My long-ago conversation with Steve Jobs. Please check out the additional material on the Always Invert community page, which includes the keynote from that NeXT World Expo and some passages from others who knew him very well.
I met Steve Jobs around 1992 and I’ve always been grateful that he went out of his way to talk to me. I’ve had close to three decades to chew on what he said, and embarrassingly it has taken me that long to come around to his point-of-view.
This wasn’t a planned meeting. My firm was an early adopter of the NeXT computer, and when one of the partners heard that several NeXT proponents from our IT department were winging their way to San Francisco, he arranged for me to fly out the next morning and join them. His concern was that we had embraced a failing product that would have iffy support.
NeXT did have a tenuous business model. Originally, they had announced plans to make the best educational personal computer in the world, at an affordable price, and then the all-in cost gradually revealed itself to be well north of $10,000 per machine. Still, there were real innovations going on. Our firm had found the NeXT machines to be the best programming environment for C++, which was new at the time, and represented a shift to object oriented programming.
Many people believe Apple wouldn’t be what it is today without NeXT’s technology. Strictly speaking, the NeXT machines were more a workstation than a personal computer, and its UNIX based Object Oriented OS and intuitive Interface Builder enabled the development of iconic games like “Quake” and “Doom”. In fact, the first web browser was built on a NeXT computer.
This was the period in which Steve Jobs was between posts at Apple. In 1985, he was unceremoniously fired from Apple, and over the next 11 years, he spent most of his time trying to build NeXT and most of his money propping up Pixar. Around the time I met him, Jobs was funding a down round at Pixar that reportedly wiped out a significant chunk of the employees equity, and NeXT was arguably in even rougher shape.
Of course, both paths worked out quite well for all involved.
While NeXT computers were a state-of-the-art production environment, it was unclear how well supported and reliable a network of them would prove to be. Before my firm could introduce any dependencies into our business, we had to make sure that we knew that any support issues could get quickly resolved.
In Chicago, the bond trading pits opened at 7:20 a.m., and the first hour of trading could make or break the day. Important economic releases like Nonfarm Payrolls & Unemployment, GDP, CPI, and PPI were announced just ten minutes after the open.
Computers were slower back then, and there was a sequence of after-market and pre-market reports that needed to be updated and generated daily on both an overnight and early morning basis. Generally speaking, if any issues weren’t resolved by 6 a.m., tensions would begin ramping.
The operations team worked hours that no-one envied, and none of us wanted to make their life any harder. There was an unwritten rule that we could be our natural selves in how we treated each other, but to the early risers who ran the reports and systems, it was expected that we rose to a higher standard.
The problem with computers in the late 1980s and early 1990s is that they remained their quirky and jerky selves no matter who was being put out. Rebooting a system was a regular occurrence. It was in this context that I flew out to ask the team at NeXT about their promises of support and how they planned to deliver that to help put out any fires at 6 a.m. when it would correspondingly be 4 a.m. at their headquarters in Redwood City.
The NeXT team was friendly, and I enjoyed talking to them, but they were distinctly non-committal about the support issues. It wasn’t so much that any of us expected someone to pick up a phone at 4 a.m., but the question was a good opening for understanding how NeXT thought about support. After several conversations and meetings, we made our way to the main floor of the San Francisco Civic Center.
As I mention in the community section of Always Invert, Steve had just come off the stage, and was walking fairly briskly towards the exits at the back of the room. He was being closely trailed by several young programmers in backpacks who seemed to not want to interrupt him, but were also following him so closely that when he slowed to wave and acknowledge somebody, they had to abruptly halt and pivot so his shoulders wouldn’t hit them.
When Steve would resume his pace again, they would follow closely in his wake, seemingly hoping for a bit of his attention, but also, as I was soon to see, quite happy to gleam something from any interactions they might witness. All I could think about was how did he ever move around in public, or was this just something that happened at industry centered events?
As he made his way to the back of the room, he saw our small group huddled together with several of his senior executives. We were only a few feet off his path and a couple yards away from some exit doors and his freedom. We had just been joined by another NeXT executive who had been chaperoning a partner from one of our Chicago trading rivals, and who we kept bumping into throughout the day. This seemed to annoy our IT guys, who told me they were being very careful to not tell our rival anything that might clue them in on what and why and for what capabilities we had embraced the NeXT systems.
Combined, there were about eight of us, and when Steve stopped, including those trailing remora, that made about a dozen. After a three-second hello and maybe two words with one of his execs, Steve looked us over and asked whether we were getting everything we needed. He scanned from face to face as most of the group nodded politely. I might have been the only one with a big smile, but it wasn’t solely because of his greeting. Rather, it was cracking me up to see this synchronized mirroring going on immediately adjacent and behind him by those trailing twenty-something year-old acolytes.
I mean, I too was twenty-something, but there was an eagerness accompanying their fan-boyishness that just made them seem so much younger.
Steve’s question had created an opening, though, and since it felt like we weren’t really getting an answer to the support issues, and because Steve had centered his gaze toward me, I jumped right in. I really wasn’t looking for the CEO to resolve my questions, but rather, I thought if I praised his team to him in the context of still needing answers, it might increase some accountability and they might in turn become more amenable to resolving the ambiguities that kept coming up. I said something along the lines of:
“Thanks for saying hello. Look, I know you’re busy—“
All the Time In the World…
—And at that, Steve leaned forward, locked in, and said:
“I have all the time in the world for a customer.”
