‘Unreasonable perfectionist who terrorizes everyone around him’ – you see that sort of comment about Steve Jobs so often it’s easy to believe it must be true. But I’m here to tell you it is not. It seems to be next-to-impossible for anyone to write about Steve without perpetuating one or more of the stereotypical images of how he works (i.e. that he always wear a black turtleneck; that no one wants to get in the elevator with him, etc.)
Steve rehearses, sans turtleneck
And nearly every article must make reference to the RDF (reality distortion field) that Steve’s deploys to great effect. I have some personal experience with Steve, so feel at least slightly qualified to comment on some of these things.
What Makes Steve Steve?
In some ways Steve is not that hard to figure out. You just have to understand a few key points, all of which I have observed first hand.
â€¢ He is extremely demanding of all those around him and has a very low tolerance for anything but excellence. Because he can be shockingly blunt in his dealings with others, he is often portrayed as abusive, but this is dead wrong. He simply demands/expects great things from everyone around him. I honestly believe he can’t understand why anyone would want to waste their time doing anything less than great.
Once during keynote rehearsal, he told me my presentation was terrible and that if I couldn’t get it together it would have to be scratched. Obviously this was quite upsetting to me, but as I continued to work on it I realized two things: first, he was absolutely right; this was my first keynote and I was very nervous that day. Consequently my delivery was not nearly up to the standard of the rest of the presentations. Second, he had made his comments knowing full well that it would motivate me to bring my work up to Apple’s level. When it was over I received many compliments on how well it went, including one from Steve. To a casual observer it might have appeared that Steve had been very hard on me, but I feel just the opposite. He made me see that I could do much better, and I did. This aspect of Steve’s style contributes immeasurably to the Apple’s almost magical ability to do things that no other company can do.
â€¢ The so-called ‘reality distortion field’ is not magic and it’s not an accident; it’s planning, and tuning, and focus, and practice. Steve is an expert presenter, but that’s only the beginning. Steve’s keynotes are the culmination of thousands of hours of work by hundreds of people behind the scenes, with Steve serving as the conductor and the conduit. And even though he could probably do it in his sleep, he rehearses and rehearses and refines and rehearses again, and makes all the other guest presenters do the same, so when we all tune into the webcast it all seems so simple.
Preparing the Reality Distortion Field – MacWorld Keynote 2001
â€¢ Probably more important than the RDF is Steve’s LFD (logical flaw detector). That’s my name for his uncanny ability to see thru any BS and to instantly zero in on the weak point(s) of any argument. When you have to pitch something to Steve, you better know what you’re talking about, or the results won’t be pretty.
Once I had to demonstrate an early alpha version DVD Studio Pro for Steve. It was a complex application with many windows on the screen, each containing many interrelated elements. As I ran through the demo I was careful (I thought) to navigate smoothly thru this clutter, trying to focus on the overall functionality. But Steve would have none of it. He came right out and said, “why do you keep moving those objects around like that? why are there so many windows?” I had some lame excuse about how complex the task was and that this was the best we could come up with to deal with it. “Well it’s brain-dead stupid. We’d better get some engineers on it who know what they’re doing. There are plenty of existing applications which deal with similarly complex abstractions in much simpler ways.” I was sure he was bluffing, but then he mentioned a couple really obscure applications which on investigation completely proved his point.
â€¢ He knows what people want because it’s what he wants. Although he’s not a power user, he has an instinctive grasp of what users want.
In mid-2000 Apple was preparing to introduce DVD recorders (aka SuperDrives) in the forthcoming G4 computers. Up until that time DVD recorders sold for thousands of dollars and blank DVDs sold for $30-40 each. Apple was going to build the recorder into the high-end G4 and the manufacturers were just beginning to deliver a new type of blank discs which could sell for about $15 each. We all felt this was going to be a major homerun. But Steve knew immediately that the whole idea of making your own DVDs would never take off unless the discs could be sold for less than $10 each; psychologically $15 per disc was still too high. So he gave us the task to convince the disc manufacturers that unless they adjusted their pricing to get below this invisible barrier, the whole thing would fall apart. At first the manufacturers were appalled by this idea, as they had hoped to milk the high-priced discs for a while longer. But a couple companies saw the wisdom of the strategy and we were able to debut the SuperDrive with blank discs priced at $50 for a five-pack. They were very glad they did; they sold millions of blank discs through Apple in the months that followed. (Although I was not involved, I’m sure the exact same thing happened to make sure that songs costs 99Â¢ on the iTunes Music Store.)
In the early stages of development of both iTunes and iPhoto, Steve continually pushed the engineers to improve the speed at which things ‘happened’ in the interface. In particular the scrolling through long lists of songs or photos and the zoom function. He knew that users want/expect immediate gratification in these areas, and if they didn’t get it they would conclude that the programs were inadequate. At first this might sound superficial, but this push for faster scrolling and zooming had a profound impact on the overall performance of the applications because it caused the engineers to dig deeper to find ways to optimize their whole structures.
â€¢ He has impeccable taste and a brilliant design sense which impacts nearly everything he does. If you happen to use iDVD, you’ve experienced a perfect example: the menu ‘themes’. These dozen or so seemingly simple templates were painstakingly crafted and chosen from literally hundreds of completed designs which were prepared by one of the world’s leading menu design firms. It was almost painful to watch each week as Steve would take a huge stack of proposed designs and reject all but one or two. Even those that survived the ‘cut’ invariably needed additional work to make them great.
â€¢ He’s not a micro-manager, but he knows which details are the most important and focuses intensely on them. Further, he empowers his teams to make sure they are done right. Anyone who’s ever unpacked an Apple product knows what I’m talking about.
â€¢ This should be obvious, but apparently some writers can’t figure it out: Steve is a really smart guy who does not suffer fools lightly. He grasps the salient points of any situation faster than anyone I’ve met, and if you can’t keep up that’s not his problem. (I often felt I couldn’t keep up, but it was a thrill to try.)
The black turtleneck thing is mostly true, although I have seen him in t-shirts and once in suit (during a Tokyo MacWorld keynote). Frankly I don’t get why everyone makes such a big deal about what he wears.
In my dealings with him I’ve seen one thing vividly: Steve Jobs is the real deal. This is not some sort of act; he simply loves creating wonderful things. Whether it’s a translucent all-in-one computer, or software that actually makes it easy to edit your home movies, or an animated movie about insects, if it can’t be great, he wouldn’t bother doing it.
This is an excerpt from my new book, to be called ‘Jobs I’ve Known’ which will be written online on this site. Copyright 2005 by Mike Evangelist. All rights reserved. May not be used without permission.