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Update on the Steve Jobs post from an Apple alum (Updated again!)

David Shen, an Apple alum and now prolific angel investor, wrote me to chime in on my recent post on Steve Jobs.

UPDATE: I also heard from Kristee Rosendahl, who co-founded Apple’s Human Interface Group and worked directly on Hypercard, and posted her reply below as well.

I reposted David’s message below, with his permission, where he discusses the indirect effect that Steve Jobs has on the Apple design culture. He says Apple is still ruled by the business and engineering guys, but that his indirect effect is providing a central design vision as well as removing the politics around product design.

David writes:

great post, but i actually have a different viewpoint.

have you ever worked in a big org like apple? it’s filled with competing viewpoints, and is always run by business guys, never design guys. always design guys are relegated very far down the chain, and so thus engineering and business seem to drive the day on any decisions. this is often where we find “fake desirability”. [ed: fake desirability, which he defines “by this i mean that some people said they designed for users, but in actuality they only designed for themselves.”]

when i was at apple, it was certainly better than other companies. but still it was a guy who used to be at IBM germany who was CEO at the time from 1990-1993, after john sculley was removed. and design reported still a level or two below the CEO, but lucky for apple the culture itself supported UX and its products were consistently better.

when steve jobs came, he killed the political bullshit that made great products even better. everything runs through him and if he doesn’t like it, it’s too bad. so you have to suck it up to work at apple, doing steve’s bidding or else you will not survive in there.

he is a design dictator of the company. and it’s fortunate for apple and the world in general, that they have him because without his ironhand, the company would soon devolve back into a political, consensus driven company. it would still have great products from a certain point of view, but i doubt that they would ever have the game changing, superiority they exhibit now. committees would grow, politics would ensue, control battles would happen, and superior products would be hampered by all this. steve removes all that; he makes the final decision and pushes details that no one else would have the authority to push. and being at the top, you have to listen to him or else you’re fired. that’s it; end of story.

and thank god he is right most of the time.

so i would argue that benevolent dictatorships are the best form of govt in the world, including both for companies and for countries, where one person has both the right vision and the ironhand/cut-thru-the-bullshit attitude and style to do the right thing. think if obama ruled the US like steve jobs. he would just do the right thing, and nobody could do a single thing about it.

the probability of another steve jobs occurring is vanishingly small. i doubt that another startup could produce a steve jobs. it is a combination of intelligence, market savvy, strong personality, and ruthlessness that makes him successful. not many people can exhibit all those qualities to make it work.

believe me i have seen people try. but they just end up pissing everyone off and they fail when nobody can work for them, or they think they have supreme market savvy but really they are exhibiting “fake desirability”. remember that steve took decades to develop his ability to this day; a 20-30 year old is very very unlikely to have enough world experience to be able to match that. so maybe you could say that zuckerberg or larry/sergey are in that camp. but there are other tons of people out there who are not. so the probability of finding someone like that (or being someone like that) is pretty darn small….

Very interesting…

UPDATE: David added some additional thoughts in the comments.

I should clarify that I don’t think that Apple is run by business and engineering guys solely now. I think it’s probably one of the most balanced orgs, power-wise in any corporation I’ve seen. What other companies have their head of design reporting into their CEO? I can’t think of any!

But CTOs almost always report into the CEO, and certainly the business structures, like business units, general managers, etc. always do.

Authority and importance are often driven by how high in the org chart you are. Having a voice at the table as high up as possible means you get to be heard and your issues taken seriously, and your influence felt. It also means that the CEO has now told the company: “the guys who report to me are also the most important to me. That’s why they report to me.” If the design lead does not report to the CEO, then how can design truly have a voice in the strategic decisions of the company? It could only be translated through the voice of his manager, and so on, upwards until they get muddied and washed out by the time they reach the top…or just lost.

A clarifying point about indirect design influence: 

I actually think Steve has a direct influence on design on many products, and that the effect of this design influence creates what I’ll call “design philosophy inertia” which propagates through the org, across product lines and down product lines. This is where his indirect influence can be felt. But it is clear to me there are products that he cares most about, and these he will put his attention on all the time.

As I said in the post above, thank god we have Steve. I doubt we’d see the world be filled with such superior products without him.

UPDATE: Some thoughts from Kristee Rosendahl below on Apple and what startups can (and can’t) take away from process.

My comments about Apple have to be taken in the context of when I was there 1984-1990, as things continue to change there like any company. After 1990, I’ve been an external observer of Apple’s culture, just like the rest of us.

