Steve Jobs

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 [email protected]; similarly, you would know that I’m @jobsworth on Twitter and jobsworth on 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.

44 thoughts on “Steve Jobs”

  1. Wonderful post JP. I spent 3 years working at Apple just as Michael Spindler brought Steve back in to act as an advisor. Although I was based in London, in their Stockley Park office, we used to watch the internal employee broadcasts from Cupertino. The impact on the European teams was very measureable and quite was amazing. I was lucky to experience that.

  2. Thanks JP. With all the Jobs tributes out there great to read something with a different perspective. And now I know the origin of Jobsworth :-)

  3. @JP – Thanks for sharing. Indeed one of the best tributes to Steve that I have read in the past few days. However, can I presume your interpretation of Steve’s focus on ‘customer’ is a boarder term ‘users’ or ever broader ‘community’. Am sure you know the reason why I am saying this.

    Btw, in this day and age why does your blog not allow fconnect posts. I thought they were a respectable standard now.

  4. Thanks Dennis. I’ve felt sad many times when people have died. But so far only three deaths have made me cry. My dad. John Lennon. Steve Jobs. Can’t explain it. Just the way it is.

  5. Thanks for sharing that JP! Likewise, I was surprised to shed some tears for a man I had never spoken with. I stood near him at the close of his last WWDC keynote and spoke with Jonny Ive, but out of respect for his frail condition, I decided not to thank him for all he has done, for sharing his passion with such fierce honesty. Perhaps that fierce passion is why we felt it so deeply.

  6. JP I’m glad you wrote a tribute. I hoped you would because I really wanted to hear your views on Steve Jobs. You have written a great piece and I have learnt much from it. Thank you.

  7. Terrific post JP, Steve has taught me a few valuable lessons too about focussing on simplicity. Everything we do we continually simplify and polish the hell out of the user experience. Less is more for sure, thanks Steve!

  8. Refreshing post JP !! One thing I particularly liked about Steve was continuously thinking beyond what customers think they want .

    Also, thanks for the links for various interviews

  9. JP nice one as expected. Quite coincidentally i wrote about his focus on simplicity taking just brand nomenclature as there is enough written about his product design fetish! Read here if you have the time
    And I wrote a tongue in cheek piece here

  10. Great post. Having had the privilege of working on parts of the jobs worth project with you I remember the conversations we had and becoming another fanboy too. RIP Steve.

  11. Thanks Martin. I still remember the objections given by CS and TM. Questioning the credit rating and long-term viability of the company…… what can I say? It was a good project though, we learnt a lot while spending very little, and those that switched stayed switched….. Looking forward to seeing you soon in FFT.

  12. Wonderful post JP. I remember the first time my then 3 year old son (he’s now 25 and a web developer – using a Mac naturally) sat down with a ‘PC’ – a Macintosh SE30 with MacDraw at the Apple dealership where I worked. After 30 minutes he had drawn a house complete with windows, roof tiles, bricks completely unaided. I knew then that if we could get beyond the Wintel dogma Apple could dominate at the desktop. Unfortunately PC-based Line of Business apps and a developer community reluctant to develop for a platform with little market share conspired to keep Apple away from the mainstream. Fast forward 20 years and with browser based LOB apps democratising user device choice, consumerisation of IT, and the adoption of the iPad within all age demographics (my septegenarian parents are avid iPad devotees), Apple are finally set to achieve their destiny and fulfilling their full potential. I’m profoundly sad that Jobs won’t be here to see that day but happy that he was able to see the affect that his iThings had changing society for the better and disrupting the status quo along the way.

  13. thanks Guy. My intro to PCs was the B20, the Burroughs version of Convergent Technology’s kit. Colour, multitasking, networked in 1984, years ahead of the IBM/MS mess. Then I spent a few years on MS before going on to the Mac in ’88. And that was that. Forced to use PCs from ’97 to ’01, I stayed Mac at home, then gave up MS altogether. And I’ve stayed that way.

  14. Hi JP,

    Many thanks for sharing a totally different perspective of Steve. How do you foresee Apple’s future in Steve’s absence?


  15. thanks Anupam. of course they will miss him. but the journey is set for the next four or five years from an engineering viewpoint, he had the time to pick every member of the team carefully since 2004, dress-rehearse them. and they’re all very talented individuals anyway, quite capable of holding their own. there is a deep-seated culture there, with shared values which he’s led and influenced for the most part of 30 years. and the competition is just not there. of course I expect the “plasma mac” to arrive, the mac turned plasma screen on my wall. and i want it soon. then with airport and desktop and laptop and tablet and wall-hanging and palmtop and nano it’s a big deal. I guess I also expect that it will all converge into one OS, driven by the mobile devices. so I will remain a Jobs fanboy and an Apple one. can’t see anything better. happy to be proved wrong.

  16. @JP – You are welcome. Simple Facebook Connect is the plugin name in WordPress. It may need a little more than switching on. E.g. Creating an Facebook App page and linking to it. What it does is allows people with Facebook Accounts to post comments to your blog without having to enter their details and it also automatically adds this comment to their Facebook Stream. This allows their friends to see their comment via Facebook News Feeds which helps them and helps you as well as you get more impressions for your blog.

  17. @JP – you can see it on my blog I use Word Press too, and have added Simple Facebook Connect. So if you have an open Facebook Session on the same browser it won’t ask you to login again or will do that in 1 click. Also, it will allow you to publish your blog post to your Facebook profile or Brand Page in 1 click.

  18. IIRC, we started Project Jobsworth when the blue columns on this chart were quite small:

    Fairly senior Apple people led us to believe that Apple wanted to make inroads into the enterprise and we would get considerable support from them in ironing out the technical obstacles to what we wanted to do.

    Then the blue columns started getting bigger and we soon discovered that the Eye of Sauron had turned to the consumer electronics market rather than corporate sales. Whether this was Steve Jobs’ personal strategy all along I’m not in a position to say.

    Anyway, your remark about taking the decision to the bank’s Management Committee reminds me of another JP anecdote which taught me a valuable lesson, one which I have carried with me ever since.

    I have only ever seen you angry once. It was when we, your own IT top table, suggested that we refer another controversial technology decision to the bank’s management. You told us that we should make our own decision, stick to it and stand or fall by it. Your clear anger at our suggestion to push accountability upwards was quite right, and highly effective because of its rarity.

    Since then I’ve lost faith altogether with the corporate model in general. Part of the reason for that is to do with hierarchical management structures encouraging the kind of pusillanimous thinking that your management team displayed that day.

    I’ve also learned to try to control my overt anger as far as possible, but that’s a bit harder to put into practice sometimes…

  19. @JP thanks for a beautiful and insightful reflection on how Steve Jobs affected you and your group, as well as for the curated links. I had never read the Playboy interview, which was amazing. But I love the way you put Jobs’ focus on people within the enterprise context; you and your group were individuals who were inspired by Jobs and what Apple were doing, so you did what was natural; you tried to share the vision & experience with the org. My first experience was when I joined PwC Consulting; Coopers & Lybrand oldco partners were still talking about the first Powerbooks because they could create networks around conference room tables effortlessly, a huge productivity enhancer in consulting. Based on your thoughts and the Playboy interview, I believe Steve’s focus on people rather than organization was breakthrough: during periods of disruption, organization gets interrupted, so staying close to the core (people) is more successful because large structures are built on assumptions, many of which become irrelevant and counterproductive. I also wrote a very personal post that was based on intuition and long observation; it’s very different for me:

    Thanks again for a beautiful post.

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