“We are Forerunners. Guardians of all that exists. The roots of the Galaxy have grown deep under our careful tending. Where there is life, the wisdom of our countless generations has saturated the soil. Our strength is a luminous sun, towards which all intelligence blossoms… And the impervious shelter, beneath which it has prospered.”

Assholes get things done

by | Sep 18, 2019 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

I ran across this very special and very interesting “lost interview” of Steve Jobs, dating back to the mid 90s, which has to be watched in its entirety to be believed:

This is especially germane given that the iPhone 11 was recently released. If ever there was a product that showed just how far downhill Apple has gone since the days when Steve Jobs ran the company, that would be it.

It isn’t that hard to figure out what Mr. Jobs would say if he were around today to watch Tim Cook and the pointy-headed management types that run Apple these days are doing. He would tear several large chunks out of those assholes.

Make no mistake, Steve Jobs was not a nice man. He never intended to be one. He was a roaring asshole himself and had no compunctions about telling people exactly what he thought of them. He respected talent and achievement, which is why in that interview he talks at length and quite earnestly about the importance of respecting the product designers and giving them a real place at the table, of equal value with the sales and marketing types.

I personally have a thorough dislike for Apple and its products. I detest their “walled garden” approach to things, which requires me to submit to their vision of how I can use my own hardware and software. I am very much an open-source guy, which means that I like to be able to take whatever software I am given and use it the way I want to, and add to it and mess around with it and reconfigure it. (I don’t claim to be very good at this – I’ve been using Linux for over 10 years now and have never written any source code for anything that I’ve used – but I do know my way around a Linux box and I appreciate the freedom and flexibility that comes with it.)

But, I respect Steve Jobs for his visionary approach to designing great products.

He had a very simple philosophy: products should be designed to be simple, functional, and beautiful, in that order. And that is exactly what happened with the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone. Each product was simple, well-designed, aesthetically pleasing, and simply worked. You didn’t have to sit there worrying about how to download device drivers and setup security policies and install software by clicking through a bunch of wizards.

Apple’s software and hardware simply worked in one package, and you didn’t have to sit there tearing your hair out wondering which motherboard went well with what processor and how to overclock your GPU and how to stuff more RAM into things – it was all built up for you.

The PC guys could mock and scoff at the fact that Apple machines were basically built for idiots – which, not to put too fine a point on it, they were – but the fact was that when Steve Jobs came back to Apple and put it back on the true and narrow course, he did so by forcing out all of the marketing types who were chasing pure short-term profits, and bringing back in the design types who valued function, speed, and power over raw profit.

Now, there were plenty of smart design types out there in the tech industry – but far too many of them were obsessed with producing big expensive solutions that could do everything. The list of names that tried this and found themselves running into serious problems later on is endless – Silicon Graphics, IBM, Xerox, Sun Microsystems, and so on. They all tried to create their own proprietary, very powerful, very expensive solutions for the corporate environment, and they all ended up failing because those solutions were highly restrictive by their very nature. Only a relatively small number of businesses could afford them.

What made Steve Jobs’ idea different was the fact that he understood the consumer demand for simple, powerful, easy-to-use products that looked good.

And that was exactly what he did in creating the iMac.

I was in Australia when it was first released. As I recall, it made a huge splash when it arrived, because it looked so different from the boring old beige boxes that every other manufacturer gave you. Never mind that the technology contained within it wasn’t actually that impressive – it looked great and was easy to use.

The same applied for the iPod when it was released. In reality, Apple was not the first to release a portable music player – Singapore’s very own Creative Labs can possibly lay claim to that one – but it was the first to combine digital music downloads with a good-looking portable player and package both together as a real lifestyle choice.

The same trend pops up over and over and over again. Apple was not the first smartphone manufacturer, or the first personal computer manufacturer, or the first portable music manufacturer, or the first at pretty much anything.

In the film Margin Call – good movie, by the way – the CEO of the fictional Wall Street firm depicted therein says that there are three ways to succeed in business: “Be first, be smarter, or cheat”. Apple was almost never the first, and I’m not going to accuse Apple of cheating without a lot of evidence, because lawyers.

But Apple was definitely smarter in a lot of ways.

Why?

Because Steve Jobs understood, instinctively, that a good product needs to be functional as well as beautiful.

And because he was enough of an asshole to do something about it.

The primary lesson that I take from Steve Jobs is one that I have seen played out over and over again in my own career. It isn’t the nice-guy, go-along-to-get-along types that make things happen. It is the assholes.

Now, this is not trendy advice. Management courses around the world stress all the time about the importance of teamwork and playing nice. But the reality is that most people who play nice in a corporate environment rarely get anything of any value done. They simply exist to perpetuate their own existence and job security.

The guys who get things done tend to be the types who make others feel uncomfortable by giving their forthright, unvarnished opinions on a variety of subjects. They are not easy to work for. They are not fun to work with, sometimes. They can be surprisingly good managers and colleagues if they want to be – but this is a relatively rare occurrence.

What makes them valuable is one thing, and one thing only: they get shit done.

Here I have to admit that I am myself something of an asshole, or can be. In my last job, I was never terribly interested in listening to people’s excuses about why something could not be done; I was always the type who would listen to a demand from Market Risk or the business or Finance and ask myself, “how do we do this with our current systems?”.

This made me popular with the guys who were in the trenches every day and needed help in just getting through their daily processes.

It made me quite unpopular with the management types who always wanted to justify bigger budgets and longer deadlines, because there would always be some schmuck (me, basically) in a meeting with top brass saying something like, “Actually, I reckon we can get it done in half the time and I can do it all by my lonesome, and I can generate a working prototype by X date in a testing environment for you guys to look at, and then deploy it into production within 3 days of your approval and sign-off”.

Steve Jobs was a much, much bigger asshole than that. He would routinely tell his design and marketing teams that he thought they were doing a shitty job. He had a bit of a temper, too, so it was not unusual for him to swear a blue streak in meetings and get furiously angry.

But he got shit done.

There are other examples that I can give you from my time in banking. The name “Sam Wisnia” doesn’t mean much to most people, but for a while he was the head of Fixed Income trading at a certain large European investment bank. He made a bit of a name for himself early on in his career at BNP Paribas by standing up in a meeting of quants and telling everyone there that one of their pricing models was wrong.

Bear in mind, he was the most junior guy in the room. The guy has a serious pair of brass balls on him.

I actually met him, once, very briefly. I was sitting in his office chatting with someone from the desk about something related to the business – office space on a trading floor is at a premium because everyone sits on open-plan desks, so when you find an unused office, you use it – and he walked back in from one of his meetings. Given that he was the head of FICC at the time, I made myself scarce in a hurry – from his point of view, I was just some junior twerp from Finance, after all – but before I left, my contact introduced me to him.

My recollection of him is that of a very, very cold fish. His smile had no warmth to it at all. But, everyone who has worked with him says that he is a guy who gets things done – and he certainly did, when he was the MFIC. He was the one responsible for putting into place a massive global project to transform the bank’s rickety risk and pricing systems. And, while the execution of that strategy has left much to be desired, the fact is that while he was there, he got things done.

But boy did he piss off a lot of people while he did it.

Other examples that come to mind are Generals George S. Patton and Douglas Macarthur, whose abrasive behaviour and lack of interest in social niceties cost them both dearly, especially the latter; Jon “Bones” Jones, whose antics make people love and loathe him in equal measure, but whose skill as a fighter is unquestionable; and of course Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose legend grows longer with every retelling of his accomplishments as a powerlifter, a bodybuilder, an actor, and a politician.

Note that all of these assholes have a real charisma and power about them. That’s the key to being a successful asshole. You have to have charisma – if you don’t, you’re just a jerk with no redeeming qualities. And you have to deliver. If you don’t, then you will be seen (rightly) as “glibidinous” – which is to say, all talk, no action.

It is easy to be a jerk. It is hard to be a competent asshole.

Now, I do not argue that you should insult your coworkers and colleagues, or have a low level of emotional intelligence. I can personally attest to how much that lack of emotional sensitivity and awareness can cost a man in a professional environment.

I do, however, think that a certain… shall we say, flexibility with respect to the idea of “doing it this way because we’ve always done it this way” is not only healthy but necessary.

Far too many organisations become sclerotic and ossified because they hire people who slavishly follow the corporate line, instead of thinking for themselves. An organisation that eschews risk and innovation is inevitably going to find itself made obsolete very, very quickly. And history tells us that the people who are the first to see stupid nonsense, call it out, and propose and implement solutions to the same, are the ones who drive organisations forward fastest and most effectively.

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