Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Inimitable Mr. Steven Jobs

There have been countless articles praising Steve Jobs since he announced his retirement from Apple on August 25th.  Most either catalogue Steve Job's many triumphs or assess the impact of his creativity on society.  Those are entertaining topics but not especially useful.  A more practical question is why Steve Jobs is so good at creating new products and whether the rest of us can imitate him.

Steve Job's best work seems to follow a repeated pattern.  Let's call it the Apple pattern, though of course it could just as well be the Pixar pattern or Next pattern:
  1. See the whole picture of some crucial human/technology interaction and recognize gaps.  
  2. Design products to fill those gaps that combine artistic sensibility and innovative technology.
  3. Get a large organization to implement designs in a way that makes the end result like the handiwork of a single highly-focused craftsman. 
    Two things about the pattern seem particularly striking.  First, Steve Jobs is a complete package.  I have been in the tech industry for over three decades and have met people who did one or at most two of these things at the level necessary to create products that move large markets.  Almost nobody does all three.  The fact that Steve is excellent in all areas simultaneously may be a root cause behind his long run of successes.

    Second, Job's ability to drive implementation teams is extraordinary.  Maybe it's just the manager in me, but I find his ability to pick the right people to run teams and to keep those teams pointed in a clear direction without product-destroying compromises quite remarkable.  This is far harder than generating ideas in the first place.  The heart of the Apple pattern as as much about understanding people as technology--not just users but the creators as well.  I have never heard Jobs make pronouncements on team management, but there is an excellent talk from Ed Catmull of Pixar that summarizes the tensions quite well.

    Steve Jobs is commonly compared to great inventors like Edison, Ford, and Disney.  When thinking about imitation, another parallel seems more illuminating:  John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and hands-down the greatest English general of all time.

    A possible Jobs ancestor?
    Marlborough possessed a seldom equalled ability to see war as an integrated whole across geography and branches of arms, devise unexpected strategies to exploit the weaknesses of his enemies, and execute them flawlessly in the difficult conditions of early 18th Century campaigns.  Execution extended from handling fractious allies down to the painstaking work to ensure his men had proper meals after each day's march.  In other words:  analogous problem-solving abilities to Steve Jobs, translated into the field of warfare.   The parallel extends to the lavish praise of contemporaries and later historians.  Winston Churchill famously described Marlborough as follows.  
    He commanded the armies of Europe against France for ten campaigns. He fought four great battles and many important actions ... He never fought a battle that he did not win, nor besieged a fortress that he did not take ... He quitted war invincible.
    Grand problem-solvers like Marlborough and Jobs are sufficiently rare they tend to be one-offs who change society but leave no obvious successors.  English military superiority on the Continent waned after Marlborough's retirement.  Something similar will likely befall Apple after Jobs, current happy talk about product pipelines and cash position notwithstanding.  It is simply not possible to imitate Jobs by committee, which is effectively what will happen once he is completely absent.  The driving force is gone.

    That said, we can all imitate Steve Jobs, albeit on a smaller scale.  Many highly successful products start with a single person who conceives the idea and drives at least the first couple of iterations to completion.  Seeing the whole problem, applying innovative designs to solve it, and managing the team to get it done is a fundamental pattern that applies across a wide range of endeavors.  Here is just one of many examples.

    Many years ago at Sybase I worked for a manager named Mark Deppe.  Early in the 1990s Mark learned that Wall Street firms were patching together crude publish/subscribe messaging applications to move data between financial systems in order to speed up trades.   He recognized that there was a much better way to do this using log-based data replication and built the Sybase Replication Server product.  The Rep Server went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.  It still sells well today, over 15 years later.  Mark was a great architect but also a great builder of teams.  He paid as much or more attention to hiring and managing people as he did to technology.  He trusted the people he hired, and he gave them the freedom and support to do great work.  At the same time Mark was also incredibly attentive to detail and did all the project management for the first releases himself.  Years later he said it was too important a task to hand off to anyone else.

    Mark Deppe was the best technical manager I ever worked for.  I have consciously imitated his best practices for many years.  Looking back it seems I was unconsciously imitating the Apple design pattern.  But perhaps that was not a complete coincidence.   Before joining Sybase Mark was at Apple where he worked with (guess who?) Steve Jobs.

    NOTE:  After this article was published I found the flow hard to understand and edited it a week or so later to make it more readable.  The argument is the same as before.

    No comments:

    Scaling Databases Using Commodity Hardware and Shared-Nothing Design