I think Steve is a design dictator when it comes to the products close to his heart. The good news is that his approach and sensibility is so baked into the culture of Apple that everyone inside Apple considers themselves design advocates. So other products get the advantage of that. It’s an amazing example of how leaders set tone, culture, and priorities. When I went to work for Apple, even as a consultant first, they gave me this little cubical with a Mac. Then the person said be prepared for Steve to walk in at any time and ask you what you are doing. The implication is that I better be able to defend my work at any moment. That set a tone from day one! He never showed up in my office, but talk about creating an environment based on that.

I also think Steve is in his own class, because he is not only a designer, he is an incredible marketer. I agree with you though that there is still lots of room to improve and elevate design within an organization. The issue will be that most CEOs can’t really talk about design. There are almost no classes in biz school that really address design – I sure hope that changes. So most biz or tech guys running the show are not apt to go there, its not their language, and not their safe zone. One of the major ways I have seen companies overcome this is with two partners as head – one who handles the biz side but totally appreciates and respects design, and the other is the creative lead who has respect and can partner with a business oriented person. The other option is to hire a really good design lead. Mostly, though, companies hire consultants, or agencies. When the job is done, there is no one in house to keep advocating from the top…design has got to be on the executive team and by the water cooler to make it work.


I would add that, in this discussion about design, remember Apple is a consumer products company. Most of what they are lauded for is their product design, ease of use, delight, coolness, etc. Designing real products people carry with them, work on, and use for entertainment purposes, is a far different design effort than creating a social media website. While both require design, their development time, designer’s skill sets and to-market time are not similar. Sometimes we need to make that distinction when we talk about design efforts in various different kinds of companies and start ups.

When a CEO who is starting up an online business says they want their product ” to be as simple as Apple”, we all know what that means. What start ups forget is how many people’s efforts and hours go into making Apple’s products that clean and simple. In my experience, it has been a real challenge to convey how much longer a simple solution takes over a complex one. A truly simple and elegant solution just demands more time and cycles than most people understand. So I’m delighted when you can hear designers talk about their process and the timeline. A simple product demands patience, lots of iterations and hence, additional expenditures.

At the same time, I’ve unfortunately seen small companies and many startups waste thousands of dollars and person hours spinning about the design of the product because they don’t have a clear idea of the core benefit. So in the end, they could have spent the same amount of money but had a very different outcome – a much better product. They need to get better at doing their homework… see attached Seth Godin post.

This is what Jobs understands and why removing the corporate bs is so important. The company politics or personal aesthetics can take down a good idea or product in no time, even in a tiny company. David also talks about “design by consensus” and I think that’s part of any startup. The group is typically so small, that to leave someone out of the design process early on doesn’t emphasize the “team” spirit of the start up. This can be a big mistake. Not everyone is involved in other parts of the processes – I don’t critique code, for instance. I leave that up to people who are experts at that function. But many people want or think that being part of the design decisions is part of their inherited right as an early team member – it’s fun, distracting and everyone has an opinion. My advice for a startup is to be very careful about how the process is handled. As a designer, this is part of my role as well – to design the process by which this can all happen smoothly. In the end you can get a mediocre design by consensus that looks cool to the internal team but does nothing for the potential customer.

A product’s design success also depends on whether you perceive design as merely a decorative skinning of the product once its developed or as an inherent part of the product development process. I get calls all the time from companies who are launching in 8 weeks, the product is in development, and they need a designer to come in to apply some look and feel to it. This is the antithesis of how Jobs works. And it shows. And it impacts the financial success of the product.

I think we designers also need to keep doing a better job at being part of the development teams. I’ve seen many a designer complain about having to attend development meetings – they just want wireframes and then they can do their magic. I think this is partially why developers have taken on some design roles. And I want to say here, I consider developers designers in their own right! Someone has to make choices early on, and if a designer isn’t there, the product gets developed either way. Designers need to get more agile, iterative, and more transparent in what they do. Today’s products demand that of us.

Lastly, I’m including my absolutely favorite post from Seth Godin. I think it sums up so well many points that would help both startups and existing businesses get a little shot of that Apple DNA. Seth’s observations are a good summary about how equally important fostering innovation is vs being an innovator. Steve Jobs does both pretty well. For now, pick one role and do it really well.

[Seth’s post on How to be a great client]

Thank you Kristee!

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