Social media is lit up tonight from the warmth of words expressing sympathy, sorrow, and condolences over the death of Steve Jobs. Everyone has their story of how Jobs changed their life – in a chance meeting in the elevator, at a conference, through his insistence on insanely great product design. Steve Jobs indeed changed my life as CEO of Pixar, via Buzz Lightyear,something that I say in almost every “Intro to Hal” talk I’ve given in the last 10 years.
Midway through 1995, Sun Microsystems was riding a wave that wasn’t quite yet attributed to Internet surfing, but had its origins in the tidal forces that made the at sign part of our vernacular. We had introduced a new programming language called Java that May, and during one of our engineering conferences, I sat at rapt attention while our keynote speaker — Steve Jobs — introduced his talk with the trailer for Toy Story. Having learned a small fraction of the interactive computer graphics canon (enough to say “Gouraud shading” with a straight face), I was immediately blown away. The texture mapping, the motion blur, the quality of the rendering — it didn’t seem possible within what was “normal” data center architecture, until Jobs told us how it was done and what part Sun Microsystems had had in the rendering farm that generated the movie, frame by animated frame. The “thank you” poster with Buzz Lightyear and a Sun logo that we received as a party favor at that conference still hangs in my home office. Up to that point, computer animation was an interesting experiment, but it hadn’t entered the mainstream; four months later I was taking my then-four year old daughter to see Toy Story at its Thanksgiving weekend premier, and stayed until the very end to see the sysadmin and server credits.
Toy Story’s release marked the point at which it became socially acceptable to be a nerd. Email, the web, blogging, social media and wireless client devices bled nerd colors onto everyone else, but the summer of 1995 was definitely the tipping point. And Steve Jobs pushed us front and center. Family conversations that opened with “What do you do?” no longer involved companies named Xy-, Mega- or something-ix; they revolved around talking about what computers could do in the social mainstream.
Of course, Steve Jobs took things to the next level of abstraction. After making entertainment a function of computers, he made computing a function of fashion. We love our iPods, iPhones and Macs because of their elegant design; celebrities talk about what kind of phone they use and we follow them on social media sites. We’re all nerds now. We even have our own TV show (and I’m referring to Big Bang Theory, not Eureka or The Guild even though those are equally outstanding answers).
For every comment about Jobs’ style as CEO and engineer, consider this: What if most executive boardrooms, state legislatures, and our Congress functioned with the same ruthless passion? What if a design — for a bill, a strategy, a foreign policy — that was so obviously underwhelming was simply met with “This is stupid” and forced into re-work? What if we worried incessantly about the design and experience of our work product, and let the profits come as a result of a job well done? There are management and leadership lessons beyond those recorded in the Harvard Business Review, but significantly more valuable.
Thanks, Steve, for the impact you’ve had on nerds everywhere. To infinity, and beyond.