Some thoughts as Steve Jobs resigns as CEO of Apple…

Breaking news: Silicon Valley pioneer Steve Jobs has stepped down as CEO of Apple, and Tim Cook will be stepping up from his previous role as chief operating officer to become CEO.

This post talks a bit about my employer, Pixar Animation Studios, but in no way should be construed as anything but my own opinion. I cannot, and do not desire to speak for them.

Without doubt, TV, papers, blogs and everyone else will be spending time over the next few days looking both forward and back over his career and predicting what the future holds for Apple and Steve himself. I won’t peer into my crystal ball for either: I have no special insight with regards to either, but in the twenty years I spent at Pixar, I did have a view from the side lines, so I thought I might offer a bit of perspective.

Anyone who has talked to me for any period of time knows that I’m not a typical fan boy. I have an inherent skepticism about the rich and powerful. We have a culture in the U.S. which tells us that the those who are successful must be different from the rest of humanity. They simply must be smarter, or braver, or more creative or more insightful than the rest of humanity. I don’t believe it. The fact is that while all those factors play some role in success, good old fashioned luck also plays a role. You could be smart, diligently apply all the advice you got from all the smart people you know, and you won’t necessarily become the next Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates or (yes) Steve Jobs. I suspect that there are alternative universes where Steve Jobs isn’t even Steve Jobs: where a seemingly meaningless event occurred in his alternate existence, and Apple doesn’t get formed. I’m also one of those lefty socialists who doesn’t believe that there is necessarily a link between that which is good and that which is profitable.

But in spite of those caveats: I still think Steve is a remarkable leader. Perhaps uniquely so.

I’ve worked at Pixar since 1991, and in those early days Steve was seen regularly around our campus. I was just a beginning programmer back then, in my first real job, and I couldn’t help but be intimidated (not a usual emotion for me). He was a force of nature. He was ruthless and uncompromising in his pursuit of his vision, and seemed to have little patience for those who didn’t share it. But I’ve experienced the reality distortion field first hand, and it’s very real.

Here’s the thing: he really does have a vision. A bold vision. An inspired vision. And he has an amazing talent for surrounding himself with people who could help in achieve that vision.

The success of Apple and Pixar both required a bit of luck. You can look back to individual things that occurred, and had things worked out a bit differently, perhaps neither would have become the iconic brands that they both have become. But there is no doubt in my mind that Steve’s leadership was essential to the success of both.

Pixar and Apple share a simple principle: that producing good products is the way to build a good company. For Pixar as a film studio, story matters. For Apple as a producer of computers and consumer products, design matters. Both companies try to produce stuff that is simply insanely great. There is a certain respect that both companies have for consumers. Both believe that it is important to put out good products. Customers can tell the difference. Your second best work is not sufficient. Only your best can change the world for the better.

And yes, before everyone piles on, there are lots of things that I don’t particularly like about Apple, not the least of which is my aforementioned skepticism about anybody or anything which becomes too powerful or influential. I don’t really want Apple (or Facebook, or Google) serving as mediator for all my interactions with my fellow man. My support of open source and the culture of sharing is in conflict with the universe that Apple and Steve himself would probably desire. But whatever philosophical differences I have with Apple, I’m reassured that Apple at least has a philosophy, and whatever failings it might have: it’s forward looking, and centered around producing the kinds of products that people want to buy.

Tim Cook, you’ve got some big shoes to fill.

To Steve Jobs, thanks for challenging not just your companies but the entire computer industry to “think different”. You’re going out on top. Best wishes for health and long life.