A Steve Jobs masterclass (from a decade ago)

A decade ago, Steve Jobs sat down at the D8 conference for an interview with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg. What followed was a masterclass in both company and product management. The whole interview is worth watching, but I thought there were a few segments that stood out.


Any time someone talks about a tech-titan, there’s reflexive blowback from parts of the tech community: “He wasn’t really an engineer”, “He wasn’t really…” – This post will ignore all of that. Even if you strongly dislike him, there are lessons to be learnt here.

Let’s begin…

What matters most:

The interview starts with Kara and Walt congratulating Jobs, because Apple had just bypassed Microsoft in Market Capitalization. Right out of the gate, Jobs makes it clear:

It’s surreal to anyone who knows the history, but:

Jobs: It doesn’t matter very much… it’s not what’s important.. it’s not why any of our customers buy our products.. It’s good for us to keep that in mind, remember what we’re doing and why we doing it.

Even if he is just saying it for the crowds (and I don’t believe he is), he’s making it clear what they are about. He’s making it clear what will be celebrated in the company. It’s not about their market-cap, it’s about making things that their customers love.

On the importance of focus:

Literally the first question (after discussing market-cap) was asking Jobs about their decision to drop Flash, and their “war with Adobe”. His response on Flash alone makes this whole interview worth it. He starts with something subtle:

Jobs: Apple is a company that doesn’t have the most resources of everybody in the world, and the way we’ve succeeded is by choosing what horses to ride really carefully

This is an amazing answer, especially when it follows immediately from the discussion of their market-cap. They were not yet the Trillion Dollar Apple, but they were no slouches. The combination in 2010 of an ascendant Steve Jobs, their market-cap, and the halo around Macs and iPhones was a virtually irresistible magnet for just about any technical staff they wanted. They could have doubled their workforce in an instant and aimed to do everything, but you see a deep, deep understanding from Jobs that just adding people doesn’t mean you can do more great things.

Great products need great people and great focus. Every product manager in the world will voice approval for the Dieter Rams aesthetic and will talk about the importance of saying “no”. Very few people commit to it (and fewer still stand by their guns when people start calling them crazy for it).

It would have been trivial for Apple at that point to hire a team or two to shoehorn a so-so version of Flash onto their devices. (This seemed like an even bigger mistake on the iPad which had just launched). But he is clear and adamant. They are going to make calls they believe are best to shape great products.

On “Courage” (and choosing):

Mossberg pushes with a question many of us had at the time:

Mossberg: What if ppl say the iPad is crippled in this respect?

Jobs: Things are packages of emphasis…

Some things are emphasized in a product, some things are not done as well in a product, somethings are chosen not to be done at all in a product, and so different people make different choices and if the market tells us we making the wrong choices we listen to the market, we’re just people running this company, we trying to make great products for people, and we have at least the courage of our convictions to say we don’t think this is part of what makes a great product, we going to leave it out

We’re going to take the heat, because we want to make the best product in the world for customers.

It’s become something of a running joke when Apple-today talks about “courage”, but it really does take courage to swim against the tide this way. It takes courage to make a choice instead of simply adding a toggle and making the customer choose. It takes courage to look at a feature that lots of people “want” and make the call to exclude it. (This seems obvious and easy to sell, but suffers from the same perverse-incentive problem we see in infosec: excluding something gets you immediate, loud feedback but you seldom, if ever, get feedback that you did this right. It’s why people default to throwing in everything, and it’s why we end up with generic, unremarkable software.)

On putting in the hours:

There was an interesting discussion on the relatively new phenomena of Jobs mailing people. They were discussing a specific event (Steve Jobs to Valleywag at 2:20 AM: “Why are you so bitter?” | VentureBeat), but I think again, it was revealing and insightful.

There’s been a huge push in recent times for balance, wellness and rest. People are quick to point out how burning the midnight oil translates to diminished capacity and actually increases your rate of errors, but I’ve never seen consistently great work from people unless they too, were working deep into the night on projects they believe in. 

