The Wizard of Pods – Behind the Curtain with Steve Jobs

Apple logoNote: This article was first published, in slightly edited form, in The Guardian on January 5, 2006 under the title ‘Behind the Magic Curtain’. It appears here in unedited form.

When the CEO of Cadbury announces a new line of truffles or speaks at a conference, or Nike introduces a new kind of air-cushioned running shoe, you might expect to see it covered on page 47 of some specialized magazines, then quickly forgotten. But next Tuesday a chief executive will stand up and announce something, and within minutes it’ll be examined in minute detail all across the Web and on stockbrokers’ computers. It’ll be in newspapers. They’ll talk about it for months.

That chief executive is Steve Jobs, and I know why that speech makes an impact. To a casual observer these presentations appear to be just a guy in a black shirt and blue jeans talking about some new technology products. But they are in fact an incredibly complex and sophisticated blend of sales pitch, product demonstration, and corporate cheerleading, with a dash of religious revival thrown in for good measure. They represent weeks of work, precise orchestration, and intense pressure for scores of people who collectively make up the ‘man behind the curtain’. I know, because I’ve been there, first as part of the preparation team and later on stage with Steve.

Apple logoObjectively, Apple Computer is a mid-sized company with a tiny share of its primary market. Apple Macintoshes are only rarely seen in corporate environments, and most software companies don’t even offer Apple-compatible versions of their products. To put it another way, Apple is just bit larger than Cadbury-Schweppes and about the same size as Nike or Marks and Spencer in terms of annual sales.

Such comparisons come up short in trying to describe Apple’s place in the world of business, because they leave out a key factor: Steve Jobs. That’s something only one other company in the world – the filmmaker Pixar – can claim. He’s the closest thing to a rock star you’ll find in the world of business.

When Apple announces something new, people pay attention. This is due, in large measure, to Steve Jobs and the way he delivers Apple’s messages to the world. His preferred method of making major product announcements is at one of his public presentations, or ‘keynotes’ as they are called inside the company.

Steve starts his preparation for a keynote many weeks in advance, personally reviewing all the products and technologies he might include. Although the development and release schedules for new products are set far in advance, he still has to satisfy himself that the chosen products are keynote-ready. For software, this can be hard to decide: the engineering work is usually still underway, so he will make a preliminary determination based on seeing unfinished software. More than once this has caused some tense moments in rehearsal when programs haven’t behaved under the harsh glare of a public demo.

Baptism by Fire
My first experience of this preparation came in the runup to the Macworld Expo keynote of January 2001, which was to include new Macs able to burn DVDs – then an amazing capability. Steve wanted to show off the new consumer-oriented software, called iDVD, that could do it. As I was the product manager for Apple’s DVD software, I had to organise everything that Steve would need for his demo.

Apple’s has a well-deserved reputation for simplifying complex things. Steve’s demos mirror that: their simple appearance belies the underlying sophistication.

In the case of iDVD, the team and I ultimately spent hundreds of hours preparing for a segment that lasted about five minutes. Several weeks earlier Steve summoned me to demo the software, and highlight what I thought were its most interesting aspects. Of course he already knew most of this, having been intimately involved with its creation, but the process was still useful to distill the message. He used the key points from these demos to mold his overall presentation and decide how much time and emphasis each product would get. But though the general content of each keynote is set weeks ahead, I have seen both small and large changes made even during the final rehearsal.

Next came the task of finding suitable sample material. My team was given the task of locating locate movies, photos and music to be used when he created his sample DVD on stage. Most companies would just choose some clipart or hire a video producer to make some simulated ‘home movies’. Steve prefers real people’s photos and home movies. He wanted material that looked great, yet did not seem impossible for an average person to achieve. We called on everyone we knew at Apple to submit their best home movies and snapshots. Before long we had an amazing collection of fun, cool and heartwarming videos and photos. My team picked the best and confidently presented them to Steve. True to his reputation as a perfectionist, he hated most of them. We repeated that process several times before he was satisfied. At the time I thought he was being unreasonable; but I ultimately had to admit the material we ended up with was much better than we had begun with.

Steve Jobs and Mike Evangelist
Working on the iDVD demo

Then came the process of the demo itself: what precise steps Steve should follow, whether the program should already be running on the computer, what sample movies to play, everything. The aim, as always, was to demonstrate how powerful, yet simple it was.

With the demo set, my role was to stand by in case of technical problems with the software, or if Steve wanted to change anything. This gave me the opportunity to observe what was going on around me. The big keynotes require a very large crew with separate teams for each major task. One prepares the room to seat several thousand people. Another group builds the stage with its motorised pedestals, risers, trap doors, and so forth. A third manages the stage lighting, audio and effects.

Yet another sets up and calibrates the state-of-the-art projection systems (complete with redundant backup systems), and a huge remote video truck parked outside has its own crew handling video feeds for the webcasts and playback of any video needed during the show. Then there are the people who set up all the computers used in the keynote, each with at least one backup that can be instantly brought online with the flick of a switch.

And of course there’s the secrecy. The impact of Steve’s presentations depends on surprise; so once the rehearsals begin, security people help keep the curious out and the secrets secret. It was fascinating to watch. No detail was overlooked: for example, while rehearsing the iDVD demo, Steve found that the DVD player’s remote control didn’t work from where he wanted to stand on the stage. The crew had to make a special repeater system to make it work.

So when Steve steps out on that stage, with its stark black-on-black color scheme and does his apparently simple demos, it is the combined energy and talent of all those people and many more back in Cupertino, that he is ‘channeling’ to the audience. It made me think of a magnifying glass used to focus the power of the sun on one small spot until it bursts into flames.

Fast forward a year; much to my surprise (and delight) I was asked to actually do a demo in the keynote. And then I really learnt about demos. In mid-2001 I had been promoted to manage both the DVD products and Apple’s professional video editing software, called Final Cut Pro; a new version of which was set to be released in early 2002. Although the January keynote did not normally include such pro products, Steve felt it was exciting enough to put in the keynote.

But Steve never does the demos of the pro software himself; he always relies on someone on the product team more familiar with its features and operation. The job fell to me. It turned out to be my lowest and highest point at Apple.

Steve usually rehearses on the two days before a keynote. On the first day he works, in no particular order, on the segments he feels need the most attention. The product managers and engineering managers for each new product are in the room, waiting for their turn to work with Steve on the demos. This group also forms Steve’s impromptu test audience: He’ll often ask for their feedback on the flow of the presentations, specific sample material, or the contents of particular slides. Steve spends a lot of time on his slides. He personally writes and designs much of the content, with a little graphic design help from Apple’s design team.

As each segment of the show is refined, Steve and his producer edit the slides ‘live’ on a PowerBook (and its backup) so the revised slides can be used immediately. That day Steve was very methodical, going through every aspect of the show. He would test variations of content and flow, looking for the combinations with the most impact. When introducing a major new product, he also liked to show the TV commercial or video that Apple would be using to promote it. Often these had been finished just hours (or minutes) before rehearsals began. Steve would sometimes preview alternate versions of the commercial for the assembled team to gauge our reaction before deciding which to actually use.

Crunch Time
On the day before ’showtime’, things get much more structured, with at least one and sometimes two complete dress rehearsals. If there were to be any non-Apple presenters in the keynote, they would take part on the second day (although they could not be in the room while the ’secret’ parts – like the unveiling of new hardwware – were being rehearsed.) Throughout it all Steve maintains his characteristic demeanor: extremely focused and single-minded. While we were in that room, all his energy was directed at making this keynote the perfect embodiment of Apple’s messages. Steve doesn’t give up much of his personality even in rehearsals. He is strictly business, most of the time.

I had worked on my five-minute Final Cut Pro demo for weeks, selecting just the right sample material and honing (I thought) my delivery to a fine edge. My boss and his boss were there for moral support. Steve, as was his custom, sat in the audience. I was very nervous, and having Steve’s laser-like attention concentrated on me didn’t help. About a minute into the demo, Steve stopped me, saying impatiently, “You gotta get this together or we’re going to have to pull this demo from the keynote.” And he moved on to the next demo.

I was devastated. I didn’t even know how to respond, or if I should respond. Mercifully my boss and Phil Schiller (Apple’s head of Marketing, and frequent keynote presenter) came to my rescue. Over the next few hours, as others ran through their respective demos, they worked with me to polish my demo. More importantly, Phil gave me some great advice. “Those 6,000 Mac fans out there in the hall aren’t against you, they’re the best friends you can have.” The next day at final rehearsal, Steve watched me do the demo again. This time he gave it his nod of approval. It felt great; but the real work was yet to be done.

The next morning, as I sat in the front row waiting for my turn on the stage, the full weight of the event hit me. There were several thousand people in the room, and approximately 50,000 watching the webcast. It was the very definition of pressure. Steve started the segment which I knew preceded mine, and my heart started pounding. I felt those hundred thousand eyes all about to be focused on me and feared I would crumble. I had done quite a bit of public speaking before, but nothing like this.

The assistant producer came over to me to guide me to the stairs at the side of the stage. I stood in the dark, watching Steve put up the slide that introduced me. Just then a wonderful thought hit me; in five minutes the whole thing would be over. If I could only keep going for five minutes I would be fine. I bounced up the stairs and onto the stage, and everything was suddenly OK. The demo worked perfectly, the audience seemed to love the product, and their applause was an incredible adrenaline rush.

Mike Evangelist in keynote
My first keynote appearance

When it was over I received many compliments on how well it went, including the one I prize the most, from Steve himself.

In the months that followed I was on stage for two more keynotes, and each time I was incredibly grateful for the apparently harsh treatment Steve had dished out the first time. He forced me to work harder and in the end I did a much better job than I would have otherwise. I believe it is one of the most important aspects of Steve Jobs’s impact on Apple. He has little or no patience for anything but excellence from himself or others.

2 Responses to “The Wizard of Pods – Behind the Curtain with Steve Jobs”

  1. Michael says:

    A very amazing story. The keynotes are one of my favorite things Apple puts out. Everyone says Steve is a very hard man, and I think it’s great. I’d much rather opt for sheer honesty.

  2. Burst says:

    So, wow, it only took me a year to find this post, but great job, and great insight! We’re huge Steve Jobs fans here at Burst.

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