Steve Jobs’ reaction to this insult shows why he was such a great CEO
It’s 1997, and Steve Jobs has just returned to the company he was fired from 12 years before.
On stage at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference, Jobs was holding a rare Q&A with developers when one audience member stood up and lobbed an insult at Jobs.
“Mr. Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man,” he starts out with a flat tone. The audience laughs in the pause.
“Here it comes,” Job responds with a smile.
“It’s sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed, you don’t know what you’re talking about. [Audience laughter]. I would like, for example, for you to express in clear terms how, say, Java and any of its incarnations addresses the ideas embodied in OpenDoc. And when you’re finished with that, perhaps you can tell us what you personally have been doing for the last seven years,” he says.
At that point, the audience fell quiet and someone is heard saying “Ouch.” (Jobs had spent the last seven years not at Apple.)
“Mistakes will be made”
Jobs’ response in the five minutes that follows is a masterclass in how to gracefully turn an insult into an impromptu speech on vision.
First, Jobs politely responds.
“You know, you can please some of the people some of the time, but….,” Jobs paused. “One of the hardest things when you’re trying to effect change is that people like this gentleman are right in some areas.”
He acknowledges that there are things OpenDoc does that he’s not even familiar with, but that doesn’t stop him in planning Apple’s future.
“The hardest thing is: how does that fit in to a cohesive, larger vision, that’s going to allow you to sell 8 billion dollars, 10 billion dollars of product a year? And, one of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology”. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I got the scar tissue to prove it. And I know that it’s the case,” Jobs said.
“And as we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?’ Not starting with ‘Let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and then how are we going to market that?’ And I think that’s the right path to take,” Jobs continued.
He apologizes for killing off some of the software, but passionately stands by his employees who were working hard to get Apple back to the place where he could hold up a box and people would go “Whoa! Yes!” and want it. (Think about what Apple events are like today…)
“Mistakes will be made, some people will be pissed off, some people will not know what they’re talking about, but I think it’s so much better than where things were not very long ago. And I think we’re going to get there,” Jobs concludes.