The ‘Hidden Opportunities’ Behind Steve Jobs’ Success Story -The Key Factors
Many have written numerable reasons for Steve Jobs’ success — He was innovative, a born genius, naturally talented. He was a special kid or a smart kid from his childhood. He had visionary superpowers. He was curious from his childhood. He had a gift for attention to details and aesthetics. He was passionate and loved his work. An inborn leader. Is there something we are missing? Let’s see in detail.
SELF-RELIANT AND INDEPENDENT
“Lightning bolts went off my head. I remember running into the house crying when she uttered that my real parents didn’t want me. I might be six or seven years old that time” — Steve jobs recalled the incident vividly when a girl lived across the street taunted him about his adoption. Steve’s parents responded with a serious face, looking straight into six-year-old Steve’s eyes “You are special. We SPECIFICALLY PICKED YOU OUT”. They repeated it slowly again, emphasising on every word. Steve’s parents planted the thought that he was a special and chosen kid.
Del Yocam, Jobs’ longtime colleague “I think his desire for complete control of whatever he makes derives directly from his personality and the fact that he was abandoned at birth”. This thought made jobs independent at a younger age.
“Knowing I was adopted made me feel more independent. I’ve always felt special. My parents made me feel special” — Steve Jobs.
A child who feels independent would develop a belief that they could compete at any level and could care for themselves. Being independent at an earlier age makes them intrinsically motivated and helps them to be a good decision maker, as they would like to make their own decisions. Paul Jobs encourage Steve to make his own decisions.
What would have happened if Steve was not aware of the adoption and his parents were not open about it? or Steve was not adopted by Paul Jobs?
PARENTAL CARE AND PATRONAGE
Igniting Curiosity — “Steve, this is your workbench now”, Paul Jobs said as he marked off a section of the table in their garage. Whenever Paul Jobs worked on something, he always provided a space nearby for Steve to explore, imagine and improve on his ideas. As a child, Steve had spent a considerable amount of time in his father’s garage.
While working, Paul Jobs would explain what he was doing and why he was doing. He would show him how he would do the job and what Steve could learn. He provided knowledge and nurtured Steve’s curiosity from the childhood.
“My parents found ways to keep feeding me stuff and putting me in better schools. I was considered special. Parents thought I am very smart” — Steve Jobs.
Parental Support — Steve’s mother taught him to read before going to school. Father taught him to be curious. In school Steve encountered boredom. He became uncomfortable with the new kind of authority. He was getting naughtier. He became a prankster. When they complained to his father, he told them politely “If you can’t keep him interested, it’s your fault”.
“My father was of the opinion that the school was at fault for trying to make me memorise stupid stuff rather than stimulating him. He was very supportive of me” — Steve Jobs.
Patronage, Mentoring — Once, Steve Jobs came close to being kicked out of the school. Fortunately, a teacher by name Mrs.Hill took him into her class(4th grade). After watching Steve for two weeks, she made a deal with him. She would give $5 and a candy to Steve if he could finish his math workbook in his home. Steve thought she was crazy. But he was pleasantly surprised when he finished the work. He never knew that he could accomplish the task. Mrs.Hill successfully made Steve back to love learning by bribing with money and candies. She reignited the desire to learn. She used to get kits for making cameras and encouraged Steve to make his own lenses. Steve felt that he had learned a lot in that one year.
Importance Of Teacher’s in One’s Life — “I would have ended up in jail during school if not for two or three teachers. When you are young, you are vulnerable. There is a tendency to try unnecessary things. A little bit of course correction goes a long way in changing our lives for the greater good. A teacher is a most important person in your life. We spend more time in our school than in our home. A good teacher increases your curiosity, guides your curiosity, feeds your curiosity. A teacher is a proactive guide, not a reactive assistant” — Steve Jobs.
Steve was lucky to have that kind of teachers in his most vulnerable childhood time.
What would have happened if Paul Jobs did not involve Steve while working? If Mrs.Hills did not see Steve jobs accidentally?
