Thursday, October 6, 2011

My Story on Steve Jobs

I'm still on the Steve Jobs theme, because I'm afraid our world has just lost one of its creative lights.  I've been telling bits of this story to different people all day, so I thought maybe I would just tell it all at once and put it out there for everyone to access.

Also, when I say it is MY story on Steve Jobs, that means that it is my interpretation of his life path.  I don't have any particular or personal insight into the man, having never met him--although I did at least get to see him speak at a conference once.  Rather, this is my telling of the story of Steve Job's trajectory, filtered through what I know and where I was as I, too, was encountering the new world of computers and networking and digital arts, etc.  I do not claim it to be true.  But I offer it up as one tale of a man who can teach us a lot through the way he lived, regardless of whether his technologies had ever worked out or not.

His life did not start off especially auspiciously.  He was born out of wedlock, and given up for adoption by a middle class couple living in California.  Like the other man who most shaped the computer environment through the end of the 20th century, Bill Gates, Jobs dropped out of college; in contrast to Gates, his reasons were largely financial (Gates came from a fairly well-off family).  But he kept going to classes unofficially and for no credit (including his famous story of serendipitously attending a calligraphy class that, a decade or so later, helped him understand the need for beautiful computer fonts), and eventually started a computer business in his garage with his high school chum, Steve Wozniak, the computer geek who could bring to life Jobs' vision for a computer that would transform lives of the common people.

Jobs and Wozniak, drawing from experimental concepts from computer innovators of the time, developed a computer that people could use without knowing code, that people could point to things in order to make things happen, that included color, that included nice fonts, and that looked "cool," rather than just utilitarian boxes.  The market rewarded their vision, and Apple Computer rocketed to a major player in the computer industry.

However, after the first few years of success, things were hard for the visionary Jobs.  He was always dissatisfied with what we had now and was always questing for the next best thing, sure that we could always do better, faster, cooler, and more beautiful.  But multi-million publicly-traded corporations are not built on constant reinvention.  The young Apple Computer Corporation was not able to deal with its co-founder's insistence on abandoning what they had in order to create what he saw was the great next advance.  Eventually, the board brought in a manager from Pepsi-Cola to stabilize the company and built up a traditional corporate structure, and less than a decade after it had started, both Jobs and Wozniak left the company they had founded.

So Jobs moved on and created NeXT Computers, which built the kind of ultimate computers that he had advocated, and had been rejected, at Apple.  And sure enough, he created a computer that was a thing of beauty and power.  The only problem was, all that fabulous performance ending up costing close to the cost of a cheap car....two, three, maybe ten times the cost of the "personal computer" of that time.  So who would buy a computer like that?  Mostly, it was Hollywood--digital artists who could see the potential of the way Jobs was heading, and who needed that amount of graphic power (it was always about the graphics and the visual for Jobs) and could easily justify the expense.  NeXT became a niche computer, but the niche it filled fit nicely with a man with such visual, marketing, and even storytelling expertise as Jobs.

It was the NeXT/Hollywood connection that supported Job's next big leap.  He bought a cast-off unit from George Lucas (another visionary who transformed the movie industry, but either couldn't see or didn't have the time to follow where computer animation would go), and turned it into Pixar Animated Studios, the most commercially and critically successful computer animation studio of modern times.   He funded the operation through several lean years until the launch of Toy Story, and then ran the company until finally it was acquired by Disney, making him the largest stockholder of the company (and multi-billionaire), but also, in my opinion, saving the company's soul after years of substandard programming by managers whose decisions were driven by cost, rather than by art.

Before all that, however, back in Apple Land....former PepsiCo leader John Sculley had managed to stabilize the company as requested.  It was so stable, however, that it was sinking like a rock.  Apple had always been, and to this day continues to be, a bit player in the grand scheme of computer sales.  However, it had acquired an ardent fan base in the early days.  But bit player, with nothing new or exciting to entice people not to abandon it for the dominant players of IBM and Microsoft and such...well, it wasn't a winning market strategy.  Which is not to say that Sculley was unsuccessful.  He did a great job of building up the structures and strategies and corporate skeleton that Apple needed to survive in a business environment.  But the company realized that they could not survive without an exciting alternative to the IBM/Microsoft/corporate dominate computers.  They realized they needed the Jobs magic again.

In the interim, Jobs had also grown up a little, corporate-wise, at least.  He had learned that he couldn't always abandon last year's work to pursue this year's possibilities.  More importantly, perhaps, he realized that you couldn't necessarily create next year's vision without going through this year's reality.

Whatever, Apple bought out NeXT, Jobs was back in charge, and Apple started going gangbusters again (with an organization that could support the vision).  The NeXT software became the new Mac OS X software.   They created MacBooks, iMacs, and all the incredible software bundled with their computers for free.  Then they branched out to iPod, iPhones, iPads.  Jobs' vision about the potential of digital technology outreached computers themselves, and extended to the music industry, the movie industry, and the book industry.  Apple was leading the charge to reinvent almost all of the popular media that we use today.

So, then, Steve Jobs' life is a great lesson to teach our middle schoolers, outside of his technology.   When he had his big falling out with the company he created, he had enough money to go off and do nothing for the rest of his life but complain about how stupid Apple had been to (to be honest) kick him out.  But all our lives would probably have been the poorer for it.  Instead, he kept pursuing his vision for using computers to transform the lives, not just of the rich, corporate, or knowledgable, but of everyone.  He was brilliant enough to see the potential in Pixar, and humble enough to learn about his own mistakes that enabled him to return to Apple.  He could overcome his ego and his competitiveness enough to build a relationship with Microsoft that enabled Macintosh computers to read Microsoft documents (which, again to be honest, probably is what saved Apple from going belly up in the 1990's). In short, I think he learned the thin line between confidence and arrogance, and I think we are all the better for it.

The other lesson we can learn from Steve Jobs is the need for passion, or in the more personal vernacular, love.  His graduation address at Stanford has been making the rounds, and I've included it below.  In it, he talks about how there is nothing more important than living a life of love.  And he is not only talking about relationships; he is referring to finding the love behind how we spend out lives every day.  He says that he started each day looking at the mirror and asking himself that if this were his last day on Earth, would he want to spend it doing what he was going to do that day?  He responds that if he found himself answering "no" for too many days in a row, then he found a way to change his life.

So there is much to learn from Steve Jobs.  He teaches us about sticking to a vision, even when it is a lonely road.  He teaches us about going through a public "defeat" and coming through it stronger and wiser.  He teaches us about when one door is closed, find a new opening.  And he teaches us about, when it comes down to it, it's all about love, even if it seems to be about computers.

Oh, and he just happened to foster the development of the some of the best digital tools of our times.    But, like I said, that was a by-product of a life well spent.

Hear his deliver his life philosophy below:

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