I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I’m just at the part where Apple is developing the iPod and iTunes to create a new music ecosystem. Why were Jobs and Apple able to pull this off and other companies, who had the requisite technology, unable to do so?
Jobs suggested that much of the problem with places like Sony, which arguably had all the tools in place (remember Walkman?), was that it was broken into divisions, each with its own profit-and-loss responsibilities. Thus, each division inevitably competed with the others, frustrating the collective effort necessary to put it all together. Apple, on the other hand, had only a single “division” and just one P&L.
But Apple also had Jobs. Key to his success, I think, was not only his exquisite and exhausting attention to detail. He understood that less is better. It was his ability to just say no that enabled Apple to concentrate on doing a few things extremely well.
Microsoft, as we know, charted a different course under the guise of freedom and choice. Bill Gates decided at the very beginning to make his money licensing the software to dozens of different hardware vendors.
When Apple was in the doldrums and at risk of having to shutter its doors, Gates and others strongly urged Apple to license its software to outside hardware manufacturers, just as Microsoft had done. And when Jobs was in the wilderness running both NeXT and Pixar, Apple’s then-CEO permitted a couple of companies to build Mac OS-compatible devices. Upon his return to Apple in 1997, Jobs quickly terminated the agreements.
Jobs believed strongly in closely integrating the software and hardware, unlike the Windows PC side. He reckoned that there was too much fragmentation under the Redmond regime. There were, and continue to be, so many problems with compatibility, as hardware vendors would incorporate different tweaks—and then all those third-party applications and utilities. It’s a wonder that PCs worked at all.
Nor was Jobs’s focus just on limiting the number of devices Apple would produce. The devices themselves were always on diets. Jobs’s creations had fewer features than PC counterparts. Just compare an HP laptop with a MacBook Air. The former is stodgy, ugly, assembled with screws, thick, heavy—but, my, it has a lot of ports and slots. Indeed, PC manufacturers seemed to suffer from “ports gap.” Jobs killed off the floppy drive and, more recently, the optical drive—neither of which will you find in the Airs. (Image from Apple)
As much as Jobs loved Apple and its products he did not hesitate to pull the plug on devices. Nor did he worry about cannibalizing his own products. For example, as iPhone sales skyrocket, iPod sales are down. No problem, since the iPhone includes the iPod functionality—by design. More people are buying iMacs than Mac Pros. Kill the latter.
Though Jobs would behave as a martinet more often than not, he also realized that good products require close collaboration amongst those with different, but complementary, skill sets. So Jobs insisted that the places he superintended be designed to facilitate accidental encounters.
Isaacson writes about Pixar’s being in need of new headquarters, having outgrown its old. Jobs purchased the abandoned Del Monte cannery in Emeryville, at which I happened to work during one college summer (a really crummy job, by the way). Always paying attention to design and function, Jobs ensured that employees would have to run into each other, even on trips to the bathrooms, of which there were only two, at opposite ends of the studio.
Jobs’s org chart differed remarkably from the conventional. Instead of an inverted tree, Jobs had fashioned a wheel. He was at the center surrounded closely by a small hub of direct reports. In most organizations, the branches become insular silos. Jobs would have none of that. (The following graphic from Fortune.
You may have seen the designs for Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino, on property acquired, ironically enough, from HP. It reminded me of the space station hovering above the moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Again, employees, no matter what product they’re working on, will necessarily encounter one another, which yields ad hoc conversations that Jobs believed would stimulate innovative thinking via cross-pollination. (I could imagine Jobs sitting in the center of his new space station, sans shoes, eating apples and drinking Odwalla juice, pondering really cool products.)
Jobs also detested slide presentations inside the workplace; he reserved them for product rollouts, and he was a master at giving them. Jobs expected his leadership team to come to meetings fully prepared and ready to brainstorm. Jobs himself liked to think aloud using a whiteboard and markers. It was important for him to see things. He couldn’t be bothered with spreadsheets. If an employee had an idea for a product, he or she had better have a physical mockup available for Jobs to touch and feel.
It may sound Pollyannaish, but Jobs really did want to marry the arts with technology, and he believed that intuition was more important than intelligence. There are numerous examples of this preference in Isaacson’s book. One stands out so far. Jobs said that most computer vendors let the engineers determine how a machine is designed. The guts would come first, leaving those responsible for the containers to house the engineering contents. The result, thought Jobs, was a whole lot of ugly.
For Jobs, the look and feel and function by the eventual user were most important, qualities that he would intuit. The engineers would be tasked to devise the appropriate components to make them fit together seamlessly and attractively. That’s why Jobs made Jony Ive the second most powerful person at Apple; he is the award-winning industrial designer par excellence. In Ive’s studio was a machine that would convert computer drawings to foam models that could then be painted and even given heft with lead shots, if needed. And that’s where Jobs liked to spend a lot of his time, touching, feeling, holding the prototypes. The artist at work.
Apple, you will learn should you read the biography, is a much different place than any other organizations you may have worked, visited, or read about. As electronics companies try to ape Jobs’s devices, I’m sure that some of them will try to copy his management style and even his workplaces.
They will likely fail at this and produce, in Jobsian lingo, “nothing but shit.”