SENSE OF DESIGN, DETAILING, AESTHETICS
Good Design Is Aesthetic — Steve’s father reminded him to craft the backs of cabinets and fences properly, even though they were hidden. Anybody wondered why Steve is so perfectionist in caring about the look of the parts you wouldn’t see.
Being a car mechanic, Steve’s father would point out the detailing of the car design — the lines, the vents, the grill, the chrome finish, the seat trim. Ever wondered why Steve stressed on Product Aesthetics?
“I thought my dad’s sense of design is pretty good. He knew how to build anything. If he needed a cabinet, he would build. Need a fence, he would build and would give me a hammer so I could work with him” -Jobs was impressed by his father’s craftsmanship.
Good Design is Simple, Unobtrusive and Clean — Jobs’ house and the others in their neighbourhood in Mountainview were designed by Joseph Eichler who took design inspiration from the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The houses built by Eichler were inexpensive, smart, affordable and featured radiant lighting, floor-to-ceiling glass walls, open floor plans, exposed post-and-beam construction, concrete slab floors, and lots of sliding doors. Steve Jobs had a deep appreciation for Eichler for bringing a clean design and making it affordable for lower-income people. Eichler’s motto was ‘Everybody needs a better house’. Could this prompted Steve Jobs to make nicely designed products for the mass market?
Good Design Involves Little Design As Possible — Later Paul Jobs worked for Spectra-Physics, a company that made lasers for electronics and medical products. He crafted prototypes for the products designed by the engineers. He would stress on perfection, precise alignment. Most of the products were made up of single piece metal(Is this the reason why we have unibody design in Apple products?). Steve used to watch him doing those precision components in his garage workshop.
FACTORS THAT FIRED INTEREST IN ELECTRONICS AND BUSINESS
The Spark — Paul Jobs was a Car Mechanic. He gave the first exposure of electronics to Steve Jobs. “He showed me rudiments of electronics in Car. I got very interested in that. Even more interesting were the trips to scavenge the parts from a local junkyard” — Steve Jobs.
“My father was a good bargainer. Because he knew better than the guys at the counter of the store. He knew the exact cost of the part” — Steve Jobs. Steve later in his life as Apple CEO stressed on knowing in detail of how much it would cost to manufacture a product as this would help him to have better control in design, production and assembly.
The Environment — At age Five, Steve’s father got transferred to Mountain View — the heart of silicon valley revolution. The people there inhaled and exhaled electronics. The place is a hotbed of startups and innovation. A lot of electronic engineers, electronics firms, microchip manufacturers, video game designers and computer companies were located there. It was a wonderful place to grow up. NASA Ames Research Centre was not far from where Jobs lived. Steve saw his first independent computer at this Ames research centre at the age of 10–11. It was a time-sharing terminal. Steve was captivated by this machine.
“I was inspired by those entrepreneurs. I wanted to be part of the system. Most of were neighbours worked on photovoltaics or battery or radar. I kept asking and learning about those things” — Steve Jobs
The Fuel — In Mountainview, Steve had one of the most important neighbours, Larry Lange who lived seven houses away. He was a hardcore electronics guy working as a ham radio operator in HP company. He displayed many electronic components outside his home to entice kids staying nearby. Larry taught Steve a lot about electronics with exploration and experience. He taught him how to how to use Heath electronic kits to build different products like Ham Radio and other electronic gear. He also taught him how to build electronic kits. Steve realised that he could build any product and it was no more mystery. It gave him tremendous self-confidence.
“The kits made you realise that you could understand anything and build anything” — Steve Jobs.
The HP Experience — Larry Lange helped Steve Jobs become a member of the HP explorers club, a group of students and HP’s research engineers met in the HP company cafeteria and discuss the latest electronic development and current projects. It was a highly informative session for Jobs.
