What I Learned From Steve Jobs: At A Distance

Many years ago, I came to Silicon Valley to work as an engineer at Apple and got my start in video with QuickTime 1.0 and QuickTime VR.

Apple was where I found out that design and technology can not only co-exist, they can multiply together in a marvelous kind of fusion.  Even though I worked at Apple in the wilderness years – when Steve wasn’t with the company – that vision and focus on user experience was already deeply embedded in the DNA of the company.

Of all the things I learned at Apple, the fusion of design and technology, and the creative process that drives that fusion, were the most fundamental.  For me, working at Apple created a deep-seated belief in the transcendent impact of a beautifully integrated user experience.  That belief is why when I talk about my time at Apple, I often say:  “You can take the engineer out of Apple, but you can’t take Apple out of the engineer.”

Today, I lead a company that helps developers and end users create new kinds of user experiences and user engagement on the web, by making it easy for them to weave live video communication directly into the fabric of their websites and applications.  I work in an industry preoccupied by lean methodologies and the concept that “if you aren’t embarrassed by your first release, you didn’t release early enough.”  These ideas are not simply theories – they boast significant success stories that prove their mettle.

And yet, these ideas fly in the face of everything Steve Jobs stood for.  Releasing something that embarrassed him, or something that was at all short of perfection – at least in his eyes – was never on the menu.  His unrelenting focus on perfection has touched us all – whether we laboured under its pressure or get to delight daily in the products that are borne of it.

Some days I feel torn between these two divergent forces.  The desire to get things out the door quickly, rough and ready, in beta, so that we can find out how close to the target we are.  The belief that for some products, without achieving full fusion of design and technology, we might not see the target at all.  Figuring out which is the right strategy to follow for a given product or feature is never easy.

For Steve, it didn’t seem that hard.  Because he was unique in our time – the Edison of our day, but more.  Asking the rest of us to be like Steve is pretty darn close to asking us to levitate, and as unlikely to happen.  But they say a person’s reach should exceed their grasp, so in that spirit, should we all try a bit harder to channel his blend of technology and design?

Maybe, just once in a while, it’s worth taking the harder road and setting the bar at “insanely great”.  You never know, we all might be the winners for it.