Technology

Working With Steve Jobs


Almost anyone who came in contact with Steve Jobs seems to have a story to tell—about his brilliance, curiosity, quirks, kindness, or meanness. Here are some vignettes from people who dealt with the co-founder of Apple (AAPL) up close.

“I want that for Apple”
Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog Design

While Steve Jobs found plenty of brilliant engineers to design his computers, Silicon Valley was short on industrial designers who could make the products look as good as they worked. Hartmut Esslinger, one of the first designers to focus on tech products, bid on a sweeping contract in 1982 to define the look and feel of the Mac and Apple’s overall brand. When it was time to meet Jobs, he was warned that “Steve can be a bit crazy sometimes.”

Good crazy, from Esslinger’s point of view.

The young CEO, who was wearing a ratty, faded T-shirt, looked at the work Esslinger’s design firm, known today as Frog, had done for Sony and said, “I want that for Apple.” When Esslinger advised that Apple should create its own design style rather than copy anyone, Jobs loved that idea even more. Frog got the job.

Esslinger and his team got to work on creating concept designs for a range of products—not just the Mac, but also futuristic gizmos such as laptops and touchscreen computers. One morning, Jobs called Esslinger in his office in the Black Forest town of Altensteig, Germany, at about 10 a.m. Excited by the project, Jobs, who was in London, said he would be there by 5 p.m.—setting off a frantic day of drawing sketches and building makeshift models.

The meeting was a milestone in defining “Snow White,” the name given to the clean, white, minimalist look of Apple’s products in the 1980s. (That night, the innkeeper where Jobs was staying called Esslinger, worried that the barefooted American wouldn’t be able to pay the huge phone bill he was racking up. Esslinger assured him the young multimillionaire was good for it.)

The simplicity of Jobs’s marching orders—“to have the best design in the world”—became a constant of his career, Esslinger said. But rather than impose his own aesthetics, Jobs from the start sought to collect the best design talent he could find. “He was like Lorenzo de’ Medici—get the best people on earth and get them to do amazing things.”

Esslinger said Jobs has shown that inspired design done right is not a cost to be held down, but a massive competitive advantage. He said Jobs proved that it’s only by looking beyond the dollars and cents that it works.

“His death is incredibly sad, but without him design would not be what it is,” he said. “If anyone proved the point that you win by design, it’s Steve.

“It wasn’t about a personal ambition to be successful,” Esslinger added. “He was on a mission to beautify the world. It was a privilege to have been able to work with him.”

“What’s this Internet thing?”
Barry Schuler, former chief executive officer of AOL

Steve Jobs was a genius, but he knew his limits.

“He was never a guy who tried to make believe he had expertise in something,” said Barry Schuler, now a partner at venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

That was clear to Schuler when he got a call from Jobs in early 1997 to come over to his old offices at NeXT Software in Redwood City, Calif. Jobs, at that point, hadn’t yet agreed to run Apple on a permanent basis.

“What’s this Internet thing?” Schuler recalled Jobs asking. “I don’t get it. What are people doing on it? What do they like about it?”

Schuler, who was AOL’s president of creative development at the time, remembered Jobs asking if the excitement was about reading magazines online.

“I don’t get why anyone would want to read a magazine on a computer screen,” he said. “That’s a terrible experience.”

Schuler went into a long explanation about how throwing content on the Web was the craze at that point, but not the significance. The Web wasn’t about a particular magazine or application. AOL users were spending most of their time instant messaging and in chat.

“I tried to explain that a new medium was being born, and every home is going to have it,” Schuler said. “It’s going to be as essential to people’s lives as the TV or the telephone—maybe more.”

At the time, with Apple still struggling to regain its footing, Jobs said he needed to stay focused on Job One: making great Macs. In 2002, Jobs agreed to a deal so that Mac owners could each log on to Apple’s iChat videoconferencing service and later iTunes using their AOL name and password.

