Thursday, August 25, 2011

My one question for Steve Jobs in 2001

I’ll always stay connected with Apple. I hope that throughout my life I’ll sort of have the thread of my life and the thread of Apple weave in and out of each other, like a tapestry. There may be a few years when I’m not there, but I’ll always come back. [Playboy, Feb. 1, 1985]

I've had two personal encounters in my life with Steve Jobs. The first was in 1997 when my parents forced me to stalk him after a Cirque du Solei show in San Francisco and I shook his hand. I wouldn't recommend doing this to any famous person, although in my parents' defense Steve wasn't as famous back then except to fanboys like me.

The second encounter, however, happened 4 years later at Apple in the summer of 2001. I was an intern there and one day the head of the intern program gathered the almost 100 interns into the Town Hall auditorium in Infinite Loop 4 for a "surprise guest speaker" that wasn't really much of a surprise: Steve Jobs.

The meeting had no agenda but I had a hunch that when Steve (everyone who has ever worked at Apple just calls him "Steve") ended his remarks there would be a Q&A session. My mind started racing. This was probably going to be the one time in my life when I would have the chance to ask Steve Jobs a question and get a reply. This has *got* to be a good question. This was like getting a chance to shoot a basket with Michael Jordan, you want to take a good shot.

I can't remember exactly the questions that I decided against, but I remember specifically thinking that I wanted to ask something that hadn't been captured in the numerous books I had read about Apple's history. Something Macworld magazine hadn't reported on. Something Steve hadn't talked about in the press before. And something personal to him. The other interns, disappointingly to me, were asking questions more about the company like "Is Apple ever going to go after the enterprise market?" (Steve's response, a refreshing "If you're interested in that, you're probably at the wrong company.")

Steve got to about his 4th question from the audience and by this point almost every single intern had their hand up. He gestured in my direction but I could tell he was actually looking at an intern in the row right in front of me. I got a bit aggressive and barged ahead with my question anyway before the other intern could begin. Steve smiled a bit in apology to the intern I had just trampled over but let me continue.

I was nervous. "Steve, many years ago you left Apple to start Next. But recently you returned to Apple. Why did you come back to Apple?" I could be filling in false details, but I remember Steve thinking for a moment with his characteristic "fingertip pressed together downward glance". He then proceeded to give a two part answer.

The first part of his answer I've completely forgotten because it seemed to be a canned spiel that he had used before. It had something to do with Apple's products or mission. I started losing interest because it sounded like something I might have even heard Steve say before at a keynote. I felt a bit disappointed that my one chance to learn something new and unique about Steve was probably about to end.

But then, as if to try again at my question, he added a second part to his answer.

"When I was trying to decide whether to come back to Apple or not I struggled. I talked to a lot of people and got a lot of opinions. And then there I was, late one night, struggling with this and I called up a friend of mine at 2am. I said, 'should I come back, should I not?' and the friend replied, 'Steve, look. I don't give a fuck about Apple. Just make up your mind' and hung up. And it was in that moment that I realized I truly cared about Apple."

When I was 5 I first played with an Apple II GS. And when I was 10 (or 12?) my parents got me a Macintosh IIsi, put it in my room, and subscribed me to Macworld magazine. Apple and Steve's work has been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember.

To bring a company that in 1997 was losing money and had changed CEOs nearly every year for many years in a row, to be the most valuable company in the world is a feat I'm not sure we'll ever witness again in our lifetimes.

Steve managed to find work he loved and did it to the very best of his ability. It's a concept that sounds so simple but in practice is hard to do, but one that is worth striving for.

Update 1/7: On page 315 of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson quotes Jobs telling the same story where he uses Andy Grove by name , instead of "a friend".