Ideas Made to Matter
Steve Jobs talks consultants, hiring, and leaving Apple in unearthed 1992 talk
Steve Jobs did not like consultants.
It’s a point he made clear back in the spring of 1992, when the Apple and NeXT Computer Corporation CEO delivered a guest lecture as part of the MIT Sloan Distinguished Speaker Series.
The entire 72-minute talk is now available on YouTube from MIT Video Productions. Jobs covers a lot in his talk, from his thoughts on being forced out of Apple to the challenges facing development of portable technology to his personal management style. Here are just a few of the parts that stand out. Watch the entire talk below.
Jobs, known for being one to pull no punches, delivered his critique of consulting after he quizzed the audience on which industries they had a background in and discovered some were, indeed, consultants.
Consultants, he said, miss out on a key piece of professional growth at a company: learning from mistakes. Since they typically swoop in to offer advice and recommendations on a project, but don’t stick around to see the success or failure of their ideas, they’re only seeing a part of the process.
“I think that without owning something over an extended period of time, like a few years, where someone has a chance to take responsibility for one’s recommendations, where one has to see one’s recommendations through all action stages and accumulate some scar tissue for the mistakes and pick one’s self up off the ground and dust one’s self off, one learns a fraction of what one can,” Jobs said. “You do get a broad cut at companies, but it’s very thin.”
He likened it to a picture of a banana, which provides its viewer with an accurate overview of the fruit but doesn’t allow them to get a taste of it.
“You never get three-dimensional,” he said. “You might have a lot of pictures on your wall, you can say ‘Look, I’ve worked in bananas, I’ve worked in peaches, I’ve worked in grapes.’ But you never really taste it.”
On his separation from Apple
Jobs’ lecture came during the time when he had been forced out of Apple, the company he founded from his garage, and moved on to launch NeXT.
He briefly reflected on his separation from Apple, saying that he was happy to see the company moving forward, but foresaw it facing serious trials in the near future as it grappled with what path it would follow: a pivot toward consumer electronics, or becoming the next serious computer company.
“Who knows what would have happened, had all this not happened,” Jobs said of his departure. Six years later, NeXT’s NeXTSTEP operating system would serve as the precursor to the Macintosh OS X operating system when the company was acquired by Apple and Jobs rejoined, later reclaiming the CEO position until his death in 2011.
Jobs also spoke of the challenges facing making new technologies portable, including issues with achieving levels of the speed and power that consumers were demanding of such devices. “I think there’s some tremendous opportunities to give them some solutions,” he said.
Nearly a decade after the lecture, Jobs would deliver on those opportunities for music lovers in the form of the iPod, and six years after that usher in the age of the modern smartphone with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007.
On hiring, Jobs said he doggedly pursued solid candidates — sometimes for more than a year and a half — until they could be convinced to join his team. “It seems like with all the really good people I want to hire … it’s always been like that. It takes me a year to pry them out of HP or wherever,” he said. “And they’re all worth it.”
Jobs later resisted attempts by other companies to hire employees away from Apple, including a 2007 incident involving a recruiter from Google who attempted to convince an Apple engineer to take a job there. Jobs caught wind of the probe and called Google. The recruiter was fired, and Jobs responded by email to Google’s acknowledgement of the incident with a smiley face.
The “no poach” agreements were illegal, and both companies, alongside other major Silicon Valley companies like Adobe and Intel, later settled with the federal government in a lawsuit.
On taking a longer view of people
Jobs also learned to take a longer-term view of people over his years at Apple, he said. He worked to shed his tendency to step in and fix other people’s mistakes in favor of an approach geared toward helping everyone succeed.
“It’s to say, ‘We’re building a team here and we’re going to do great stuff over the next decade, not just the next year.’ So, what do I need to do to help so that the person who is screwing up learns, versus how do I fix the problem?” he said. “That’s painful sometimes.”
And when it came to resolving conflicts, Jobs said he believed in a diplomatic approach — bringing all parties together to talk it out until an agreement is reached — rather than a top-down style. NeXT, he said, had a policy team of eight people who made the most critical decisions for the company.
“We try to differentiate between the decision we don’t have to make and the really important decisions,” he said. “For the really important decisions, we work on it until we all agree.”
He continued: “We pay people a lot of money, and we expect them to tell us what to do. When that’s your attitude, you shouldn’t run off and do things if people don’t all feel good about them. I can’t remember a time when I said ‘Damn it, I’m the CEO and we’re doing it this way.’”
He hedged that, however, saying there were a handful of occasions where he had to say “we don’t see eye-to-eye, and you’re off the team.”