When Steve Jobs recently stepped down as CEO of Apple a few weeks ago, I spent some time thinking about what I saw that set him apart from other successful businessmen. I then listened to and read what many tech luminaries thought about Steve Jobs, what he had accomplished in his professional career, and what […]
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Like No Other- Steve Jobs’ Second Tenure as CEO of Apple

When Steve Jobs recently stepped down as CEO of Apple a few weeks ago, I spent some time thinking about what I saw that set him apart from other successful businessmen. I then listened to and read what many tech luminaries thought about Steve Jobs, what he had accomplished in his professional career, and what his enduring legacy would be. I noticed plenty of recurring themes in my searching, as well as my own thoughts on the man. In one way or another, everyone touches on what made Steve Jobs so unique and irreplaceable at Apple, and to the tech industry as a whole. There are two things that I noticed about Steve Jobs after he came back to Apple that, in my personal opinion, sum up what set him apart from other CEOs.

First of all, while Steve Jobs had a reputation for being stubborn and single-minded, he did an amazing job of learning from the mistakes he made during his first tenure at Apple. In life, so many of us are blessed with opportunities only to have them go awry in one way or another. I think of many times in my own life when I have looked back on past situations and wondered what I could have done differently. “How would things have turned out if I had done X instead of Y?” In particular, I remember a few decisions that didn’t seem all that momentous at the time, but that ended up shaping my entire life in one way or another. It is so easy to wonder how different would my life be if I had made another choice. Hindsight is 20/20.

However, it is often the mistakes and missed opportunities that we encounter in life that come to shape and define us, even more our successes. Failure and misfortune can motivate and drive us in a way that success usually doesn’t. We can choose to wallow in our current state or play the blame game, but a wise person learns from these kinds of situations and turns misfortune into future opportunity. In his now famous 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, Steve Jobs talked about his eventual embrace of the opportunity to start over once he was forced out of the company he helped to found. He said, “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Learning from mistakes and moving on is something that all people have the opportunity to do at one time or another. However, how often do we actually get a chance to go back to the place of our biggest or most notable failure, and get another shot? Steve Jobs had that opportunity when Apple bought NeXT to build their next generation operating system, and brought him back into the fold. What he did with this opportunity indelibly defines his legacy.

Steve Jobs had already made a mark on the world after his early work at Apple helped to make the computer a mainstay in both the professional and consumer realms. His work in building Pixar into a powerhouse animation also stands out, and demonstrates his incredible versatility. However, his legacy is now no longer just one of starting a revolutionary company that he was no longer a part of that others would ultimately end up leading. Jobs’ second stint at Apple went much further, revolutionizing the way people view technology, and ultimately, the way they interact with it. He became a iconic example of walking away on top when he finally decided to step down for good just a few weeks ago.

Again, Steve Jobs built this more enduring legacy by learning from mistakes that he made in his earlier years at Apple that ultimately lead to him being forced out. Without delving into all of the specifics of what happened between him and then Apple CEO, John Scully, it is clear that over time, Jobs single-minded devotion to one area of the company and one single product, the Mac, marginalized his role there. It is hard to believe that someone who helped to found Apple, and was so involved in its flagship product could be painted into such a corner, but such is boardroom politics in any publicly owned and traded company. They are run by a CEO, and a Board Of Directors, and at the end of the day, are beholden to their shareholders. Anyone, no matter how seemingly valuable, can become expendable under the right set of circumstances.

According to many recollections of what happened to lead to his dismissal, after Scully and the Board of Directors tried to reshape his role within the company, Jobs refused to bend and then tried to lead a boardroom coup to remove Scully from his position as CEO of Apple. It would seem that he tried to force his enormous will on the situation from a position of weakness, which ultimately doomed his efforts to failure. As we know now, Apple would soon lose its way and suffer tremendously without his vision guiding its products.

When Apple brought Steve Jobs back and eventually placed him in charge, first as interim and then as permanent CEO, he very quickly went about the business of reshaping the company to fit his vision. The ENTIRE company. Rather than focusing his attentions in one area, as he had before, Jobs streamlined Apple’s product linuep to a few key offerings, and became personally involved in every area of Apple.

His first months back were a perfect example of his keen ability to edit, to cut, and to say no. Jobs hacked and slashed all of the fat from Apple, making some employees and fans very upset in the process. His decision to kill off the Newton, by far and away the most powerful and advanced mobile product of its time, is an example of a decision that met with a lot of criticism in Apple enthusiast circles. However, in hindsight, we can see that he was already looking down the road to a future without a stylus, and knew that the Newton would never be a profitable endeavor. With Apple in a weakened financial state, bold decisions to do away with unnecessary products were essential, and Jobs wasn’t afraid to make them, no matter what the response was.