It’s super telling that this 55 year old billionaire would be “working on a presentation he was giving” at 02h00 in the morning. It is probably possible to do great things without burning the midnight oil, I’ve just never seen it personally, or been able to do it that way myself.

Why would a CEO need to work that hard anyway?

Dug Song often laments the lack of CEO’s who can demo their own products. Any random 10 minutes of the interview should convince you that Jobs is smart, but it’s worth paying attention to the depth of his understanding on almost every topic raised.

When the topic of Foxconn comes up you see him rattle off details on the foreign factory that you wouldn’t expect him to have at his fingertips:Suicide rates per capita, details of their investigations. He then effortlessly swaps to phone market share splits and technical details on Adobe products. Swap again into mobile-ads and he’s talking about Flurry-Analytics by name and describing his hatred of mobile ads and what’s wrong with them. Swap again and he’s talking browser share and how Open-Sourcing WebKit might make inroads against IE (WebKit powering Chrome went on to overtake IE in (2012)).

I’ve no doubt he had teams of smart people driving teams of smart people, but it’s also clear that he was deeply involved with every aspect that ends up touching a customer. It demands obsession, and it demands time, and I’d hypothesise that one of the main reasons we are able to talk about his depth of involvement, is because we’ve already discussed him “putting in the hours”.

On taking yourself too seriously.

It’s clear that Jobs is focused (and a little tightly wound). Stories abound of terrifying elevator rides with him, but at the quarter-mark of the interview, he gives us a tasty morsel.  Mossberg begins by saying that Jobs spent a good chunk of his career fighting a platform war with Microsoft. Jobs actually doesn’t concede this.

In a moment of self-deprecation/levity he quips “We never saw ourselves as in a platform war with Microsoft and maybe that’s why we lost”. It’s a quick flash of him taking himself less-seriously and it’s disarming.

Of course he immediately gets back onto his core message:

Jobs:We always thought about how can we build a much more better product than them, and I think that’s still how we think about it

Nobody can listen to this and have doubts as to what’s their North Star.

On the Consumer market vs The Enterprise market:

In 2008 (two years earlier), Google launched its Android phone and started competing with Apple on mobile. Swisher asked if Apple planned to remove Google apps from the iPhone? 

The Jobs answer is almost predictably monotonous:

Jobs: No… we want to build a better product than they do, and we do…

That’s what we are about

He goes further though, and opens up an interesting topic: the difference between making/selling products in the consumer and enterprise spaces:

Jobs: We are about making better products, and what I love about the consumer market that I always hated about the enterprise market, is that: we come up with a product, we try to tell everybody about it and every person votes for themselves. They go yes or no, and if enough of them say yes, we get to come to work tomorrow. You know that’s how it works. It’s really simple.

Whereas with the enterprise market, it’s not so simple, the people that use the products don’t decide for themselves, the people that make those decisions sometimes are confused.

We love just trying to make the best products in the world for ppl and having them tell us by how they vote with their wallets whether we’re on track or not.

This was always a horrible trend and it’s why organizations have suffered for so long with horrible enterprise software.

Ten years later, we know this is changing, and it’s devices like the iPhone and iPad proliferating into the enterprise that spurred this change. At Thinkst Canary, we are huge beneficiaries of it. We build a cyber security product that’s used by some of the biggest names on the internet, but our look and feel is as “consumer” as it gets.

When a16z’s Martin Casado spoke about the latest trends in good guys favour in Cyber Security last year, he touched on our Canaries, and pointed out that while we are used by some of the best names in the valley, we are simple enough for him to install us at home.

Casado: Every sophisticated logo that you know use these. They have over 700 customers and yet they are simple enough for you and I to buy over the web and install. So it just goes to show you to what level sophisticated security is being consumerized (and you should know about it)

We think Jobs called it absolutely right in 2010, and are pretty convinced that those ugly enterprise-walls are crumbling… 

On putting things back on the shelf:

One of the highlights of the interview (for me) was Jobs’ discussion on what came first: the iPhone or the iPad?. Until this point, it was always assumed that Apple built the iPhone, saw success, and then said: “let’s make another one, but bigger”.

The truth holds more lessons for us:

Mossberg: Did you consider doing a tablet when you did the iPhone?

Jobs: I’ll actually tell you kind of a secret, I actually started on the tablet first.

I had this idea of getting rid of the keyboard and  type on a multitouch glass display…and I asked our folks could we come up with a multitouch display that we could type on that I could rest my hands on and about 6 months later they called me in and showed me this prototype display and it was amazing and.. I gave it to one of our brilliant UI folks and he called me back a few weeks later and he had inertial scrolling working and a few other things. Now we were thinking of building a phone at that time and when I saw that rubber band inertial scrolling and a few of the other things, I said “my god.. we can build a phone out of this”. I put the tablet project on the shelf because the phone was more important and we took the next several years and did the iPhone.and when we got our wind back, and thought we could take on something next, we took the tablet off the shelf, took everything we learned from the phone, and went back to work on the tablet.


The first thing worth noting is that they didn’t rush out a tablet as soon as they could. They knew there was a need, but they were doing the work to figure out if they could fill that need. 

Microsoft fans will often point out how they had a Windows tablet before an iPad, and a Windows smartphone before an iPhone, but both will have to admit that those devices took the PC, and attempted to shrink it down to smaller form factors. So you could totally run MS Excel on your Windows phone, if you could use a stylus to give you the pin-point accuracy of your mouse pointer…

This is not an argument against launching early and iterating, but it does remind us that like all aphorisms, it misses some nuance. Apple wants a tablet, they see its promise, but they believe there’s a few problems that need solving before their MVP is V enough.

We also see Apple sticking to their guns. It’s easy to say “we say ‘no’ to things” when you are striking off a bunch of mediocre ideas. Saying  no to the tablet you really want to build (to focus on the Phone you think you can build now), is where you see this choice play out for real. (That I’m writing this on an iPad while many of you are reading it on an iPhone is the next order effect of making those choices).

On gratitude:

We have a pretty great record as a young software company. Our NPS scores are consistently north of 70 and we have a page on our website dedicated to unsolicited feedback from customers who talk about loving Canary. A fair bit of that feedback notes that people have loved interacting with other parts of our business: Support; Admin; even billing! 

We used to find it odd, that people found it odd! 

To us, it seems like the most natural way for this to be. We know that there’s a zillion products in the marketplace, but someone chose us. We know that on an Internet filled with people saying stuff, our customers have listened to our voice. Every single person in the company is aware of this, and is deeply grateful to our customers for it.

The customer has choices, and the customer chose us. Seen through this lens, gratitude seems like the obvious response but it disappears when customers are seen as just a prop to help you “make the quarter”.

Jobs makes it clear, that this doesn’t have to dull as your market-cap grows:

Jobs: I have one of the best jobs in the world I’m incredibly lucky I thank all of our customers and employees for letting me do what I do, I get to come in and work every morning and I get to hang around some of the most wonderful, brightest committed people I’ve ever met in my life and together we get to play in the best sandbox I’ve ever seen and try to build great products for people.

Market-share, and profit totally matter because they let us go on doing what we love. They are a tangible feedback of customers liking what we are building and can be a proxy for customer happiness, but it’s super important for us to make sure we don’t fall foul of Goodhart’s law, making the measure our actual target instead.

On Humility and Hubris:

Jobs was often pilloried for telling people they were wrong. Just months earlier Apple went through Antenna-Gate where it was discovered that their new iPhone dropped calls when gripped a certain way. He famously quipped that people didn’t know what they wanted till you showed it to them. But several times during the interview he makes it clear that this doesn’t translate to ignoring your users forever: You do your homework, you make your choices, and then you pay attention to see how your users respond.

