I never had any heroes when I was growing up. Most kids idolize a parent or teacher or somebody. I realized today that the closest I’ve ever come to seeing someone as a hero is Steve Jobs. That’s why his sudden resignation from Apple Wednesday left me with a lump in my throat.
Jobs is a polarizing figure. Most people who are familiar with him and his work either love him or hate him. He doesn’t give much room for middle ground, because he has strong opinions, a strong vision for how things ought to be, and an apparent internal need to stamp his vision on the world around him.
“I want to put a ding in the universe,” he said long ago.
Jobs could be a jerk to work for when he was young. He was arrogant, mean-spirited and rude. He mellowed a lot with maturity, but he was still too strong for some people’s tastes. I see him as a terribly flawed but wildly talented visionary genius. If I could find a way to emulate a tenth of what he’s accomplished, I’d be very happy with my earthly success.
Thinking about Jobs always leads to thinking about his standards. His real standard was perfection. There was no way for anything to reach the levels he wanted, but he pushed people to do their very best and create things unlike what had existed before. Some people thrived under him and became recognized as geniuses in their fields. Others fled from the high standards and pressure.
“Be a yardstick of quality,” Jobs said. “Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
When I think about Jobs as a flawed hero, I think about a brilliantly insightful article written a couple of years ago that I strongly identified with. In “Hypercritical,” John Siracusa of Ars Technica wrote the most insightful look I’ve ever seen into some aspects of certain people’s personality or character that I strongly identify with. It’s about people who see things as they ought to be — and can’t let go of the idea that they can somehow make the world better. When it first came out, I sent the article to several people who know me. “Read this,” I begged. “It will help you understand what goes on inside my head.”
The prototype for Siracusa’s hypercritical genius was Jobs.
“By all accounts, Steve Jobs is no engineer. He was never a programming maven like Bill [Gates], nor was he a hardware wiz like Woz [Steve Wozniak]. On his own, Jobs could not create much of anything. But that’s not his superpower. Though a good critic can influence the community of creators, in the end, he does not create anything himself. But take that critic and put him in charge of the creators. Make him, let’s say, the founder, CEO, and spiritual leader of several thousand of the most talented engineers and artists in the computer industry. What might happen then? I’ll tell you what happens: the iMac, the iPod, iTunes, Mac OS X, iLife, the iPhone. I believe Steve Jobs’s ‘peculiar predisposition’ is not so unlike mine.”
Jobs hasn’t just been a critic. He’s been a brilliant manager as he’s gotten older. He understood some things instinctively early on, but it took years of maturity to make him the leader he is today. Even during the creation of the original Macintosh — which was a huge breakthrough in many respects — he knew that that his role was to orchestrate the work of the talented people around him.
“The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh,” Jobs said in 1983. “My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay.”
Many people don’t “get” the whole love that many people have for Apple products. That’s understandable. Different people have different needs. The naysayers see Apple’s equipment as inadequate for their needs, but something that merely has a beautiful coat of paint on the outside. Some of us understand that design isn’t the exterior. It’s everything about how how something works. It’s about the marriage of technology and humanity.
“I’ve said this before, but thought it was worth repeating: It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” Jobs said. “That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
For some of us who put up daily with brilliant technical types who don’t understand that a million functions laid out in “engineer fashion” isn’t the same as making something right for most humans, it’s a liberating thing to hear from the CEO of the biggest tech company in the world.
Most highly intelligent technical people seem like brilliant idiots to me, on some level. They see the words, but they don’t feel the music. Steve Jobs didn’t write the words. He didn’t write the music. But he felt the music. He had the vision to really see what the forest needed to look like, even when many of the brilliant technical people in the industry were busy concentrating on the trees around them.
We need the brilliant techie types for many things. They need to design the chips and other hardware. They need to write the code. But what they do is useless and lifeless without someone who has the vision to tie it all together. That’s been Steve Jobs’ genius. Whether you love him or hate him, he’s been a brilliant innovator who changed the world for the better.
I’m going to miss having him at the helm of my favorite company. More than that, I’m going to miss him for the inspiration he gives to all of us who have a vision that other people say is impossible to achieve.
Note: I’d like to add a few more links that weren’t necessarily related to the points I was making, but which deserve to be included here. Six years ago, after his first bout with cancer, Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University. It’s easily worth the 14 minutes of your time to hear him tell three quick stories. It’s inspiring. My favorite television commercial of any kind is one that Jobs co-wrote not long after he came back to Apple. It represented his vision for the world and what he was foreshadowing that he was going to make Apple. Watching “Think Different” still gives me misty eyes. Last, here are three anecdotes that came out Thursday from industry people. Vic Gundotra of Google tells what it was like to collaborate with Jobs on a project. An former Apple employee tells about Jobs giving credit to employees at a closed meeting when people were applauding him. And another former Apple employee tells about unwittingly making Jobs smile when he allowed himself to act like a child.