When This Is, That Is

Exploring the world of conditionality

Holding Back on the Praise of Steve Jobs

I’ve been using Apple computers since somewhere around 1987. My first computer was a Kaypro II. After that was no longer usable, I got a DOS machine. When it came time to replace it I got a Macintosh.

I have never owned a Windows machine and have only marginal familiarity with that environment. I don’t foresee every using anything but an Apple computer. “But Macs are so expensive,” some people will say.

Yeah, Macs are expensive. But they work well, are easy to use, and are relatively durable. And they are elegant, both physically and functionally. These qualities have value that’s worth paying for. As Guy Kawasaki writes here in “What I Learned from Steve Jobs”:

“Woe unto you if you decide everything based on price. Even more woe unto you if you compete solely on price. Price is not all that matters—what is important, at least to some people, is value. And value takes into account training, support, and the intrinsic joy of using the best tool that’s made. It’s pretty safe to say that no one buys Apple products because of their low price.”

So I’m an Apple fan.

And like everyone else in the world, I’ve been hearing and reading about what a innovative and visionary genius Steve Jobs was. All over the Internet are stories about and lists of how he changed the way people use computers, communicate, and buy and listen to music.

I wish I could be more like Jobs: innovative, persuasive, brilliant. Don’t you?

Yet there is something unsettling to me about all the praise that has been heaped upon him since he died last Wednesday. It’s unsettling because according to things I’ve heard over the years and especially what I’ve been reading recently (for example here and here), Steve Jobs was not a nice guy. Here’s what Rob Long writes in National Review Online, just two days before Jobs’s death:

“The stories of Steve’s temper are passed around Silicon Valley like business cards. Steve tossing a chair when a prototype wasn’t thin enough. Steve firing an engineer in an elevator when the engineer told him about the battery life of a new iPhone. Steve scrapping an entire product line because it wasn’t perfect, and had no hope of becoming perfect. Steve demanding more features. Steve insisting on better syncing. Steve shouting for thinner. Steve screaming for lighter. Steve terrifying his employees, his vendors, his business partners. Steve, engaged in furious e-mail exchanges with journalists, bloggers, and random customers who happened to e-mail him at the right moment, when he was taking a break from making his employees sweat and from engineering even higher standards.”

So why did employees (those who were not fired) put up with such things? The pay, either in cash or stock options, must have been great. But it was more than that. I think people at Apple knew they were on the edge of something great, and they believed Jobs would take them there. That thinking was part of the culture of Apple. As Kawasaki put it:

“I lived in fear that Steve would tell me that I, or my work, was crap. In public. This fear was a big challenge. Competing with IBM and then Microsoft was a big challenge. Changing the world was a big challenge. I, and Apple employees before me and after me, did our best work because we had to do our best work to meet the big challenges.”

A visionary like Jobs would get nowhere and accomplish nothing unless he could attract very talented people who could tolerate his mercurial behavior for their own gain and convince venture capitalists that his ideas would make them all the wealthier. Perhaps that was his greatest strength.

So, yeah, Jobs had an impact on the world. And he was, until last Wednesday, a living legend. Now he’s ranked with Edison and Einstein and Ford for his accomplishments. Yet I think care should be taken in praising too much a tantrum thrower who treated people so poorly and allowed less-than-ethical business practices when it came to stock options.

I will continue to use Apple products because I, too, believe they great value for the money, both functionally and aesthetically.

2 Responses to Holding Back on the Praise of Steve Jobs

  1. PaulG says:

    Hi John. I don’t disagree with any of your points. Jobs did do some marvelous, world-changing things. And yet for me, there is a sense of noblesse oblige that is missing in his case, hence my reservations. His biography will no doubt be fascinating. And inspiring, too, I imagine.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  2. John Torcello says:

    Great people do great things…but this is not to say they don’t have their own demons…demons they might actually put to use; that help to drive them in creation of an image of perceived success; but, demons still the same…

    Like, perhaps, I think, for instance, John Lennon, who obviously lived many of his early years trying to find ways to deal with the pain and suffering of being abandoned by his mother and father; lashing out in extraordinary creative, sometimes angry, ways…the ‘product’ of his pain exhibited in the creations of sound many of us still cherish…and, pay for.

    We don’t know, in Jobs’ case…maybe we won’t ever know…whether the ‘monkeys on his back’ were his driving force.

    I do know however, and I applaud, the fact that Jobs was the product of a generation, who in their youth, wanted to change the things they saw as wrong in the world…In Jobs’ case, he wanted to do this; and, he was instrumental in, in fact, changing the world…

    So many others of Jobs’ generation gave up long ago in remaining true to this goal. And, even though, Jobs may not have done everything right, he may have caused pain in what some have perceived and related as his callous treatment of others; no one, I think, can take away the fact, that Jobs’ life was a manifestation of what people can do, can achieve, when they ‘think different’…when they work to create ‘insanely great’ products…and yes, for the benefit of you, me and others…in spite of the ‘status quo’.

    Perhaps some of these answers, some of these clues, some of the hearsay, to Jobs’ motivation; his actions, demeanor, successes and failures will be exposed in the authorized biography by Walter Isaacson, published by Simon & Schuster, to be available on October 24th.

    Or possibly, sadly, maybe it will just be a washed and edited version of creation of an iconic image manufactured for posterity.

    I’d like to think, I’m hopeful, the Isaacson biography addresses for us a way to fairly gauge some of the criticisms you have described in you blog posting of this relatively private, public person…this great person.

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