XVIII.6 November + December 2011
Page: 6
Digital Citation

The magic of working with Steve Jobs

Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson, Peter Hoddie, Tim Wasko

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We miss Steve Jobs. We worked with him and learned a lot from him. We won't just miss seeing him on the world stage, we'll miss the human being who looked us in the eye and challenged us to do better.

Working with Steve changed little since he returned to Apple in the late 1990s. You would sit at a table together and show your work—and present options. And expect questions. In the early days, Steve couldn't use a Mac; he would reach for the mouse to do something and it wouldn't work. He was stuck in the world of NeXT, the company he founded after his first stint at Apple. On top of that, using computers for design reviews got in the way: Projectors and computers were slow, the visuals weren't high fidelity, and we couldn't move quickly between images, see lots of them at the same time, or quickly bring up an image from two weeks ago. Instead we generally used printouts, which allowed us to markup images, collect them, and sort them, particularly into "good" and "not good" piles. Occasionally we built demos so Steve could experiment with some visual quality he found interesting.

Team success was based critically on competence. And our particular team had an effective combination of competencies: all-things UI, the ability to make Photoshop do anything and do it fast, and a deep understanding of the product and technology. Those things had to be in balance, and present in all phases of the design, to get to something meaningful, beautiful, and useful.

Steve usually arrived a few minutes late and sat close. The work environment was generally respectful. There was no attitude of "I'm running this show, do this thing even if you don't think it makes sense," although that was never in doubt. No one needed to be reminded who made decisions. Anyone present was there because they were competent. Asking questions with merit helped move the conversation forward, but arguing from ego, challenging him, or repeating yourself (he didn't not hear you, he didn't agree with you!) could easily earn the "not pleased" look.

When something went into the "not good" pile we needed to know why. Sometimes, he just didn't like the way something looked. If we couldn't get it right, he'd simply ask for it to be removed. He was clearly in charge, but he would often lean in close, cock up one eyebrow, and say "What do you think?"—and expect a discussion among peers. Each of us made our contribution, because it was also true that if you didn't, you weren't coming back. He pretty much ignored the management folks and these meetings excluded huge portions of the management chain most of the time. That couldn't happen at most companies.

Steve was not only aware of the smallest details; he also freely changed his mind. One meeting he was obsessed with symmetry in a design. It wasn't balanced. So we embraced that. The next meeting Steve's preferences trended asymmetrically again. Change your mind. Change it back. There doesn't need to be a reason. Making challenging remarks on the change in direction earned the "not pleased" look. You just had to accept it and move forward. Continuous refinements made the design better and better and sometimes reset it completely.

There was no uncertainty when we finally got to a design Steve was happy with: He carried a printout of it around in his notebook for the following week showing people. While we can't say that the initial public reaction to QuickTime Player was a smashing success (to the contrary, legions were horrified) its influence ran deep in what followed. Steve liked it and it didn't matter that the world didn't get it yet.

The magic of working with Steve was not in the process—anyone could attempt to do the same and, to be honest, your mileage may vary. What was so unique about working with him was the complete commitment to a brilliant result. It takes time. And progress does not proceed in a straight line. Good ideas can come from anywhere and selecting the right ones to pursue is tricky. To work successfully with Steve, you not only had to leave your ego at the door, you had to believe in the collective commitment to get it right—and that could mean different things at different times.

A self-styled UI consultant could apply this process to another team in another context and it wouldn't work. The commitment to the work without regard to ego centered our design work at Apple. It was easy for Steve to be egoless. He created the computer industry, and reshaped it a few times, far exceeding the once-in-a-lifetime accomplishments most of us hope to achieve. He had nothing to prove. He let us into that world, giving us the chance to show we belonged to the Change Makers, and that's what pushed us to do more than we would on an ordinary day. Working with Steve was exciting and rewarding. He stretched us and challenged us and expected a lot from us. He changed the world, and we helped him do it.

To everyone at Apple today: Keep the faith.

For more on working with Steve, see by Tim Wasko.

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Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson, Peter Hoddie, and Tim Wasko worked with Steve Jobs on the QuickTime Player project during 1998–1999. Dykstra-Erickson is currently Director of Advanced UX Design at Nokia, Hoddie is VP of the Kinoma Software Platform at Marvell, and Wasko is on hiatus after a 15-year career with NeXT and Apple.

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©2011 ACM  1072-5220/11/11  $10.00

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