Actually, he did more than just lean forward and look me in the eye. I don’t think he shook my hand, but when he locked in, he did something with his right hand, as if partially extending it towards a hand-shake. I told this story to someone the other night, and I recreated it by taking their hand, but I don’t think he did that. It just felt that way. His hand movement seemed to both signal his interruption and serve as a now proper and more deeply sincere recognition. Yet his arm didn’t fully extend forward like one might expect in a handshake. A greeting wasn’t its purpose. He gave me, and more importantly, was about to give my question his full attention. I definitely felt like he did indeed have all the time in the world for us.
Still, I treated the moment as if I had maybe thirty seconds, and stayed my course. I replied that we did still have some questions around support that I had been specifically sent out to gain perspective on. That their team, and in particular, the person who was standing next to me, had been helping us find bits and pieces of the answer. That I was hoping in the hour before we headed back that the missing pieces could all be resolved.
Steve asked what in particular did we need to know. I briefly explained our systems drop-dead time of 6 a.m. Chicago time, and how it still wasn’t clear to me how some of the reassurances we had been given about support would actually translate if we ever had to get ahold of someone in an emergency at 4 a.m. in Redwood City, California, where NeXT was based.
Please keep in mind that these were different times, and that computers were flaky, and redundancies were difficult to build in across the board. Today, we’d consider it reckless and nutty to need to call someone at 4 a.m., well, unless it was mission-critical, and a connection was down on someone else’s end, or we had to eliminate possibilities quickly in order to narrow what might be wrong, especially if the markets were crazy, and… well, maybe that isn’t too dissimilar to the issues we faced back in 1992.
Steve replied that there wouldn’t be anyone in the office at 4 a.m., and in fact, there wouldn’t be anyone in any office anywhere or even available from home unless one of them gave us their bedside phone number and was willing to wake up and able to help us from their homes. When I asked him what time we could expect his best support people to be available in a crisis, he said that most of the people who might be specialized enough to truly be of help in such a situation didn’t really get going before 10 a.m. That didn’t seem too unreasonable when I at first thought he was talking Chicago time, with the two-hour time difference representing 8 a.m. in California. Then I realized he was talking local time, and that correspondingly meant noon for us. Hmmm. I began to imagine such a day unraveling back at our offices and wondering who might survive that six hour window.
Steve went on to say that we needed to think about it differently. He said that we shouldn’t be relying on NeXT for support at such a moment. He said that in the early days of Apple, the best support and the most informed knowledge came from the customers. That it was unlikely that NeXT would have any answers that we didn’t already have the ability to figure out for ourselves. Especially because, as in the early days of Apple, the customers have a way of staying a step or two ahead of the company. This is because people like us were the ones driving innovation, while back in Redwood City they were solving a different type of problem centered around creating systems and then producing them to a uniform standard.
He pointed to our rival standing a few feet away: “You guys know each other. You are two of our biggest customers. Sure, you are competitors in the trading pits or floor or whatever they call it, but when it comes to your systems being down at 6 a.m., you are partners. You are in this together. One day, they will be helping you. Another day, you can help them.”
I thanked Steve for providing that perspective, and with no further questions from anyone else, he was on his way.
The senior partner from our rival walked over to me, smiled, and asked me what I thought of that answer. I told him that I appreciated it for its honesty. What did he make of it? He replied by mentioning my boss’s name, saying that he imagined that my boss still had his number, because he’d have to dial direct that early in the day as no one would tend to be available to patch a call through from their main switchboard at 6 a.m.
Sensing that the prospect of us having to call them in a crisis absolutely tickled him, I smiled and asked him if he thought he would be answering his outside line that early. See, most of us had a mini switchboard in front of us, with direct lines from our most important contacts, desks, and brokers. Anyone calling on the four-digit extensions was usually not a priority. He laughed and said, now that he knows it might be us calling, probably not. But that he could probably beat that 10 a.m. California time by a good half-hour or so.
At the time, the answer Steve Jobs gave seemed to reflect a certain naïveté about the financial industry and the extremely protective nature by which it harbored its competitive edges. It kept firms very buttoned up and caused them to silo and hide their best people and programs from each other.
However—and it has taken me thirty years to recognize this, Steve Jobs was right. Maybe not so much about computer support, but about the power of users to run ahead of companies with innovation and insights that are completely separate and beyond what the technology providers bring to the table. That there might be a balance by which competitors can also be collaborators or share resources.
It has been nearly three decades since I met Steve Jobs, and it has been a decade since his death at age 56, which happens to be the same age that I am now. That’s about where the comparison ends. If he was around today, he definitely wouldn’t be telling stories of the time he met me.
Yet there are many people who tell stories about Steve Jobs. Honestly, I take them all with a grain of salt, since I can’t even say for certain whether or not we shook hands. Sometimes the take on him borders on the unrealistic. I’ve never quite understood some of the portrayals that emphasize his flaws or mercurial temperament, when it is obvious that so many people did their best work in partnership with him. Did these people, impressive in their own right, make some kind of grand compromise to fulfill their ambitions? Or is there more to Steve Jobs than meets the eye of the popular imagination?
If I had been listening more closely, I might have recognized the most important lesson he said about Apple’s earliest users, where innovators drove community. Our next projects and partnerships will have community and innovation at their center.
It will be fun to build something with a core group of early partners who are racing ahead of us. There will inevitably be some dead-ends, but those will be succeeded by gratifying breakthroughs. Throughout, we will be listening closely, being sure to give each other all the time in the world.