“Sometimes the technology just doesn’t want to show you what it can do. You have to keep pushing on it and asking the engineers over and over again to explain why we can’t do this or that—until you truly understand it. A lot of times, something you ask for will add too much cost to the final product. Then an engineer might say casually, ‘Well, it’s too bad you want A, which costs $1,000, instead of B, which is kind of related to A. Because I can do B for just 50¢.’ And B is just as good as A. It takes time to work through that process—to find breakthroughs but not wind up with a computer no one can afford.”
In his obituaries, Jobs was called a visionary. The word is justified: he had visions, and he convinced cofounders, investors, employees, and, finally, customers to share them. Yet the word “visionary” suggests mysterious powers, and as the Inc. interview shows, Jobs’s approach wasn’t so very strange. He pulled at consumers, and pushed at the technology, and merged the two. But if the method was not mysterious, the details were laborious. Jobs was not an engineer. He combined and refined borrowed ideas (from Xerox PARC most famously, but variously: from typesetters, industrial designers, and the counterculture). He ignored vulgar consensus, took risks, and killed unsatisfactory projects. He loved excellence; anything that was substandard, hurried, cluttered, or dumb pained him, and he rejected it. He concerned himself with the smallest details of products, so that, for example, the circuit board of the Apple II had to be flawlessly soldered and classically proportioned, though almost no one would ever see it. He hired the best designers and engineers, and by persuasion and bullying, inspired them to build his insanely great machines.
Apple (and by extension Jobs) existed, he always said, at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. As an artist, his medium of expression was computing. He wanted to excite passionate fandom from his customers, because he was himself technology’s biggest fan. And like all real artists, he didn’t create his artifacts to get rich (although the validation must have been nice to a poor boy from Mountain View); he did it for the absorbing love of his chosen craft.
During a justly famous speech at the 2005 Stanford University commencement (the core text for understanding the man), Jobs spoke about getting fired from Apple. He said, “I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the Valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me—I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.”
Jobs insisted that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have happened to him: “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again … It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” During the next five years, he founded NeXT and Pixar and met his wife. NeXT led to his return to Apple, and he saw the technology he created at NeXT at the heart of the Macintosh operating system.
“I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple … I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Sad that he is dead, disappointed that I will never see the machines he might have created. I hope, in my small way, to imitate Steve.
Jason Pontin is the editor in chief of Technology Review.