Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview
|David Senra||Mar 1, 2019|
How did you get involved with personal computers? I had the privilege of using a time-sharing terminal at NASA’s Ames Research Center. I was 10 or 11 years old. It was remarkable. You could write a program. The machine would take your idea. It would execute it. You would see instant results. It was an incredibly thrilling experience. I was captivated.
I called Bill Hewlett when I was 12 years old. There was no such thing as an unlisted telephone number back then. I asked him for parts for a frequency counter I was building. He talked to me for 20 minutes. I will never forget that. He gave me the parts and a summer job working at Hewlett-Packard. That made a remarkable influence on me. Hewlett-Packard formed my view of what a company was.
At Hewlett-Packard, I saw the first desktop computer ever made. It was completely self-contained. I fell in love with it.
I met Steve Wozniak around this time. He was the first person I met that knew more about electronics than I did.
Steve and I read about this guy named Captain Crunch. He figured out how to make free telephone calls. We thought it must be a hoax. We started looking through the libraries looking for the secrets that would allow you to do this. We found an AT&T technical journal that laid out the whole thing. It was a moment I will never forget. We set out to make a device that made these calls.
This was important because we were young and we learned that we could build something that could control billions of dollars worth of infrastructure. We were just two people who didn’t know much. We could build a little thing that could control a giant thing. That was an incredible lesson. I don’t think there would have ever been an Apple Computer if it wasn’t for this experience.
Why did you build a personal computer? Necessity. There was free time-sharing computers available. But we needed a terminal. We couldn’t afford a terminal so we built one. The Apple I was an extension of this terminal with a microprocessor added.
How Apple Computer started: We made some printed circuit boards. I walked into a computer shop to see if I could sell our boards. They wanted to buy 50. But they wanted them fully assembled. We had never thought of that before.
I called a bunch of suppliers and convinced them to give us the parts we needed on net 30 days credit. We built the computers and sold 50 of them. Suddenly we were in business.
I realized there was a much bigger market than just hobbyists. For every one hardware hobbyist that could assemble their own computer, there were a thousand people that couldn’t do that but wanted to mess around with software. So my dream for the Apple II was to sell the first real, packaged, personal computer.
You started Apple at 21 years old. How did you learn to run a company? I always asked why people did the things they do. The most common answer is this is the way it is done. Nobody thinks about things very deeply in business. That is what I found.
I call it folklore. In business, a lot of thing are done because they were done yesterday. And the day before. What that means is if you are willing to ask a lot of questions, and think about how to do things, you can learn business pretty fast. It is not the hardest thing in the world. It is not rocket science.
I view computer science as a liberal art.
What is it like to get rich? I was worth $1 million when I was 23. Over $10 million when I was 24. And over $100 million when I was 25. I never did it for the money. The most important thing was the products we were making. I never sold any stock. I really believed the company would do very well over the long term.
I saw the graphical user interface when I visited Xerox Parc. I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen in my life. It was obvious to me that all computers would work like this some day. The inevitability was obvious.
John Sculley came from PepsiCo. They would change their product once every 10 years. If you were a product person you couldn’t change the course of that company very much. So who influenced the success of PepsiCo? The sales and marketing people. They were the ones who ran the company.
It turns out the same thing can happen to technology companies who get monopolies. [Example]: If you were a product person at IBM or Xerox and you make a better printer, so what? When you have monopoly market share the company isn’t any more successful. So the sales and marketing people end up running the companies. The product people get driven out. The companies forget what it means to make great products. The product genius that brought them to that monopolistic position gets rotted out.
They have no conception of the craftsmanship that is required to take a good idea and turn it into a good product. [To understand Apple’s design process I’d recommend reading Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs]📚
People get confused. Companies get confused. When they start getting bigger, they want to replicate their initial success. They think there was some magic in the process that made that success. So they try to institutionalize processes across the company. Before long they get confused and think the process is the content.
After I left John Sculley got a serious disease. It is the disease that thinking a really great idea is 90% of the work. The problem with that is there is a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product.
