After Steve Jobs returned Apple to its glory, a conventional line of thinking formed around the idea that the company’s board was off its rocker to ever let him leave.
Ex-CEO John Sculley, the man who fired Jobs articulated this thinking earlier this year when he said, “In hindsight it was a terrible mistake for Steve to be pushed out.”
After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs, it’s clear Sculley, and the conventional line of thinking around firing Jobs, couldn’t be more wrong.
Steve Jobs was an absolute menace in his first run with Apple. He had to be sent packing for his own good, and ultimately, for the good of Apple.
When he was in charge of running the Mac division, he drove his employees to build a truly revolutionary computer. But thanks to his tinkering, endless perfectionism, and insistence on a big marketing budget, the computer ended up costing $2,500; an outrageous price at the time. Especially since the original vision of the Macintosh was a mainstream computer for $1,000.
When the Macintosh came out, it was a flop. Sales were only 10% of the budget forecast, says Isaacson.
Instead of owning up to some of the failures, Isaacson writes that Jobs “holed up in his office, or wandered the halls berating everyone else for his problems.”
It would be one thing if he was lashing out because Mac sales were slow. He wasn’t, it was a pattern of behaviour for Jobs. He was a bully to his staff. He routinely called their work “shit.” One employee wanted to stab him in his heart when he changed her budget forecasts to something completely unrealistic.
The effect of Jobs’ behaviour wasn’t all bad. His team made a terrific computer they didn’t think they could make. And ultimately, they were all proud of what they made.
Here’s Mac employee Debi Coleman talking about the downside and the upside: “He would shout at a meeting, ‘You arsehole, you never do anything right.’ It was like an hourly occurrence. Yet I consider myself the absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked with him.”
It wasn’t just Jobs’ Mac team that was demeaned. Steve Wozniak said, “People in the Apple II group were being treated as unimportant.” The Apple II group was responsible for 70% of Apple’s sales, but Jobs treated them as second class citizens because they weren’t part of his group.
A memo from marketing director Mike Murray to Apple execs captures what Apple was like at the time:
“In my three years at Apple, I’ve never observed so much confusion, fear, and dysfunction as in the past 90 days … We are perceived by the rank and file as a boat without a rudder, drifting away into foggy oblivion … Whether the cause of or because of the dysfunction, Steve Jobs now controls a seemingly impenetrable power base.”
And he was a Jobs supporter! He helped Jobs scheme for a way to stay at Apple after the board decided to fire him.
Obviously, it didn’t matter. Eventually, Sculley and the board stood up to Jobs. They fired him.
After he left, Jobs started NeXT Computing, where he indulged all his whims. The result, writes Isaacson was, “a series of spectacular products that were dazzling market flops.”
At NeXT, “Jobs’ passion for perfection was out of control,” says Isaacson. Some examples from the book:
- “He made sure that the screws inside the machine had expensive plating.”
- “He even insisted that the matte black finish be coated onto the inside of the cube’s case, even though only repairmen would see it.”
- “Even though Jobs had leased a building that was new and nicely designed, he had it completely gutted and rebuilt. Walls were replaced by glass, the carpets were replaced by light hardwood flooring. The process was repeated when NeXT moved to a bigger space in Redwood City in 1989.”
- “He also insisted on building his own fully automated and futuristic factory, just as he had for the Macintosh; he had not been chastened by that experience. This time too he made the same mistakes, only more excessively. Machines and robots were painted and repainted as he compulsively revised his colour scheme. The walls were museum white, as they had been at the Macintosh factory, and there were $20,000 black leather chairs and a custom-made staircase, just as in the corporate headquarters.”
Imagine if he had stayed at Apple and been made CEO? He could have truly run the company into the ground, and never had the opportunity to return and save it.
Isaacson doesn’t really address what changed Jobs. But it seems like he bottomed out with NeXT. He had to grow up. He couldn’t just bully people endlessly and get what he wanted. He learned about real failure.
Without those lessons, his brilliant second run at Apple wouldn’t have happened.
So, contrary to what people want to think, it’s a really good thing he was fired.
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