Magazine | October 3, 2011, Issue

The Right Kind of Tyrant

Steve Jobs (Kimberly White/Newscom)
What Steve Jobs gave the world

The business world is famous for its difficult bosses, to put it as mildly as possible. There are screamers and throwers and silent-treatment types — all kinds and shapes of cruelty. If you go to the right bars around the downtown area of any major city and get a stool close to a group of young-looking people in suits, you can hear some pretty alarming stories about their bosses. The American economy, it sometimes seems, is run by demanding and irrational psychopaths assisted by terrified fauns.

It’s hard, though, when you reach a certain age, not to instinctively side with the psychopaths.

Steve Jobs, the two-time impresario behind the astonishing success of Apple Computer, has a reputation for being — well, I won’t use the “P” word, so we’ll have to settle for “demanding.” He’s a demanding boss, from all accounts.

A friend of mine who spent some time in Cupertino — and that’s how the cool kids refer to Apple HQ: “Cupertino,” which is where it’s based, deep in Silicon Valley — has shared lots of stories about Jobs’s famous temper, his obsessive perfectionism, his willingness to shelve any project or product (or employee) that doesn’t meet his high standards.

“In a meeting with Steve, you have to be prepared for his questions,” my friend told me, adding darkly, “all of his possible questions, from how long a product will take to build to how it might be shipped to whether it should come in blue. When he asks a question, you have to be prepared.”

Or?

My friend shook his head, deep into an Angry-Steve Flashback. “It’s not good.”

The stories of Steve’s temper are passed around Silicon Valley like business cards. Steve tossing a chair when a prototype wasn’t thin enough. Steve firing an engineer in an elevator when the engineer told him about the battery life of a new iPhone. Steve scrapping an entire product line because it wasn’t perfect, and had no hope of becoming perfect. Steve demanding more features. Steve insisting on better syncing. Steve shouting for thinner. Steve screaming for lighter. Steve terrifying his employees, his vendors, his business partners. Steve, engaged in furious e-mail exchanges with journalists, bloggers, and random customers who happened to e-mail him at the right moment, when he was taking a break from making his employees sweat and from engineering even higher standards.

And somehow, in the midst of all of this shouting and demanding and firing and insisting, Steve starts a movie studio, Pixar, and produces some of the most lasting and powerful animated movies ever made, like the Toy Story trilogy and the magnificent Up.

He didn’t accomplish any of this by being an understanding boss.

When a young engineer absentmindedly left a working prototype of the unreleased newest iPhone at a Silicon Valley bar, it was big news in the tech world. One industry blog managed to get its hands on the unit, prompting Steve to call in the cops. Friends of the engineer said they expected him to be plucked off the street one day and disappear into an unmarked van. They were only half-joking.

It’s hard to keep that in mind, when you pass through the gleaming high style of your local Apple store, with the beehive of purposeful, slightly scruffy young people milling around in T-shirts. The Apple Store is such a friendly place. That’s a big part of the Apple brand — ease of use, sleek design, shiny screens. When the company introduced its revolutionary Macintosh computer in the early 1980s, the product photo showed the squat, mini-looking unit with a smiley face on its screen. “Hi,” the computer was saying, thus giving birth to one of the most successful consumer brands ever.

#page#Apple computers are nice. They say “Hi.” Your grim, beige Unix-based terminal at work, or your heavy black Dell at home, don’t say “Hi.” They say “ILLEGAL MODE IN KERNEL 1009A5 RESTART” or whatever.

Apple computers are also irritatingly smug, if that’s possible. Well, not the computers themselves — although the early Mac that said “Hi” did seem, somehow, pleased with itself — but the users. Lord help us! Mac users won’t shut up about their machines. They’re tireless missionaries of the Church of Steve: how much better Macs are than Windows-based computers, how much faster and less susceptible to viruses, how much better looking, how much cooler, which is what it really comes down to. In movies and on television, when characters sit down to work on a computer — and even when one is just there, in the background — it’s almost always a Mac. In the painfully fashionable coffee shop around the corner from my house in Venice Beach, the hipsters all tap their fingers onto some kind of Apple product. Some will be typing on a MacBook Air; some will be poking out text messages on an iPhone; some will be editing music or video on a MacBook Pro; some will be flipping the pages on an eBook on the iPad; and some will manage, somehow, to be doing three of these things at the same time.

And if there’s a Dell user in the pack somewhere, you’ll spot it instantly, like someone wearing a tuxedo with brown shoes.

When I say “hipsters,” of course, I’m speaking very broadly. I’m writing this essay on a MacBook Pro, which syncs automatically to my Dropbox storage file in the cloud, so if I choose to finish proofreading it at the local coffee shop I can do it easily, either on my impossibly slender MacBook Air, or my shiny Verizon-enabled iPad. When my editor calls, wondering where the piece is, his name will flash up on my iPhone, which will allow me to ignore it and get back to the important stuff, like making a new iTunes playlist and scooting farther away from the person using the HP.

In other words, I am one of those irritating Apple fanatics. If it makes you feel any better, no one is more irritated by this than I am. But given the tiniest opening, I’ll bore you senseless with my devotion to my Phone, my Pad, my Air, my Book. I’ll ignore your glazing eyes, your watch-checking, your backing away, and I’ll just keep going: The machines are better designed and better made, have better software, and are easier to use. The MacBook Pro has revolutionized all media. The iPad is saving the newspaper business. The iPhone has liberated the world.

Well, not the whole world. Not Cupertino. Although that might change. Steve Jobs, the Tyrant of Cupertino, announced that he is stepping down as Apple’s CEO. A long battle with a form of pancreatic cancer has made it impossible for him to operate at the level of intensity that he’s famous for. His successor, Tim Cook, has assured customers and shareholders that Steve’s relentless perfectionism is embedded deep into the corporate culture. Apple, he insists, will remain Apple.

But when you start using weasel words like “corporate culture,” you’re already tipping your hand. When Cupertino quaked under Tyrant Steve, no one needed to worry about the culture of the place. The culture was simple to understand: fear and unforgiving standards. It wasn’t an easy place to work, but that was part of the appeal: Apple’s engineers and designers didn’t love coming to work despite Steve’s insane temper and unpredictable rants, they loved coming to work because of those things. Because they knew Steve was trying to do great things, trying to revolutionize an entire market, trying to put incredible technology into a beautiful package and into the hands of ordinary people.

And that’s impossible to do with.

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