As you evolve a great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out as it starts. You learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. You also find there are tremendous tradeoffs you have to make.
Designing a product is keeping 5,000 things in your brain, and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want.
A metaphor for teams working on a product they are passionate about: There was an 80-year-old man that lived on my street. One day he showed me a dusty old rock tumbler. We took regular, old, ugly rocks and some liquid and powder and put them in the tumbler. He said to come back tomorrow. The next day and we opened the can. We took out theses amazingly beautiful, polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in – through rubbing against each other, creating a little friction, creating a little noise –had come out these beautiful polished rocks. It is through a group of incredibly talented people bumping against each other, working together, they polish each other. They polish the ideas.
The difference between the average and the best in most things is 20% to 30%. In software the difference between average and the best is 50 to 1. Maybe 100 to 1. Very few things in life are like this. I have built a lot of my success off finding these truly gifted people.
Tell us about your departure from Apple: It was very painful. I’m not even sure I want to talk about it. I hired the wrong guy. He destroyed everything I spent ten years working for. Starting with me.
He got on a rocket ship that was about to leave the pad. It left the pad and he got confused and thought he built the rocket ship. Then he changed the trajectory so it would inevitably crash into the ground.
The industry went into a recession. John didn’t know what to do. He had not a clue.
John had an incredible survival instinct. He didn’t get to be the president of PepsiCo without these instincts. John had cultivated a very close relationship with the board.
There were competing visions for the company? It wasn’t so much competing visions for the company because I don’t think John had a vision for the company.
I believed we needed to rein in expenses on the Apple II and that we needed to be spending very heavily in the Macintosh area.
John’s vision was that he should remain the CEO of the company.
I don’t think I was capable of running the entire company at that time.
I was told there was no job for me. It would have been far smarter for Apple to let me work on the next product. I volunteered to start a research division. Give me a few million a year. I will go hire some really great people. They said no.
When I left, Apple had a 10 year lead on everyone else in the industry. We watched Microsoft take 10 years to catch up. Apple has spent close to $5 billion on R&D. What did they get for it? Their differentiation has eroded.
Microsoft has two characteristics. 1)They are very strong opportunists. 2) They just keep on coming.
The problem with Microsoft is they have no taste. They don’t think of original ideas. They don’t bring much culture into their products.
[Example of culture in a product]: Proportionately spaced fonts come from typesetting and beautiful books. That is where one gets the idea. If it wasn’t for the Mac they would never have that in their products.
I have no problem with their success. I have a problem that they make really third rate products. Their products have no spirit to them. They are very pedestrian. They are McDonald’s.
Software is infiltrating everything we do these days. In business, software is one of the most potent competitive weapons. It is becoming an incredible force in this world. Software will be a major enabler in our society.
The web is incredibly exciting because it is the fulfillment of our dream that the computer would ultimately be a device for communication. With the web that is happening. It is exciting because Microsoft doesn’t own it. Therefore there is a tremendous amount of innovation happening. The web will be profound on our society.
About 15% of the goods and services are sold through catalogues and television. All of that is going to go to the web, and more. Billions and billions will be sold on the web.
A way to think about it is it is the ultimate direct to customer distribution channel.
Another way to think about it is the smallest company in the world can look as large as the largest company in the world.
The web will be the defining technology. The defining social moment for computing. I think it will be huge.
What is your passion? What drives you? I read an article that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor won. It was the most efficient. Mankind, the crown of creation, came in with an unimpressive showing about a third of a way down the list. Someone had the brilliance to measure a human on a bicycle. It blew the condor away. This really had an impact on me.
It made me realize humans are tool builders. We build tools that can dramatically amplify our innate human abilities. The personal computer is the bicycle of the mind. I believe that with every bone in my body. Of all the inventions of humans, the computer will rank near, if not at the top. It is the most awesome tool we have ever invented.
How do you know what is the right direction to move in? It comes down to exposing yourself to the best things that humans have done. Then try to bring those things in to what you are doing. Picasso had a saying. Good artists copy. Great artists steal. We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.
Excerpts of the interview: