When Steve Jobs resigned from Apple a few weeks ago it was clear he was very sick, probably dying. It had to be that serious to tear him away from his company. Even so it came as a shock yesterday when I received this slightly cryptic text: “Condolences to you for your insanely great ex-boss.”
“Insanely Great” is a Steve Jobs catch-phrase. I knew what the message meant. A quick look at the New York Times home page confirmed.
Steve was never really my ‘boss’, but I did work for his company NeXT Computer, and he was an influence in my life long before I had the chance to meet him.
My mother introduced me to computers when I was in the 4th or 5th grade. At a time when home computers were rare she had an ‘acoustic coupled portable teleprinter’, a lot like this one, from her MBA program. She taught me BASIC and gave me a copy of Soul of a New Machine,.
I was hooked. From then on all I wanted to do was work at a computer start-up—not a dry east coast mini-computer company, I wanted to work at Apple, for Steve.
A few years later I applied to Stanford University, mostly because it’s in Silicon Valley—where Apple is.
At Stanford, I worked in the computer center selling and repairing Macintosh’s. It’s there that I saw a demonstration of the NeXT Cube. It was beta, not yet for sale, and it was going to cost $6,500. The only way I could think to get one was to work for NeXT—which I’d decided to do anyway once I learned that Steve had left Apple and started NeXT.
Near the end of my freshman year, desperate for a summer job, and jonesing for a Cube, I sent an email to the saleswoman who’d given the demo.
To my roommates’ surprise (and to be honest, mine as well), she called me (thank you Cindy!) and introduced me to a co-worker who, by chance, was pitching the idea of a NeXT campus rep program. What followed was a endless stream of interviews (I wasn’t just being interviewed, I was being paraded as the poster-boy for the potential program), and before heading home for the summer, NeXT hired me (thank you Sandy!)—as an hourly contractor for not much more than minimum wage—and promised me a Cube.
They also invited me to the 1.0 launch party for the computer. A few weeks after my 19th birthday I found myself at NeXT headquarters, champagne in hand, being introduce to Steve Jobs.
It didn’t go well. I was nervous. I don’t remember clearly, but I’m pretty sure I spilled my drink on Steve and he yelled at me.
Fortunately the job went better. In less than a year, I passed the campus rep job to a friend and started working at NeXT directly, for the marketing department. Work was interesting, and busy, and I decided to drop out of college to work full time. After about a year as the college drop-out on the ‘Higher Education Marketing Team’, I dropped out of NeXT to return to school.
I didn’t have much interaction with Steve during my time at NeXT. He was the founder, the CEO, the owner, the legend. I was literally the lowest person on the totem pole—a college kid earning around $10/hr. But I did get to work with the amazing people he hired around him. NeXT was not a success, but it was an amazing place to be.
My most personal interaction with Steve happened a couple years later. I had graduated and taken a job as an engineer at an Apple spin-off that was developing a new operating system—a potential NeXT competitor. I hadn’t returned to NeXT because they saw me as a ‘marketing guy’ and I wanted an engineering job. The company I joined was a disaster, but I was a star there. I was leading engineering teams, writing good code, and generally feeling good about myself.
One day my desk phone rings: “Hi”, says a familiar voice, “this is Steve Jobs. I hear you are the smartest guy over there and that I was stupid to let you leave NeXT. I want you to come back and interview for an engineering position.” So I did.
Thing is, I was a 23yr old with a big head. NeXT made it clear that they wanted me, but they wanted me as a junior engineer (I was just 1yr out of college) not a team lead or a manager.
The folks at NeXT were of course right, I was a big fish in a not-very-competent pond, and they were offering me a small fish job, but with a rock-star team. Even so the offer felt like a step backward and I turned it down.
A week or so later, my home phone rings. “Hi, this is Steve Jobs, I hear you turned us down. Want to tell me why?” I was shocked. Steve had a few more important things to do than chase down a potential junior engineer, but he didn’t like to lose, and he was famous for finding a way to micro-manage.
I was too intimidated to tell the truth, so I mumbled something about needing to finish off projects not leaving people in the lurch.
“It’s your decision, but I’ll tell you something: you’re 23. If you are the smartest person at your company, you’re at the wrong place.”
Steve’s known for that kind of insightful zinger. With one short sentence he popped my inflated ego and reminded me who I was: a 23yr old punk, smart, but with a lot to learn. I still didn’t want a junior job at NeXT, but I knew I couldn’t stay where I was. I lasted a couple of weeks and then quit.
That’s pretty much the extent of my direct relationship with Steve—a spilled drink, a few years as the most junior person at his failed company, a couple of phone calls.
His biggest impact on me wasn’t anything personal: it’s the same impact he’s had on everyone: his creations, what he symbolizes and how he changed the way we think.
Growing up on the east coast I was—even as a kid—keenly aware of the importance of status—family name, parents money, prep-school attended, ivy league university attended—and I hated it. To me Steve represented a kind of utopian world—a meritocracy where talent and ideas matter more than status. A place where a great idea means everything, and where a jeans-wearing college drop-out adoptive-child of working class parents becomes Silicon Valley’s greatest hero.
I know that Silicon Valley and the tech industry are not utopias—status and money matter, but at the same time the meritocracy is real. Ideas, and the people who make them real, can succeed wildly no matter their background. Steve is the example that makes this real.
The most amazing thing Steve did was teach the world the value of design and the importance of not just doing something well, but making it simple and beautiful and amazingly unbelievable mind-blowingly, and yes, insanely, great.
It seems crazy now, but there was a time when people (and companies) had to be argued into spending time and money on design.
Even the companies that ‘got it’ saw the scope of design as very limited. Sony ruled consumer electronics with beautiful industrial design–they made gorgeous physical things. But they never understood the importance of extending that aesthetic and usability to the non-physical components of their products.
This is how Steve kicked Sony’s butt with the iPod.
But of course Steve’s design sense doesn’t stop with hardware or software. It extends to the entire experience of discovering, buying, learning, using. Apple products have gorgeous industrial design that integrates beautifully with some of the best UI on the planet. But Apple also integrates services (e.g. iTunes) and have packaging so good that an internal Microsoft design group made this parody of their own work hoping (unrealistically it seems) that they could be allowed to create Apple-like design.
And Apple can’t stop with the product—the experience extends all the way to Apple’s stores, educational programs, ‘genius’ bars, to how you find and fall in love with their products; how you learn to use them; and even how you get them fixed.
The reason Apple-fans can feel like a cult is because Steve has expanded the scope of design so far that to own an Apple product is to be part of an encompassing experience and community that has no start or end. Maybe it is a cult.
I’m sad today. Sad of course for Steve and his family and friends. I’m also sad because this is the close of a chapter in my life. Steve was a symbol of a dream that I’d had since I was 10. He was an almost embarrassingly concrete inspiration—I became obsessed with computers because of him. I moved to California because of him. I found work at NeXT because of him. I founded my own start-ups because he showed us that ideas, and fighting to make them real, change the world. And, of course, because I wanted to be like him.