Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

Yesterday, I was sitting at my desk at Pixar when a Twitter alerted me to the passing of Steve Jobs. I remember feeling mostly shock. While I knew that he was ill, and this was the likely outcome from his stepping down as the Apple, I still couldn’t help but feel a bit amazed that such a vibrant individual could be taken from us.

I didn’t know Steve on any kind of a personal level, but he’s had a direct influence on my life. In 1991, I left my job at Princeton University to join Pixar and work on their RenderMan project. I flew out from Newark to SFO, and was met by my manager, Mickey Mantle (no, not that Mickey Mantle). While collecting my baggage, he informed me that Steve had that very day laid off 30 employees (mostly having to do with the struggling hardware side of Pixar’s business), and that they had considered laying me off as well, but felt that it was unfair, so had decided to keep me on working on Pixar’s RenderMan software. Thus, I narrowly avoided the Sword of Damocles, and began my twenty year (and counting) career at Pixar.

Perhaps understandably, I tried to avoid the direct attention of Steve Jobs. I did, after all, narrowly avoid being laid off on my first day, so perhaps that wasn’t as cowardly as it appears now. And it was certainly true that for all his genius, Steve didn’t always exhibit the greatest of people skills (a flaw which I’ve come to recognize more in myself, and therefore forgive in others more as I get older). But I got to experience the “reality distortion field” on numerous occasions, and grew to appreciate his vision and his passion. His charisma, his ability to captivate audiences with his vision of the future, and his ability to create companies (both Pixar and Apple) which were great organizations which create great products speak to his great talent and particular genius.

This morning, Carmen reminded me of a story. This must have been shortly after we began dating, maybe in early 1995. She had checked out a book (she remembers it as The Mac Almanac) that gave the history of Apple, and she showed me some line which read something like “.. and then Steve Jobs left Apple, never to be heard from again”. She remembers that I grabbed the book from her, crossed out the line and wrote in “WRONG!” in bold letters. She was shocked that I would deface a library book, but I stand by the editorialization. At the time, Steve had founded NeXT and Pixar, and from my sideline vantage point, was poised to do amazing things.

I never could have imagined how amazing they would turn out to be.

Steve firmly believed that the way to change the world was to make great products, whether they were computers or films. He also believed that the best products took the best people doing their best work. At Pixar, I’ve been lucky to interact with some of the greatest talents in the film and computer graphics industry, and I credit Steve (alongside Ed Catmull and John Lasseter) for helping to create this atmosphere of excellence which still inspires me to wake up and come to work every day.

Early Facebook alum Jeff Hammerbacher’s was quoted after leaving Facebook “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” This expresses the (in my opinion, totally deserved) cynicism about the business models of the information technology sector. They think that you are their product: they are selling your eyes and attention to others to make money. This reminded me of the sales pitch that Steve gave to John Sculley to lure him away from Pepsi-Cola. Steve asked Sculley if he wanted to “sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or come with me and change the world?”

Apple still believes that you are customers, and not product. They make great products so you’ll pay money to be their customers. Great products are really the best business model. If more business leaders believed that, the world would be a better place.

I don’t mean to lionize Steve. There is an annoying tendency to laud the rich and powerful, glossing over their faults, lauding achievements which fell in their laps through luck or circumstance, and overt emotionality when no personal link ties their lives to yours.

But Steve was “the real deal”. Innovator, visionary, and industrialist without peer.

To his family and friends, my condolences on your loss.

To the rest of the world: dare to be different. Steve changed the world. What are you doing today?

Addendum: His great 2005 commencement address at Stanford helps convey a bit of his humanity and his skill at speaking. Great stuff.