In the end, Apple’s efforts to capitalize on the “new medium” didn’t pan out so well. Over the years, the company has offered duds including an editorial service to review websites called iReview, an online storage service called iDisc, a synchronization service called MobileMe, and a music-oriented social networking service called Ping. Those failures helped open the door for rivals including Google (GOOG) and Facebook. On Oct. 12, Apple announced its latest online initiative, called iCloud.

“Look, Steve was driven by guts and intuition—and that intuition wasn’t always right,” Schuler said. “But when he was right, it was so epic that his wrongness was trivial.”

“Pretty cool phone”
Ed Zander, former Motorola chief executive officer

When Ed Zander arrived home on the day he was named CEO of Motorola in 2004, the first message waiting for him was a congratulatory call from Steve Jobs. When news broke in 2007 that corporate raider Carl Icahn had targeted Motorola, Jobs was the first of Zander’s CEO friends to call with a pep talk for him to hang in there. And when Zander resigned under fire later that year, it was again Jobs who called first to offer support and invite Zander over for a visit.

“We were just good acquaintances, but he was that kind of guy,” Zander said.

When it came to doing business with Apple, however, Jobs wasn’t always so friendly, Zander discovered.

In July 2004, Zander and other Motorola executives visited Jobs in Cupertino, Calif., to discuss creating a phone that could run iTunes. When Zander pulled out Motorola’s yet-to-be-introduced clamshell Razr phone, Jobs grabbed it.

“He’s just sitting there looking at it, opening and closing it,” and asking about the hinge, the manufacturing process, and the materials used, Zander said. “I sat there and thought, ‘That SOB is going to do a phone,’ ” he recalled, smiling at the memory.

Nonetheless, Jobs agreed to create a version of iTunes that would run on a Motorola phone, and even agreed to appear via video at a Motorola analyst meeting in July 2005. That’s a rarity for a CEO who is used to doing the inviting, not the cameos.

But just days before Zander was to co-host a press conference in Manhattan with AT&T (T) to unveil the Rokr iTunes phone in September 2005, AT&T called to say that it had given Apple the right to introduce it at an Apple event in San Francisco instead.

Zander still hoped to benefit from some of that Jobs pixie dust. He expected him to make a big push for the Rokr during the keynote. What he got was Jobs describing the device as a “pretty cool phone” that could play a hundred songs (a low ceiling, imposed by Apple), followed by a demo that Jobs uncharacteristically flubbed. No one was more surprised than Zander when Jobs then launched the iPod Nano, which dominated the press coverage of the event.

Zander admits he felt betrayed at the time. He complained to friends that he felt Jobs used the Rokr project to learn about the phone business, to help in developing the iPhone. Now he admits that the phone was late to market and not very good—and that Jobs just wasn’t wired for building win-win partnerships.

“Deep down, I knew we were being naive,” Zander said. “It’s hard to have a business relationship with him, because for him Apple is everything. Nothing else is important.”

In the end, Zander’s personal relationship with Jobs more than made up for the business one.

“He didn’t give away friendship easily,” Zander said. “He didn’t slap anyone’s back. But if you earned his respect, it was an incredible thing to have. I wish I could have said goodbye to him.”

“I won’t screw you”
Ted Morgan, chief executive officer of Skyhook Wireless

After spending years driving the nation’s byways to map cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots, Ted Morgan’s location-tracking software startup got a huge break in 2007 when Apple decided to use its system in the upcoming iPhone 3G.

Morgan was amazed when Steve Jobs called one weekend afternoon to talk through the deal, rather than leave it to a lieutenant. The deal almost fell apart a few weeks before the launch of the device in 2008, when Apple executives told Morgan he had to hand over the company’s source code if they were to incorporate it into the phone in time. With no deal inked, Morgan refused, until Jobs called the following day.

“Ted, we are good guys, I won’t screw you. Trust me,” he recalled Jobs saying. “That buckled me,” said Morgan, who gave the O.K. to transmit the code to Cupertino.

He wasn’t sorry. Within three weeks, Skyhook landed a contract in which Apple would pay for its software for seven-plus years. This made Skyhook the leader in location-tracking software, and overnight Apple became the source of most of the Boston-based company’s business.