The club members encouraged kids in the club to do electronic projects and they mentored them. Steve, though still a 12-year-old kid was encouraged to build a frequency counter. While working on this project, Steve called CEO of HP to get some spare parts and spoke for 15 minutes. HP took him as an intern in the next summer. Steve Jobs learnt many things while working at HP in such a young age. He easily made friends with R&D electronic engineers. He saw how a big company works, how HP treated employees and how HP recognised the value of the employees. A precious lesson which helped him in the later part of his life.
Even after completion of the internship, Steve used to visit HP research centre, meet those R&D employees. There, he saw his first self-contained 9100A computer unit. He fell in love with the product. He spent hours there in writing programmes for that machine. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Store Clerk — In the next summer, Steve Jobs got a job of ‘stock clerk’ in a ‘used electronics’ part supplier store, Haltek. This experience further developed the knowledge of electronic parts. He also learnt the art of negotiating and the art of turning a profit at this store. He would go an electronic flea market, search used circuit board and other parts, valuable chips and then would sell those to his manager at Haltek.
Steve Jobs met Wozniak in an electronics class taught by John McCollum and became friends. Stephen Wozniak was almost five years older than jobs. He was matured and had more years of experience and knowledge in electronics than Jobs.
Like jobs, Wozniak learned a lot from his father.(Francis Wozniak, a brilliant electronic engineer, was working as a rocket scientist at Lockheed, located in Silicon Valley). By 4th grade, Wozniak was one of ‘specially talented electronic whiz kids’. Wozniak spent hours reading his father’s electronic journals.
Francis Wozniak gave Wozniak exposure to computers at an early age. He encouraged him to build products using sophisticated, modern electronic components of that time.
Wozniak’s hobby was to redesign the computer using the newly available chipset and would challenge himself to reduce the components every day. Friendship with Wozniak played a critical role in Steve’s life as he met a guy who was better than him in electronics.
THE STORY OF BLUE BOX
One day, Wozniak accidentally came across an article “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” which mentioned how hackers had found ways to make long distance calls for free and also had a reference for a technical journal which could help in building a blue box.
“After getting hold of the journal, I got together the necessary electronic components, casing, power supply, keypads and figured out how we could price it. The product worked wonderfully. We were elated. The parts cost $40 and we sold it for $150”. -Steve Jobs. Being in a silicon valley, it was easy to source everything including the technical journal.
“If it hadn’t been for the Blue Boxes, there would not have been No Apple”-Jobs reflected.
“There are other advantages too. The important thing is that Woz and I learned to work together, gained confidence that we could solve technical problems, and actually, we can put something into production. It established a template for a partnership. We sold 100 or so blue boxes. It gave us confidence that we could control billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure” — Steve Jobs.
In 1975, Steve Jobs was working at Atari. In the evenings, Wozniak would come, hang around and play games. Atari’s founder Nolan Bushnell was aware of this. He considered that Woz was a better electronics engineer than Steve Jobs and other guys in his office. He gave the challenge of reducing the chips in his game console circuitry board knowing that Steve would take the help of Wozniak. He offered a bonus for every reduction of chips. The target was less than 50 chips and Wozniak finished the work with 45 chips.
Steve Jobs was smitten by the simplicity and user-friendliness of Atari’s games which later helped him in the Apple products. He also learnt business lessons from Atari’s founder Nolan Bushnell.
WHOLE EARTH CATALOGUE
In the 1960’s people were sceptic about computers. A kind of Orwellian fear of coming under centralised control. They were worried they would be a slave to the capital world and their lives would be destroyed. But in the 1970s, people’s mindset began to change — They saw computers as a symbol of individual expression and liberation. One person who encouraged this kind of transformation is Stewart Brand. Brand exemplified the intersection of the counter-culture and the technological knowledge that built Silicon Valley.
Stewart believed that a technology should power an individual to learn on his own, find his own inspiration, help him to shape his own environment, provoke him to experiment, experience and encourage him to share with others. To help with this, Stewart Brand introduced the magazine “Whole Earth Catalogue” which is a collection of useful tools and information.
The information inside the catalogue was crowdsourced, contributed by readers, hackers, programmers. It could be said that WEC was for the people and by the people. The catalogue was more like a network where people would help each other with information, techniques so that each other’s life could be improved.