Steve Jobs also fundamentally changed the way that engineering, design, and marketing personnel interacted within Apple. This decision was absolutely pivotal, because it was this change that unleashed talented industrial designers like Jonathan Ive and Jon Rubinstein and allowed them to flourish and ultimately create some of the most groundbreaking consumer electronics devices of the last 25 years.

While Steve Jobs was more the business minded influence to Steve Wozniack’s creative hardware designs in the early days of Apple, he always had a keen design sensibility of his own. Jobs certainly knew that was the essential ingredient necessary to elevate a cold, lifeless digital device made of metal and plastic, and filled with circuit boards to something more personal. Something people would want to use, or that maybe they would just WANT. This was evident in his passionate devotion to the Mac in his earlier days at Apple, but it was his complete reboot of Apple in the mid-nineties that harnessed the talent already present there and elevated the concept of great design to EVERY product that the company developed and sold.

Starting with the iMac in 1998, all of Apple’s subsequent products took on a unique identity, and a readily identifiable role in the lineup. While everyone in the PC industry was busy pushing out cheap, beige, commoditized boxes, Apple went in a radical new direction. They started producing devices that had a unique look and feel, that bravely shoved off the past and backward compatibility, and that had a focus on premium features and software integration. All of these initial products, like the iMac, the G4, and even the original iPod, cost more, oftentimes much more, than their competitors. But they all sold, and sold increasingly well. Why? Steve Jobs proved that people will pay more for a truly premium experience. Consumers will also pay for real convenience, which is why Apple’s iTunes “media hub” and retail store initiatives didn’t just succeed, they dominated in a way that no one could have imagined at the time they were launched. While the media predicted impending doom and wondered aloud if Steve Jobs had lost his mind, Apple seemed to be two moves ahead of the game and armed with the Midas Touch. Everything they built and sold turned to gold. Billions of dollars worth of gold.

Steve Jobs helped to foster creativity and elevate design within Apple by restructuring the company in a way that, according to former Apple engineer and now CEO of Posterous, Sachin Agarwal, more closely resembles a start-up than a Fortune 500 Company. Software and product design teams are now streamlined and purposely kept small, and there is a high level of accountability within them. This cuts down on crippling bureaucracy and red tape, and fosters a culture where employees are encouraged to do their best work all of the time, knowing that it isn’t going to be endlessly chopped up, edited, and re-hashed, or even worse, ignored. Several surveys have shown an incredibly high employee satisfaction rate at Apple, and I’m sure the culture that Jobs helped to create there plays a pivotal role.

Part of building a legacy is in how you leave it, and how it endures when you step away. In my opinion, this was Steve Jobs’ master stroke. Single-minded and visionary leaders often leave a vacuum in their wake because they tend be dominating and controlling. While Steve Jobs was definitely the guiding influence that had a hand on everything that the company produced during his second term at Apple, he was wise to surround himself with highly qualified people. Jobs mentored them according to his vision of what the company should be and empowered them to do great work.

Going a step further, Jobs even hired former dean of Yale’s Business School, Joel Podolny to head up their “Apple University” initiative. While Apple doesn’t comment on this program, according to some former Apple employees, it is designed to teach Apple’s current and future workforce about the foundational principles of the company, and to communicate Steve Jobs’ vision of it in a way that could continue on after his departure. These are the kinds of moves that should put Apple fans at ease. Apple won’t be the same without Steve Jobs. A visionary leader like him can’t be replaced. However, with his guiding principles carefully imprinted throughout the company and preserved in a way that can live on now that he is no longer with us, and with his well-trained and imminently qualified executive team still firmly in place, rest assured that Apple will not be radically changing any time soon.

Clearly, Steve Jobs took a very different approach in his recent years at Apple. It is obvious that he learned from the setbacks he faced in the past, and used the knowledge and wisdom that he gained to transform a floundering computer company into one of the world’s largest corporate empires. The obvious proof of the difference in his approach is plain to see in the incredible results that Apple has achieved in the last 14 years.

