People who worked with Steve Jobs (I’ll call him Steve) usually don’t talk about it. It’s kind of an unwritten rule, partly because he was obsessive about his privacy.
I think that has all changed now, but I’m not exactly sure. I am at least sure that my phone won’t ring if I say something about the experience. And I feel compelled to do just that, because there is so much written about Steve, and so few who have actually seen him work. I was one of those people.
And I am becoming aware that LOTS of people are claiming, in one way or another, to have been one of those people. “I worked with Steve Jobs” can mean, “I saw him in the elevator once when I was at a meeting at Apple”, or “I worked at Apple during those years, and saw him around campus, although I never actually spoke to him.” I actually worked with the guy, and I’m realizing that perhaps I worked with him more closely than almost anyone (save Avie and the many who were in his inner circle for the whole duration of course) — because I worked on products that he cared deeply about.
First, some background. I worked at Adobe Systems in 1985, one of the first handful of people at the company. I was employee #40. After about 5 years, I was searching for something new to do, and got interested in NeXT, because they embraced PostScript (an Adobe technology) and were UNIX-based, two things that I was good at. Being young and brash, I wrote an email message directly to Steve, suggesting that I was just the right guy to work there. In 1991, I started work at NeXT, as Product Manager for Interpersonal Computing. It was the internet, before there was much of an internet. We called it Interpersonal Computing, but nobody paid attention until 5 years later when the WWW became more mainstream. I reported directly to Steve, in his capacity as “acting VP of Marketing”, which was a lifelong title for him.
I left NeXT to start a company to build software for NeXT computers — RightBrain Software. We built an amazing page layout app called PasteUp, ran two-page spread ads in NeXTWORLD magazine, and had a good old time, except we didn’t sell a lot of software, so I went off to do other things for a while.
Many years later, when NeXT acquired Apple for negative -$400M, I was recruited by Steve’s right hand man to come in to build iMovie 1.0, in large part because I knew a lot about NeXTSTEP, the technology which was to become MacOS X, and because I think Steve liked PasteUp and liked me and thought I could get it done (we were done ahead of schedule, as it turned out).
I can still remember some of those early meetings, with 3 or 4 of us in a locked room somewhere on Apple campus, with a lot of whiteboards, talking about what iMovie should be (and should not be). It was as pure as pure gets, in terms of building software. Steve would draw a quick vision on the whiteboard, we’d go work on it for a while, bring it back, find out the ways in which it sucked, and we’d iterate, again and again and again. That’s how it always went. Iteration. It’s the key to design, really. Just keep improving it until you have to ship it.
There were only 3 of us on the team, growing to 4 within the year, with no marketing and very little infrastructure around us. There was paper over the internal windows to keep other Apple employees from knowing what we were doing. Our component in Radar, the bug-tracking database, was called “Tax Department” so nobody would be curious about it. We sat in the same hallway as the Tax Department, actually, and our Senior VP was in charge of Service and Support at the time. Truly a stealth project. There were maybe only 5-10 people in the whole company who knew what we were doing.
When we were done, and the iMac DV shipped with iMovie built in (I think it was October or November of 1998), the world changed, for everybody. Jeff Goldblum appeared in TV ad spots, showing off iMovie. The idea of “personal digital media” was born. This was Steve’s vision, and why he put together the iMac DV, with Firewire and iMovie. We called it the Digital Hub strategy internally, to encourage you to put lots of personal digital media on your home computer. It grew quickly from movies to include photos and music (iTunes was repackaged SoundJam, acquired from Casady and Greene in 2000). Before then, very vew people had any personal photos, or music, or home movies on their computers.
Over the ensuing 5 years or so, we built several versions of iMovie and several versions of iPhoto, which came out a couple years after iMovie, but along the same track. Toward the end of my time at Apple, we had standing meetings, once a week, for about 3 or 4 hours, in the Board Room at Apple, to go through what were known internally as the “iApps” — iMovie, iPhoto, iTunes, and later iDVD. Over the course of some years, that’s a lot of CEO hours devoted to the details of some software apps — and that was just the part that we saw. I’m sure there were similar meetings for OS X, the Pro apps, the hardware, and everything else that was going on.
Now let me back up a bit.
Steve Jobs was passionate, as everyone knows. What he was passionate about was, I think, quite simple: he liked to build products. I do, too. This we had in common. It is a process which requires understanding the parameters, the goals, and the gives and takes. Stretch what’s possible, use technologies that are good, rein it in when the time comes, polish it and ship it. It’s a kind of horse sense, maybe a bit like building houses, where you just kind of know how to do it … or you don’t. Steve did.
Not only did he know and love product engineering, it’s all he really wanted to do. He told me once that part of the reason he wanted to be CEO was so that nobody could tell him that he wasn’t allowed to participate in the nitty-gritty of product design. He was right there in the middle of it. All of it. As a team member, not as CEO. He quietly left his CEO hat by the door, and collaborated with us. He was basically the Product Manager for all of the products I worked on, even though there eventually were other people with that title, who usually weren’t allowed in the room 🙂
One of the things about designing products that can come up is Ego, or Being Right, or whatever that is called. I’m not sure how this evolved, but when I worked with Steve on product design, there was kind of an approach we took, unconsciously, which I characterize in my mind as a “cauldron”. There might be 3 or 4 or even 10 of us in the room, looking at, say, an iteration of iPhoto. Ideas would come forth, suggestions, observations, whatever. We would “throw them into the cauldron”, and stir it, and soon nobody remembered exactly whose ideas were which. This let us make a great soup, a great potion, without worrying about who had what idea. This was critically important, in retrospect, to decouple the CEO from the ideas. If an idea was good, we’d all eventually agree on it, and if it was bad, it just kind of sank to the bottom of the pot. We didn’t really remember whose ideas were which — it just didn’t matter. Until, of course, the patent attorneys came around and asked, but that’s a whole nother story.
The Steve that I worked with loved product design, and he loved consumer products, and iMovie and iPhoto were two of the biggest consumer apps ever developed from scratch at Apple, or NeXT, or anywhere else, perhaps. So I think that in some very real sense, I had a better understanding of Steve and how he worked, and what motivated him, than almost anyone in the world. It sounds kind of self-serving to say this, but he and I were a lot alike in that way, and in that process. It was a true give and take, a true collaboration with everyone in the room. Most people never saw that process, and those who did never talk about it. I am privileged to have been there.
I guess I have this to say about it: it wasn’t magic, it was hard work, thoughtful design, and constant iteration. Doing the best we knew how with what was available, shaping each release into a credible, solid, useful, product, as simple and direct as we could make it. And we shipped those products, most importantly.
I am off doing other things now, again, but it’s still Product Design, and I still love it. That is what I remember most about Steve, that he simply loved designing and shipping products. Again, and again, and again. None of the magic that has become Apple would have ever happened if he were simply a CEO. Steve’s magic recipe was that he was a product designer at his core, who was smart enough to know that the best way to design products was to have the magic wand of CEO in one of your hands. He was compelling and powerful and all that, but I think that having once had the reigns of power wrestled away from him, he realized that it was important not to let that happen again, lest he not be allowed to be a Product Manager any more.