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STEVE JOBS SKATED AGAINST THE FLOW

I went for a skate on Kelowna’s downtown, outdoor rink this weekend, enjoying a sunny, mild winter day in the Okanagan.  As I lapped the ice, two things became stuck in my mind.

The first was that there always seems to be a guy on the rink who insists on skating in the wrong direction, against the flow of skaters.  He will tend to be a confident skater, weaving in and out of the oncoming traffic, oblivious – or perhaps just insensitive – to the concern he causes to everyone else on the rink (Mr. Black Toque, you know who you are!).

The second thing on my mind was the subject of this column, Steve Jobs.  The late Mr. Jobs was in the news this week as F.B.I. files were released in which he was described unflatteringly as having (among other things) the tendency to “twist the truth and distort reality in order to achieve his goals”.

Having just finished Walter Isaacson’s excellent book, “Steve Jobs” (which echoes the F.B.I. reports), I have a sense that Jobs could be described as an against-the-flow skater.  “Steve Jobs” is a fantastic read and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the story of Apple and of how computers have changed, and changed the world, in the last 30 years.

One lasting impression of Jobs from Isaacson’s book is of a user interface genius who lacked many social interaction skills himself.  No small irony, there.

We have a tendency to deify public figures who meet an early demise without really knowing much about who they were or what made them tick.  The examples of this phenomenon are many – perhaps the late Jack Layton is the most recent instance here in Canada.

Jobs was a man who carefully, and effectively, sculpted his public image.  The impression many of us are left with was likely more a product of his tendency to distort reality than of reality itself.

If Isaacson’s book is accurate – and there seems to be an overwhelming amount of first-hand evidence that it is – Jobs was a mercilessly demanding boss who loudly and harshly criticized the work of Apple’s employees.  There was no middle ground for Jobs, and his style was more akin to that of a dictator than of a diplomat.

He also seemed to have a constant need for an enemy against whom his Apple troops were charged with defending the interests of the computing world.  Whether it was IBM or Microsoft and his longtime adversary, Bill Gates, or a number of other lesser players, readers of “Steve Jobs” can’t help but form the impression that he was lost without some real or imagined invader to fend off.

Jobs displayed many unconventional business habits.  One that stuck with me was his tendency – when his decisions or his power were challenged – to break down crying during high-level business meetings.  This is recounted so many times during Isaacson’s narrative that one is left wondering whether the tears were real or feigned.

Jobs’ ideas about computers were, of course, also highly unconventional.  From the beginning, he sought to control all aspects – hardware and software – of the user’s experience.

He fought against allowing Apple’s software to become an open platform accessible by independent programmers (as Microsoft had encouraged).  He also went out of his way to ensure that Apple’s hardware was inaccessible and thus not amenable to modification or enhancement by tinkerers.

It’s easy, now that Apple has become one of the richest companies in the world, to fall into the pattern of thinking that Jobs hit one home run after another from the outset.  However, until his return to Apple and the development of smash-hit products such as the iPod and iPhone, many of his efforts (including the famed MacIntosh) amounted to little more than industry oddities.

That’s not to say that those products didn’t advance the technology.  Arguably, the greatest innovation Apple popularized (but, notably, didn’t invent) was the point and click graphical interface which it acquired from Xerox – and which debuted on the MacIntosh.  This has since become the standard for all personal computer user interfaces.

Apple’s greatest successes – the iPod, iPhone, and now the iPad and iCloud technology among them – don’t change the fact that Jobs himself was not the person many of us imagined him to be.  And despite his immense wealth, he probably also was a person many of us wouldn’t want to have been.

The strongest impression I came away from reading “Steve Jobs” with was how hard it must have been to be him.  Fighting his battles every day against real and imagined enemies (both internal and external to Apple), driving staff to exhaustion, bucking the computer industry’s prevailing tendencies, Jobs skated against the flow of traffic the whole way.

My sense is that he was a one-of-a-kind, “the end justifies the means” business leader.  Management schools won’t likely be able to produce Steve Jobs clones and that might be a good thing.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit www.smithsonlaw.ca.  This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.