That brings us to the second aspect of Steve Jobs that set him apart as a leader. We could all see the clear differences between him and other corporate CEOs. Again, I heard plenty of writers and tech bloggers take stabs at defining what exactly it was that made him so unique, but it can be a difficult thing to clearly put into words. The term visionary came up a lot. That’s pretty obvious. The fact that he was a self-made tech guy, rather than a product of the corporate world was mentioned a lot, too. However, I think it goes deeper than that.

In my mind, I think back to a slide (shown above) that came up in both of Steve Jobs’ iPad keynotes. It was the one with the street sign showing the intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts. Jobs really focused on that topic, driving home his point that the iPad is a piece of technology designed to get out of the way, and in turn to foster learning and creativity. On this subject, Jobs said, “We’ve always tried to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, to be able to get the best of both, to make extremely advanced products from a technology point of view, but also have them be intuitive, easy to use, fun to use, so that they really fit the users – the users don’t have to come to them, they come to the user.”

You could really see how his vision for the device was coming to fruition, as he and his team demoed Garage Band and iMovie at the iPad 2 announcement earlier this year. They were powerful but easily accessible apps that just couldn’t exist in the same way on any other device. Sure, there are plenty of other capacitive touchscreen tablets on the market now. However, how many of them are as easy to use as the iPad 2? How many of them get out of the way and showcase the experience when you use an app? They were the perfect example of what Jobs was looking to accomplish, and also of what makes the iPad so popular with people of all ages.

Why was Steve Jobs so focused on this intersection of tech and creativity? I think it was because that was where he lived and was centered. He wasn’t just a tech guy. He also wasn’t just a creative genius. He was both, along with a keen, natural business savvy, and a silver-tongued delivery, to boot. In a world that is becoming more and more centered on specialization, Steve Jobs was a Renaissance Man. He didn’t fit in one neat little box, and when anyone tried to put him in one, he wouldn’t stand for it. There are plenty of corporate culture CEOs everywhere in the tech world today. None of them have the presence or out-of-the-box savvy that Jobs did. There also also some former tech guys, like Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook and Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google who have guided their startups to become billion dollar business and are now very successful CEOs. You could even put Bill Gates in this category, even though he has moved on from Microsoft. However, I haven’t seen anything from any of them personally that resembles the aesthetic design sensibilities that Steve Jobs possessed. There just isn’t any one person in the corporate world today that is anything like him.

The fact is, I don’t think we have ever seen a CEO like Jobs, and with the way corporations are structured today, we may never again. He was the more business-minded partner in Apple’s early years, and he became known for his design sensibility, taste and vision the second time around. Again, he was both these things and much more, and he fundamentally changed the way the world thinks about and uses technology. Being able to pull all of this off at the level that Jobs was able to do it requires a versatility that frankly, very very few people anywhere posses. This is probably why many have compared him to Leonard da Vinci. It may seem like a reach considering the incredible talents that da Vinci possessed, and the universal recognition that he still has due to his wide ranging and highly influential work. However, when we think of the high-tech world we live in today today, and the wide variety of ways that Steve Jobs influenced, shaped, and changed it, who else but da Vinci comes to mind? Like da Vinci, Jobs was a true Renaissance Man, and his considerable talents and versatility, along with the fact that he chose to harness and fully develop them, set him apart in a way that few could ever hope to come close to.

Like all Apple fans, I am certainly sad that Steve Jobs is gone. He will truly be missed by his legions of fans, and most especially by his close friends and family. However, thanks to his ability to learn from his previous mistakes and his incredible versatility, Steve Jobs left us a rich legacy to look back on, and a company that is built to keep that legacy alive for the foreseeable future. While sadness still surrounds Mr Jobs’ passing, it makes me very happy that he got to see one of his visions that was obviously very important to him come to life in the iPad. I can just see him after the iPad 2 keynote, standing at that street corner of Technology and Liberal Arts with a big smile, knowing that his realized vision will continue to change the world of computers and technology. Again.

I am smiling as I write these lines using my iPad 2, knowing how much Steve Jobs’ work has changed the way I personally look at and use technology. I can remember initially poking fun of the original iPhone when it was first released, and how few features it seemed to have in comparison with other smartphones of the time. And then I tried it. And then I got an iPod Touch, and got a real taste of the iOS user experience. Within a month, I was completely converted, sold my Windows Mobile phone, and the rest is history. I can still see evidence of Steve Jobs’ continued influence in my tech habits today. I have to chuckle at myself when I think of all the times that I have reached up to touch the screen of my Dell laptop only to be very disappointed with the result. That’s the kind of change that only a true Renaissance Man can have on a jaded tech blogger like me.

Thank you Steve.

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