As the world mourned the passing of Steve Jobs last week, I found myself engaged in silent and personal reflection. His death at 56, only 8 years older than me, was a grim reminder of my own mortality. What am I going to do today to make a difference in my own life?
When I entered college in 1981 I used punch cards to submit programs for my intro Statistics class. When I graduated in 1985, I owned a Mac. In four years, a complete transformation of the computing universe. I wrote my Master’s thesis on a “Fat” Mac. The 9” screen on those machines never seemed too small (and today I feel cramped if I can’t write on my 23” monitor).
I was an Apple fanboy well before most of today’s fanboys were in elementary school. I was also determined to work in the computer business one way or another. By the time I was completing my Master’s degree I realized that I did not want to have an academic career (my original) goal, but wanted to go to work in the real world. When I was fortunate enough to be on a research project sponsored by Lotus Corporation (remember 1-2-3?) and got to visit their HQ in Cambridge, I knew which industry was in my future.
The software business 20 years ago was much like the software business today, except without the Internet as a driving force and without the constant scrutiny by the general media and public at large. In 1989 I moved to Silicon Valley and went to work for Ashton-Tate Corp, one of the leading software companies of the era. I was part of the “User Interface” team there and assigned to work on an important project building a spreadsheet for the NeXT platform.
There is a lot of interesting background behind why Ashton-Tate was building a spreadsheet program at all (they were primarily a desktop database company), but that is another post.Since I had experience doing research on spreadsheets already, I was a natural fit for the team. It was a top-notch team as well, with some of the best developers I have ever known, and we were building something very cool. I had a NeXT cube on my desk, which was about as cutting edge as could be then.
Somewhere along the way, my role morphed a little from just doing user interface work to becoming the product manager for the project. I was already establishing myself as more of a marketing/product type rather than a pure UI expert. Fortunately, the stars were aligned for me and in this new role I was now directly involved in our relationship with NeXT. The partner manager at NeXT was an amazing woman named Donna Simonides (who went on to great success at Netscape and beyond) and taught me a lot about partner relations.
The time came to visit NeXT HQ for a briefing. The industry was buzzing with speculation about the follow-up to the NeXT Cube and we were going to get a briefing directly from Steve. All these years later I can still recall how full of excitement and anticipation I was for that meeting.
Steve Jobs was the most charismatic person I have ever met. In the short time in that meeting – was it more than an hour? – he made an impression that lasted a lifetime. The defining moment of that brief encounter was when it was time for an unveiling. Long before we all knew about “and just one more thing” Steve was the master of the reveal.
“Raise your right hand” Steve commanded, “and swear that you will not tell anyone what you see here today”. We were about to see what the industry had been talking about in whispered rumors, the top-secret NeXT “pizza box” and before that we needed to swear an oath. With very little hesitancy, we all raised our right hand and swore an oath to secrecy for Steve. He believed in what he was doing and wanted us to believe as well. He made three grown men swear to keep a secret and we did so gladly. Then he gave us a glorious demo of the new NeXT, color monitor, and the marvelous NeXTStep OS that became the Mac OS we love today.
The news of Steve’s passing appeared first on my mobile phone as a text message from my local radio station. I had never received a text from the radio station that wasn’t about a concert or contest. I audibly gasped when I read it and felt overwhelmed with sadness. Turning on the TV and watching the news brought tears to my eyes.
The “software” business has been good to me. After I left Ashton-Tate I worked for a company called GO that was creating a computer tablet. You carried it around with you like a pad of paper, it could have a wireless phone built in, you installed applications on it for all sorts of productive tasks. It also used a pen and recognized your handwriting. A bit ahead of its time, but a marvelous peek into our present. I spent years working for Oracle and marveling at Larry Ellison and his vision for a connected future. My time at Microsoft coincided with some of the most difficult years that company ever faced (Longhorn, Windows Vista) but I developed deep admiration for what Bill Gates built. Each of these experiences helped me shape my own perspective on what really matters in work and in life.
Any life ended early – in the very prime years for a businessperson and for a man – is a tragedy. We all lost something with Steve’s death last week, a little bit of wonder, magic, and belief that the future can actually be shaped by our vision and ideas. For me, after more than 20 years in this business, I feel a deep sense of loss and the rapid passage of time.
I never saw Steve in person after that day. But, I got to shake his hand and I swore an oath. All these years later I realize that I actually swore a bigger oath that day. It was not really about keeping the pizza box NeXT secret; it was about believing in the magic, the surprise, and the wonder that we can all create if we are willing to set our sights high. I swore an oath to Steve to help participate in creating the future, and I have tried to keep that oath to this day.