For a person with so many phenomenal products under his belt, he also doesn’t assume they are infallible. A few times during the talk he makes it clear, “we are just humans trying our best to do what we think people will love”. Someone uses the Q&A session to remind him that sharing content between devices was still painful. He’s quick to point out:

Jobs: we need to work harder on that. We need to do better. We’re working on it.

Product design (and running a company) bring Jim Collins’ “the Genius of the AND” to the fore as much as anything. You need the courage to make choices, AND you need to be able to listen to customers and use their feedback. It’s just the nature of the beast.

On pragmatism and “seeing the whole product”:

In one of his great twitter threads on the difference between Good Product Managers and Great Product managers, @Shreyas Doshi says:

Good PMs are detail-obsessed, making sure that the product meets the desired quality bar for launch. Great PMs pay this degree of attention to the entire customer experience: they know that the docs, the API, blog post, website, support emails, etc. are also “the product”.— Shreyas Doshi (@shreyas) April 11, 2020

A clear Apple/Jobs fan implores him to save TV. “You did it with the iPhone, now save TV”. Jobs gives an answer that encapsulates so many of the thoughts discussed earlier.

Jobs: The problem with the television market, the problem with innovation in the television industry is the go-to-market strategy. The TV industry fundamentally has a subsidized business model that gives everybody a set top box for free, or for $10 a month and that pretty much squashes any opportunity for innovation because nobody’s willing to buy a set top box. Ask Tivo, ReplayTV, Roku, ask Vudu, ask Google in a few months.

Sony’s tried as well, Panasonic’s tried, lots of people have tried, they all failed.

So all you can do, … is go back to square 1, redesign the set top box, with a consistent UI, across all these different functions, and get that to the consumer in a way that they are willing to pay for it.

And right now there’s no way to do that. So that’s the problem with the TV market. 

We decided what product do we want the most, better TV or a better phone? Well the phone won out, but there was no chance to do a better TV because there was no way to get it to market.

What do we want more, a tablet or a better TV? Well probably a tablet, but it doesn’t matter because if we wanted a better TV, there’s no way to get it to market.

The TV is going to lose until there’s a better, until there is a viable go-to-market strategy. Otherwise you just making another TiVo. That’s the fundamental problem. It’s not a problem of technology, it’s not a problem of vision, it’s a fundamental go-to-market problem.

Question: In the phone area u were able to recreate that go-to-market strategy by working with the carrier, so does it make sense to partner with the cable operator.

Jobs: Well then you run into another problem, there isn’t a cable operator that’s national. There’s a bunch of cable operators and then there’s not a GSM standard where you build a phone in the US and it works in all these other countries, no, every single country has different standards and different government approvals . It’s very […] Balkanized, but when we say AppleTV is a hobby, that’s why we use that phrase.

The market place is filled with products that were built because they technically could be. Notice that he isn’t just talking about building a good product, he’s considering how they will stock it, how they will distribute it. They know it’s an area that has some promise (which is why they maintain their Apple-TV hobby) but he has no delusions that because they are Apple they can make a channel where one does not yet exist. (You see this in sharp relief when he shares a stage with Bill Gates and is asked questions on the future of computing. While Gates happily talks of 3d VR interfaces, Jobs is more grounded, considering what people are used to and how they will operate it).

In “The Innovation Stack”, Square’s co-founder Jim McKelvey talks about how he struggled to find mentors till he realised that he didn’t need to confine himself to people he could call on the phone.

Jobs produced a string of hits across a raft of products and managed to generate such maniacal love that his top customers almost define the term “fan-boys”. If we want to build great products, it would be smart to take a closer look at how he did it.

Ben Horowitz often starts his posts with a choice phrase from a contemporary hip-hop song. I’m going to go the other way, ending with with a line from Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler”.

“And somewhere in the darkness

The gambler he broke even

But in his final words

I found an ace that I could keep”

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