This catalogue inspired many programmers, computer scientists, electronic engineers. Steve Jobs was a fan of Whole Earth Catalogue. The final issue of the magazine came in 1971. The last page read “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”.
“The Whole Earth Catalog … was one of the bibles of my generation … it was a sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions” — Steve Jobs.
THE HOMEBREW COMPUTER CLUB
The Homebrew Computer Club was an informal group of electronic enthusiasts and technically minded hobbyists, who met once a week in Silicon Valley from March 5, 1975. The members gathered to trade parts, circuits, and information pertaining to the DIY construction of various electronic products, particularly personal computer. This was a place where ideas exchanged and disseminated. People building new computers would visit and exchange ideas.
The Homebrew Computer Club was one of the most influential forces in the formation of the culture of Silicon Valley.
The founders of the club encouraged its members to share information with each other so that they could make computers more accessible to everyone. The club helped its members build the original kit computers, like the Altair. The theme of the club was “Give help to others”. (The Whole Earth Catalogue influenced the formation of this club).
Apple 1 — In 1975, Altair launched its first affordable, independent personal computer kit. The club bought the kit, gave a demo and let the members access, use and programme it.
Wozniak’s friend Allen Baum heard about the club and took him. Wozniak got blown away by the club in his first night’s attendance. Jobs soon became a fan of the club.
“That night turned out to be one of the most important nights of my life” -Wozniak.
When Altair was brought to the club, Wozniak saw the spec sheet and a chip that had an entire CPU on it. An idea flashed like a lightning — He had been designing a time-sharing terminal that would connect to a distant minicomputer. He envisioned that using the microprocessor, he could make the terminal itself as a mini stand-alone computer by integrating keyboard, screen. The whole vision of Apple-1 popped into his head. The club inspired Wozniak to design the Apple.
Byte Shop — When Wozniak and Steve Jobs built the computer, they sold fifty of those units to ‘Byte Shop’ — Their first major customer, who was responsible for the launch of Apple Inc. The founder of ‘Byte Shop’ Paul Terrell was a member of The Homebrew Computer Club.
THE LAUNCH OF ALTAIR 8800
The launch of Do-it-yourself kit Altair 8800, world’s first minicomputer kit, in 1975 completely transformed the personal computer industry. The Altair was priced $397. It was launched at a time when there was already a sizable customer base who knew about computers and wanted to have a powerful one at hand but could not afford. Computers till 1975 were massive expensive mainframes. Altair 8800 realised the dream of small, affordable computer which an ordinary person could own, use and explore. (Altair was powerful and affordable because Intel introduced the cost-effective 8080 CPU in April of 1974).
Altair helped computer enthusiasts spend hours in programming and hone their skills.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” wrote — By 1975, if you are too old, you would be working in some reputed company like IBM.. you might not take the risk of leaving the job, starting a new business and moving to a new, unfamiliar world. By 1975, if you were a few years out of college, you had just bought a house, recently married. Then you would be in no position to give up a job and try Altair. By 1975, If you were too young, in high school, then you cannot afford Altair. So, you could rule out people who were born before 1952 and after 1958. If you were born between 1952–58, you would be old enough to utilise the opportunity provided by Altair and become part of the computer revolution. Steve Jobs was born on February 24, 1955.
Sometimes society rates a person’s success to his or her’s individual qualities, talent, lifestyle, brilliance etc.. but in reality, extraordinary opportunities which are hidden, play a critical role. Society, culture, people around him, parents, teachers influence the success and shapes the world-view perception of the individual. Sometimes where and when we grew up makes a massive impact in an individual’s life.
Malcolm Gladwell writes “Success is the result of “Accumulative Advantage”.
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References: “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Jobs’ by Joshua Michael Stern, Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview by Paul Sen, The Steve Jobs Interview 1995 Abridged copyrighted by Computerworld Information Technology Awards Foundation Inc., Dieter Ram’s Ten Design Commandments and the major content is from ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson.