writing this? Because I owe Steve a massive debt of gratitude, for teaching me, through the things he’s said and done, some very important lessons over the years. May his soul rest in peace. My thoughts and prayers are with his family; I was 22 when my father died, 31 years ago.
Those of you who’ve known me for a while will also know that for nearly a decade, my personal email address has been firstname.lastname@example.org; similarly, you would know that I’m @jobsworth on Twitter and jobsworth on blip.fm and in a few other places.
There’s a reason for that. A reason why I called myself jobsworth. It all began with a secret project we ran at the bank I worked at, seeking to switch the whole institution from Microsoft to Apple. Secret projects, especially at investment banks, came with codenames. As project sponsor I could choose the name. And the name I chose was Project Jobsworth.
Why Jobsworth? First, to pay tribute to Steve Jobs, who had inspired not just me but many of my friends and colleagues at the bank, with what he’d done at Apple and NeXT and Pixar. And, as a play on words, to be able to smile when we faced the opposition we knew we would face, the immune system, the inertia, the bureaucracy, the “jobsworths”, as we sought to overturn the Microsoft dominance. Therein lies a tale.
I was privileged to have many talented people working for me there, and the majority were Jobs fanboys. A good number had worked on NextStep while working at a previous place, and were excited about the imminent launch of OSX. There were strong opensource roots in us as well, so the James Gosling idea of OSX being “Linux with QA and style” appealed to us. We’d had enough of the security problems with the incumbent, coming on top of poor trials with SQL Server 2000 and the SPV phone. A number of us had also gotten ourselves iPods, there was a real buzz going. So we went to the management of the bank with our plan. They were only prepared to fund a trial; we were allowed to replace up to 10% of my department’s desktops, to experiment with them and to come back with a formal and detailed feasibility report.
For a number of reasons we couldn’t go beyond the trial. But that’s not germane to this post. What is germane is what I learnt as a result, about Steve Jobs and the way he thought.
The first lesson came to me when we kicked off the project. I visited Infinite Loop a few times, and wondered if Steve would get directly involved. [It was during that time that I connected with Dan Gillmor, then with the San Jose Mercury, and briefed him on the project. I’d met Dan a little while earlier, and the idea was to run an exclusive on the bank’s “big switch” once we got going].
When I queried the possibility of meeting Steve to discuss the project, I was bemused by the response. Apparently Steve wasn’t one to get involved in markets that had CIOs in them, he preferred to deal direct with “real customers”. So, ironically, by proxy I learnt the first lesson: focus on the end-customer in everything you do. From that day onward it changed how I viewed the CIO’s role: I tried to find ways of getting out of the way, of making sure the engineers doing the real work met and worked closely with real customers. In large organisations that upsets people whose role is to be that filter; yet the more I thought about it, the more I saw how it worked at Apple, the more I knew it was the right thing to do.
The second lesson came as we continued with the project, when I met the Apple CIO and he talked us through how his department worked. At the bank we prided ourselves on punching above our weight, using a welter of ways to deliver value at a cost substantially below industry benchmark. For example, in desktop services, we used to have one person per 38 traders, while the competition hovered nearer the 70 mark. Apple were slightly better than us: one per 400. Yup, an order of magnitude better. And as the CIO told me the story I learnt more about the importance of keeping the device simple and easy to use, moving the complexity to the server. Everyone was busy “standardising” the device, going “lock-down” on it; the secret was to keep the edge simple and convenient. [This was a theme that Jobs repeated, much later, in an interview with Steven Levy in Newsweek in October 2006, excerpted here: “One of the biggest insights we have was that we decided not to try to manage your music library on the iPod, but to manage it in iTunes. Other companies tried to do everything on the device itself and made it so complicated that it was useless.” So lesson 2 was to focus on simplicity, not on standardisation.
The third lesson was in 2007. By this time, Apple could do no wrong, and the company was moving from strength to strength. One of the questions I was repeatedly asked was how come I could be an opensource devotee and a Jobs fanboy at the same time. I wondered about it myself, but I wasn’t giving up my Mac or my iPod and had every intention of getting the iPhone. So I pondered about it. And then I saw this interview with Steve, “Thoughts On Music“. And reading it, many things became clear to me, or at least clearer. His perspective on the music industry, the pointlessness of DRM, his [then] reasons for implementing DRM nevertheless, the whole essay proved very instructive. The bit about the industry continuing to sell unprotected music via CDs while arguing for protection in a digital world really got home to me: at the time 90% of the music sold was via CD; even though the ratio has changed, dramatically, since then, the point continues to hold. Copy protection has its pros and cons: what Steve’s essay taught me was to view the industry (and many others) with an important change of perspective, to look very carefully at the analog state of “copy protection” in an industry before designing for the digital world. I’d never liked region coding on a DVD, believing it to be the single stupidest technical design decision I’d come across. Now I understood why I felt that way.
The next lesson came a little later, when I re-read the 1985 Playboy interview with Steve. More things became clear. For example, Steve didn’t start off not dealing with CIOs, both at Apple as well as at NeXT he sought the business end of the market. So it wasn’t an animus against CIOs per se. Similarly, I was very taken with the story of Steve, Andy Warhol, the Mac and the boy: “Older people sit down and ask, “What is it?”, but the boy asks, “What can I do with it?” Reminiscent of Sugata Mitra and his Minimally Invasive Education.
But the real lesson, one that stuck with me when I first read the interview, one that was refreshed by my re-reading it, was to remind me about the purpose of education. The way Jobs said it : “…. Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic. It is a learned ability. It had never occurred to me that if no one taught us how to think this way, we would not think this way. And yet, that’s the way it is. Obviously, one of the great challenges of an education is to teach us how to think.”
Much later, sometime last year, I read this article by Steven Johnson, an author I admire and respect. In it Steven, a confessed devotee of open platforms, looks at the success of the App Store and comments eruditely on it. And while reading it, I realised again just how Steve Jobs thought relentlessly about the customer and simplicity and convenience in everything he did. And then I realised that all my previous lessons were just one lesson. Concentrate on the customer. Everything else follows from that.
I’m lucky. I work somewhere where this is practised. I work for someone who knew Steve personally, and the influence shows in the focus on the customer.
I’ve been a Jobs fanboy for a very long time. And I will continue to be one as long as I live. Steve Jobs, thank you for the way you changed the way I think. Thank you for being part of my education.