Monday, October 10, 2011

Thank you, Steve

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

Add this piece to the thousands of tributes the world has heaped on the memory of Steve Jobs – visionary, marketing genius, innovation guru, maverick businessman, father.

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want the chance to change the world?” he once asked John Sculley, Vice President of Pepsi Cola (Sculley resigned from Pepsi to join Steve Jobs at Apple).

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the microcomputer, or digital audio, or even digital video. But there is very little doubt in the world today that he pushed the boundaries and expanded technological frontiers. He changed people’s listening habits with iTunes and iPod, broke new grounds in digital filmmaking through Pixar, introduced products that didn’t pander to populist demands but instead catered to what he thought people needed, etc.

Of the many tributes made to the man, the one that probably struck a chord was this eulogy, reposted across many social networking sites and reprinted in many newspapers: “There were three apples that changed the world; the one that Eve ate, the one that fell on Newton’s head, and the one that Steve Jobs created.”

I am a proud Apple user. This column has always been composed on a MacBook. I do most of my office stuff and surfing at home on Macs despite the hassle of having to check for compatibility when sharing files. I own three iPods (an iPod nano which I bought eight years ago and which I have kept for sentimental reasons, an iPod shuffle which was given to me as a token during a speaking engagement and which I use when I am on the go such as when on a treadmill, and a trusty iPod touch which I carry with me everywhere). Although I still buy books, most of my reading is now done in my iPad. I used to own a Kindle, but since the Amazon software was made compatible with the iPad, I have decided to send my Kindle into early retirement.

My fascination with Steve started in the late eighties when a professor in graduate school used Jobs’ fall from Apple and his subsequent preoccupation with building NeXt Computer as case study in strategic management. I remember being awed by the man’s capacity to nurture a vision. I don’t remember the exact words of Steve’s vision for NeXt computers, but I distinctly remember just how revolutionary they were. He didn’t talk about building a business empire, or producing x number of computers, or other business indicators of success. I remember listening to him talk about changing the way people learn, about revolutionizing education, about building the future. He talked about introducing a breakthrough computer 10 or 20 times more powerful that what was there at that moment. It was very inspiring.

Through the years, the man’s ability to blaze trails never waned simply because he refused to be anything but a revolutionary. “We’re gambling on our vision, and we would rather do that than make “me too” products. Let some other companies do that. For us, it’s always the next dream,” he once said in a speech to launch a new Macintosh computer.

What added to the enigma was the fact the man didn’t mince words. He was renowned for making statements that shook up the establishment.

He shot down the use of focus group discussion, a staple among product managers and everyone else who want to make sure that whatever it is they are designing meet the needs of their target audience. “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give it that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new,” he said.

He took digs at Microsoft, IBM and the makers of the traditional computers: “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste. And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products.”

He also took potshots at Bill Gates. “Bill Gates’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger,” he told the The New York Times in 1997.

Steve didn’t get to finish college but was asked to deliver the Commencement Address to graduating students of Standford University in 2005. That address is probably one of the most popular speeches in history now as he reflected on what matters most in life and about his own mortality. I’ve read that speech many times and have shamelessly quoted liberally parts of the speech for various lectures. Here are some parts of the speech that I think bear repeating:

“Death is the destination we all share, no one has escaped it. And that is as it should be because death is very likely the single best invention of life.”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinion drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

As a human resource management practitioner, I have always admired the ways in which Steve introduced innovation even in the way he set up his companies and ventures. He recognized the value of people and hired only the best. He developed unique ways to induct and integrate employees into the Apple “family.” Each new hire at Apple had to meet everyone else – like in a fraternity. He would go out of his way to meet with everyone – in conference rooms, at hallways, even at the water station. He did away with bureaucracy in his organizations and focused on building a corporate culture that did away with conventional corporate structures, building “families” and “communities” instead.

Steve succumbed to a rare type of pancreatic cancer last week. But the man is even bigger in death. It is a testament to the great power of dreams that one man could make such a huge impact on the world.

Indeed, the world loves talent; but pays off big time on character. Steve Jobs (Steve to Apple fans) was hugely talented, but in the end, the major outpouring of affection that the world is bestowing upon him and his memory is mainly on account of the fact that he changed the world as we knew it and probably made it a better place.

Good night, Steve. Thank you.


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