On a personal level, Morgan got to work with Jobs. He even managed to discover one of the mysteries of working with the Apple CEO: a surefire way to connect with him.

“I came to realize that if I e-mailed him just before 10 a.m. East Coast time on Sunday morning, I always got an immediate reply,” Morgan said. Evidently, Jobs was a creature of habit who liked to get to work early. Only once did Morgan not hear back immediately. Instead, his e-mail came three hours later. It turns out Jobs was vacationing in Hawaii, three time zones farther away.

In March 2010, Jobs called Morgan with what sounded like disastrous news: Apple had developed its own location technology and was going to stop using Skyhook’s code in its devices. The contract gave Apple some outs that could have let it limit future payments. Instead, Jobs promised to pay through the end of the contract.

By all accounts, Jobs was a ferocious negotiator, and Apple has been known to deliver financial death blows to small suppliers by switching to a rival, sometimes with no notice. But not that time, says Morgan.

“He was incredibly gracious and respectful of us,” said Morgan, who still plays for friends the first voice mail Jobs left on his cell phone. “Of course, he could have buried us in a minute, but it felt like he respected us for what we’d created. You just never see that from other big companies.”

“I’m trying to yell at someone over here”
Ronnette Riley, founder of Ronnette Riley Architect

From the moment Ronnette Riley’s architecture firm was hired in 2002 to help design Apple’s retail store in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan, she knew the project would be different.

Never before had she seen a CEO personally lead such a project, much less take an interest in every last detail.

Take the floor. After looking at many different materials, Jobs finally decided on a type of limestone called Pietra Serena that comes from a region of Italy near Florence. Although they could only find 5,000 square feet of the color Jobs liked, he insisted that 1,000 square feet of it be flown to Cupertino for his personal inspection.

“He cared about the veining,” Riley said. “He wanted to make sure that each piece had no marks in them and were perfect.”

Jobs wasn’t just obsessed with the minutiae, but with the overall effect. She marveled when Apple built a mock-up store in a warehouse a few miles from Apple’s campus, complete with fake cash registers. Unlike other clients, he wanted everyone who could even tangentially have an impact on the overall effect involved in the project. Structural engineers, whose job is mostly to make sure nothing falls down, usually don’t get close to the sexy stuff, Riley said. On this project, they were invited to pore over the plans at meetings, right along with the marketing folks, graphics folks, and others.

Working with Jobs was far from tension-free. When the limestone that arrived in Cupertino didn’t match the sample Jobs had approved, he called to yell at her for not checking the shipment personally while in Italy. Another time, she was whispering to someone in the corner of the conference room while Jobs was interrogating someone on the other side of the room.

“Suddenly, he turned around and said, ‘Could you please be quiet—I’m trying to yell at someone over here!’ ” Riley said.

Like many people, Riley found herself more motivated than discouraged by such treatment.

“Everyone rises to the occasion when you’ve got someone with that kind of leadership,” she said. He wasn’t micromanaging or being political, in her estimation. “He showed me a third way. There were no polite, unspoken messages with Steve. I liked the fact that he didn’t hold back.”

So what were the rules for avoiding Jobs’s ire?

“Don’t come unprepared,” Riley said. “And think beyond what he specifically asked for, to what he might ask.” She said Apple employees all knew to come prepared with backup plans, so if Jobs shot down their first proposal, they were ready with an alternative.

The other rules? Don’t take secrecy lightly because Jobs was dead serious about it, according to Riley. Jobs’s product designers were expected to bring prototypes of new devices to stores to see how they would look on the shelves. Before they revealed them, they had security guards clear all contractors and store personnel from the floor and lock the door behind them.

Also drawing Jobs’s ire was the Infinite Loop campus, which he hated and always apologized for, Riley said.

“It looked like any corporate campus anywhere in America,” she recalled him saying. “And it was built by John Sculley.”

Burrows is a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, based in San Francisco.

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