A former Apple engineer reveals how he reacted to Steve Jobs calling his work 'dog s--t'

Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesFormer Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
  • Steve Jobs once described work done by former Apple software engineer Ken Kocienda as “dog s–t.”
  • Kocienda was working on a new font to bring the best out of iPhone 4’s new retina display. Jobs did not approve of his first eight attempts.
  • Kocienda eventually found a solution and said Jobs’ criticism could be effective – even if it wasn’t always constructive.

What do you do when one of the most mercurial CEOs ever to live calls your work “dog s–t”?

That’s the conundrum Apple software engineer Ken Kocienda faced when he was helping develop the iPhone 4 during his 16 years at the trillion-dollar tech giant.

In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Kocienda recalled working on a new font to bring the best out of the iPhone 4’s new retina display. He prepared eight different routes all based around the old iPhone Helvetica font, but there were problems with each, which made them look “smudgy rather than sharp.”

Here’s how Kocienda remembers Jobs reacting to options:

“Steve looked at each phone screen, pulled his round-rim glasses up so they rested on his forehead, stared again closely, then put his glasses back down and returned each phone to the table in front of him. Then he expressed himself. I was left wishing I had a plastic bag in my pocket to clean up my work.”

Ken kocienda headshot wideKen KociendaKen Kocienda.

Kocienda eventually found a solution using Helvetica Neue, which Jobs approved. But the former engineer said he learnt two valuable lessons from the experience:

  1. Jobs’ abrupt feedback was often very helpful.“Criticism can be effective even if it’s not constructive. Steve had no problem issuing a rejection without explanation,” Kocienda explained.
  2. Brand new work is “frequently no good.” He said rounds of iteration are often required to produce a polished final result.

Reflecting on Jobs’ management style, Kocienda added: “Steve could be unpredictable and moody, and luckily, I was never on the receiving end of one of his full-on harangues.

“But let’s be honest: Most of us swear. The key to making harsh words count is to have a trusting environment where everyone knows that comments are about your work and not about you.”

You can read his full Wall Street Journal op-ed here.

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