Oct 5, 2011

The Education of Steve Jobs

I never met Steve Jobs. But then again, I didn't need to -- I know pretty much exactly where he was coming from. After all, I grew up in the constant company of people just like him.

Jobs was born in the same exact year as was Bill Gates. If one goes in to "plus or minus a year or two" mode, we'd ensnare the names of many more of the early movers and shakers of the desktop computing revolution. That is not an accident.

I'm in there as well, although my badge would read Foot Soldier instead of mover & shaker. Heck, I can even lay claim to having almost been Employee #100-and-something at Apple. Unfortunately, my final interview took place in New Orleans, and let's just say I didn't show up to meet Mr VP with my 'A' game, for the predictable reason. But hey; being young and stupid leads to becoming wise and experienced, hopefully. In my case, it didn't, as I doubled-down on the stupid part a few years later by turning down the offer to be Employee #8 at a little local startup called MapInfo. That was two cups of coffee wasted, sealing my fate for a career in the mid-minors, so to speak.

But back to the shared experiences thing. Guys our age grew up in a continuous "hacking" mode. That term is defined here a bit wider than its popular current usage with its deviant connotations and all . Rather, it refers to the hobby of either building things -- especially electronic things -- or tearing them apart, usually for the sake of repairing them. Pre-teen years were spent building little DIY kits bought at Radio Shack (crystal radios, Morse code tap-taps), where any self-respecting 12yo knew his way around a soldering gun and a circuit board down in the basement. The ensuing teenage years has us neck deep into stereo systems and musical equipment, where we'd be slicing wires, replacing fuses and swapping woofers. The more advanced among us would even dive into the crazy stuff, like adjusting the currency flows of guitar pedals or adding oscillation to synthesizers. All in search of the most spaced-out sound, of course.

Growing up in this type of culture made for an easy transition onto the early world of PC's. Heck, it really wasn't even a transition; it was just another set of toys. Swapping mother boards in a chassis really wasn't that much different than replacing a blown crossover in a speaker cabinet. So when Jobs or Gates or Wozniak or Allen and all the others from that Boomer 2.0 wave ran across the older guys from the ham radio and punch card worlds with these new transistor boxes that had a little bit of decision-making power to them -- just like them big ass computers down at the lab -- it really wasn't such a big ass deal to them.

These 'born in the mid-50's and later" guys were different from their older, Boomer 1.0 brothers in another key aspect as well. That was their having what we might call a "software mindset" to complement their hardware-hack skills. Whereas the early pocket protector-wearing code jockeys were diving mostly into machine and O/S level projects, the new breed realized that the game was all about user interfaces and soon thereafter: applications. Applications, as in department- and personal-level programs that best complemented the now-affordable system configs available to the masses. Jobs got that part, although not quite as quickly as Gates. But he'd catch up real well eventually, especially when he tweaked the concept of applications into something more akin to delivery models.

So where did this embedded soft-side smarts come from, then? That's an east answer, too. Go back to the 'teenage years' reference, where every red-blooded young American male of the 70's was in Music Mode. The device management was mastered, but the party didn't cook without the music -- the software of its day. Content is king, and this demographic bought into that notion hook, line and sinker. I know that Steve Jobs was, for his whole life, heavily into music. I'd be willing to bet that he obsessed over Sgt Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon, like we all did. I'd also be willing to bet a bundle he also took a shot at playing in a band as well, like we all also did. This obsession (for lack or a better word) was unique to this/our specific demo-age. The automatic tie-in of hardware (stereos and musical instruments) to software (recorded and performed music) had as its natural progression the marriage of computers and application software in the ensuing years.

Steve Jobs, like all of us then, was a creature of his time. If he'd been born even five years earlier, none of this would have gone down for him. (Note: the drug experimentation of the day should not be ignored here either, as Jobs himself often pointed out). He (like us) was also a creature of his own place within that time. It likewise wouldn't have happened had he been hanging in Albany instead of in the Bay Area, or if he hadn't caught the rampant phone-hacking bug going thru his posse at the time, which in turn locked his elbows with his pal Woz in the pursuit of profits. Then there is the concept of good old fashioned luck: what if Markkula had declined to get involved? We likely would never have heard of any of these people if that happened.

So yes, I know an awful lot about the guy without ever having met him. It could have just as easily have been any one of us, cut form that same cloth. I also get his personality, and how it was so common to our tribe. I speak here of the black aspect and well as the white. Yes, the temper, the naked ambition, the way he ripped-off Woz early-on, the ignored first child. The O/S that for all intents and purposes was ripped-off from the PARC and Xerox. I recognize all that: my generation didn't pick up and carry on the noble traditions of our parents, and those kinds of actions are way too common and oh-so very familiar.

But Steve Jobs was us. Plain and simple, the good and the bad. His achievements were our own individual and unfilled ambitions. That's why today's news gives such pause.


With all of the Steve Jobs quotes now floating about, this one caught my eye and best reflects the spirit of what I was talking about above:

" Our goal was to bring a liberal arts perspective to what had traditionally been a very geeky technology.. "

Keep that in mind when the debate turns to the need to emphasize math and science as our primary education tracks. This guy went to school to study Easter philosophies.

..and of course, the Final Thoughts from Fake Steve Jobs.



KTM said...

Pretty good.

New Orleans? U musta been just a kid, and that was prolly ur first trip there. Or ur first trip anywhere? Having known u back then, I can see the whole thing unfolding in my mind!

The good part is that its apparent u've kept a good deal of that youthful zest about you. Just like Mr J did.

May the Force...

Anonymous said...

I wish I owned that house today.

"Step right into the Apple garage. Just $10 for 10 minutes."

Just like parking cars on your lawn near the race track except you don't need to own a big lot.

Sheila said...

Nice write up here. I take it you had a Liberal Arts education as well? It shines through.

Or Or Or said...

Or Or Or one could say he just supercharged our consumer culture and placed a few thousand tons of toxic chemicals into out landfills.

Boston Sux said...

And he only lasted 1 semester. Gates was a droput, too. Who needs college!>>>!!??

Kimmy said...

I read where the (second) wife of Steve's Dad still lives in the house. I hope the gawkers are not bothering her.

Trouser Snake said...

Salt peanuts? Salt peanuts?
Steve Who?
Jobs? Yes, but I only need one job.