Earlier this month I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the Úll conference in Ireland. One of the many bonus features there was Steve Stories, a project that invited some of the presenters to record our favourite stories about Steve Jobs.
Naturally, when I think of Steve stories, my mind first goes to Andy Hertzfeld’s classic site about the creation of the Mac, folklore.org, and the accompanying book, Revolution in the Valley. My favourite stories from those early days are about Steve’s infamous Reality Distortion Field.
You see, in the early 80s when they were building the Macintosh, Steve was infamous for working the engineers disgustingly long hours and putting them under extreme pressure to ship. Folks often threatened to leave, but if Steve wanted somebody to stay, they tended to stay.
No matter how much a key engineer wanted to quit, if they went into Steve’s office to resign, he would always go into Reality Distortion mode and persuade them to feel like they wanted to stay. By the end of the conversation, the engineer would leave Steve’s office pumped and motivated. “Yeah, we are going to change the world! Wait… wasn’t I going in there to quit?”
After some failed attempts at quitting, Burrell Smith, one of the key engineers behind the Mac, finally devised a way around Steve.
“I’ve got it!” said Burrell. “I know the perfect way to quit that will nullify the Reality Distortion Field. I’ll just walk into Steve’s office, pull down my pants, and urinate on his desk. What could he say to that? It’s guaranteed to work.” The logic was sound.
So he spends some time working up the courage to do this, and eventually makes his way to Steve’s office at the end of the day. He walks in, and Steve just asks, “Are you gonna do it?” Word had gotten around. “Are you really gonna do it?”
Burrell looked Steve in the eye. “Do I have to? If I have to, I’ll do it.” He could tell by Steve’s expression that he didn’t have to. Burrell was free at last.
Tales tall and true
Though most modern-era Apple employees were never lucky – or unlucky – enough to meet Steve Jobs, colourful stories about Steve were often shared between team members. While folks often enjoyed pumping up the legends around Bad Steve, I always liked the stories that humanized him.
It’s been long said that when Steve Jobs would get into an elevator and see a rank and file employee, he would ask, simply, “What do you do?” An innocent enough question, on its face. However, given his years of accosting employees about their department’s shortcomings and the occasional summary firing, employees feared that you would be fired by the end of that elevator ride if Steve didn’t like your answer to “What do you do?”
Reportedly a young designer at Apple had heard of this danger, and she was terrified of losing her job from such a chance encounter. She was newly pregnant and loved her job deeply, leading her to often rehearse in her head her answer – what if Steve Jobs ever asks “What do you do?”
After one long day, she got in the elevator, and who else gets in, but Steve Jobs. Sure enough, he asks The Question and she’s off. She frantically launches into her elevator pitch, explaining her job, why her team is great, and she’s talking a mile a minute when Steve interrupts:
Whoa, whoa, uh… I said, “When are you due?”
They had a good laugh. I always liked these kinds of stories, the ones that push back on the idea that Steve was an unequivocal jerk, or worse that he succeeded because he was a jerk. While that makes for an interesting tale, it conflates the key skill – a critical eye – with one man’s intermittent hold on his temper.
The stories that matter
The stories we choose to tell about our leaders matter greatly. At a large company, employees’ mental model of their CEO can be even more important than the CEO’s actual behaviour. As Apple grew to tens of thousands of employees, Steve could never oversee every decision, or even a significant fraction of those decisions. Yet he was always there, in every meeting or argument, as our idea of Steve.
When debating a UI approach or feature decision, the ultimate appeal to authority was, “What would Steve say?” “Would Steve ever let us ship this?” “Is this really good enough?” Through his famously demanding product reviews, he pushed down into the organization an understanding of what kind of work was acceptable at Apple, and how far it’s worth going to get something right.
When Steve passed away in 2011, there was fevered speculation that Apple was doomed. “How could a company built by such an exceptional leader ever survive without him?” I was never really worried about that. He is truly missed, but his methods were not some secret recipe, held under lock and key. Apple employees had already spent years thinking like Steve.
Adam Gammell’s Úll Steve Stories app from the conference is now available on the App Store. It features the above stories, and more importantly additional stories from people much more interesting than I.