Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Soaring with ruffled feathers

You may have no interest in the recently deceased Steve Jobs or, by now, are tired of hearing about him.

I've always been interested in Jobs. During the late 1980s, I worked in Apple's Canadian operation for a while. This was in the period between his degrading expulsion and his triumphant return, but his imprint on the company was still visible on everything from office decor to product and packaging design.

I have been captured by Apple products ever since, including seven Macintosh computers, several iPods, an iPad, and an iPhone.

Walter Isaacson's fascinating new biography depicts Jobs with all his strengths and frailties, successes and failures, following his path from garage geek to gazillionaire.

I am particularly struck by the way he dealt with people. He was often arrogant, antagonizing, bullying, humiliating, insulting, overbearing, manipulative, and intimidating. He screamed at co-workers, attacked their competency, disparaged their efforts, shouted obscenities, and cried when things didn't go his way.

If this was all we knew of him, we would assume that his employees and colleagues were disgusted and demotivated, that they loathed having to deal with such a tyrant, that they found him soul-destroying, that they avoided being in his presence, and yearned for release from this particular purgatory.

Apparently not. Working with Jobs was seen as the apex of one's career trajectory. He is held in almost universal awe by former employees. Very talented people, with plenty of career options, craved a job at Apple. They celebrated the 90-hour weeks of repeatedly reworking miniscule details as demanded by the obsessive Jobs, while he bellowed that it better not delay the product launch. To be on Jobs' team meant you ranked near the top of the Silicon Valley pecking order.

Even Steve Wozniak, the Apple co-founder who was shabbily treated by Jobs, voices his admiration.

What gives? Why do people speak of getting chewed out by Jobs as a badge of honour?

Was it the high pay, stock options, and generous "perks" for which Apple was known? Was it the status of working for what was, arguably, the most innovative technology company in America? Was it the chance to learn from a rare genius. All of these, no doubt.

But I think it was mostly the sense of being involved with a guy who wanted to "put a dent in the universe," and who could say that without having it sound like a line of ad copy.

And he did.

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