What can I learn from Steve Jobs?

There have been a range of reactions to the passing of Steve Jobs. Many people, myself included, have been surprised at the depth of feelings brought up by the loss. Of course, I’m sad for his family and all those who were close to him, and all his colleagues at Apple.  But I’m feeling something else, too.  Something more personal, related to my chosen line of work. And I don’t think I’m alone.

There is a sense out there in the technology zeitgeist, even if unspoken, that we might have lost a standard bearer – someone who was lifting up and living ideals we’ve always cherished; like,  innovative thinking, major risk taking, the holistic blending of art & science, the bold re-thinking of stale products, the passion for the craft, and relentless pursuit of excellence.  And perhaps, just maybe, for a variety of reasons, even though we’ve cherished those same ideals, we haven’t been living up to them ourselves.

Perhaps we’ve been stuck in a BA rut just scribing away, spec’ing and req’ing our days into mindless tedium. Or, even if our BA work is challenging, maybe we’ve been working for a less than ethical organization, one we can’t put our whole heart into.  Or maybe just working for an organization not willing to push the edge, and so we know we’re doing good work, but it’s “safe” work. No product breakthroughs coming this quarter or next, or the next one.  Or, maybe our solo BA consulting practice has gone a bit stale, maybe we’ve pursued lesser short-term goals when we knew there was a bigger game we could have played. (guilty as charged)

Here’s the dangerous question I’m asking myself:

Have I been vicariously living my higher technology and business ideals through Steve Jobs (and Apple)?

I own a Mac, and I use an iPhone and an iPad.  Hey, ain’ t I cool?  But, could I have been part of the product team that created those products?  Hmm…

Clearly, there is no replacing Steve Jobs, and I have no illusion of becoming “the next Steve Jobs.” Someone like him, probably comes around once a century or so.  But I want to remember him for his strengths, and his faults, and I want to take the best of what he left me, and see how it applies now, and see how I can manifest it in my life and business practice.  There are lessons to be learned, and ideals to be emulated here.

January 1st starts now.  Here are my pre-New Years BA resolutions:

Be Bold

Biographies and personal accounts describe a groundbreaker, and game changer, never flinching away from pushing against the norm.  His track record speaks for itself.  To name but a few of his decisive actions: Upon returning to Apple, immediately ditching the Newton (which was the first PDA to market) because he knew the market wasn’t ready for it, and Apple couldn’t deliver the level of quality he demanded.  Making the famous “deal with the devil” by publicly embracing Microsoft and their investment in Apple.  Betting the future of Pixar on one movie called Toy Story.  And many more.

Resolution: Where I can influence decision-making at the highest level, do it, and do it boldly. I’ll offer ideas that might even seem counter-intuitive, if I know in my gut, and with real data I can back up, that I’ve got the better idea.

Think Different(ly)

The “great Apple turnaround” will be written about in business schools for decades to come – how one man turned the sinking ship of Apple’s state into the consumer and technology leader and powerhouse it is today.  Back in 1997 he commanded the stage at MacWorld and said, (i’m paraphrasing here) – “We are going to innovate our way through this.”  I can still remember the way he said the word “innovate.”  Enunciating every syllable. And Apple did. Over and over again.  Innovation was his guidestar.  One of his many great quotes on the subject: “Innovation…comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much…it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

Resolution: When working with a client on getting to core business need, I will challenge myself to go back to the drawing board as many times, prototype and model as many times as it takes to come up with insights that push thinking forward.  Saying ‘no’ to the so-so ideas, and ‘yes’ to those that really cut through the confusion.  And if I can’t do that, I should go flip burgers. (y’all hold me to that, okay?)

Get To Know People

Jobs had an uncanny ability to figure out the key players (stakeholders) in any situation and then get to know them personally and win their trust.  All of them, even his adversaries.  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs might have been huge rivals, but watch Walt Mossberg’s interview with them both on stage at All Things Digital, and you witness his genuine interest in people and desire to know and understand them.  When no one else could convince the music labels to take a chance on digital downloads, he did it, by relentlessly calling, meeting, persuading them that he and Apple had a win-win for all involved.  Whether it was consumers, and how they might want to listen to music in the future, or marketing, design and engineering managers arguing for a new product, Jobs could magnetically connect these people together because he enjoyed more than anything, bringing great minds together, and watching the magic unfold.

Resolution: I will make getting to know and enriching my social network of peers and colleagues and even competitors, my top priority.  And I will prioritize introducing people in my network to each other, too. My willingness to listen and learn from all the people I interact with will be most important.

Be Curious

Similar to his social intelligence, Jobs possessed an all too rare Renaissance man-like quality of stretching his mind across wide domains of interest, spanning technology, entertainment, culture, politics, religion and spirituality.  Lest we forget, he was CEO of both Pixar AND Apple.  Clearly, his Stanford Commencement Address hints at how his own early intellectual curiosity and dabbling in Eastern Mysticism formed the core of his dedication to things larger than just himself.

Resolution:  Continue to spread my interests across disparate areas, far flung from business analysis per se, and trust that those learnings, if pursued with genuine curiosity, will be a powerful resource for my work as a BA.

Do Great Work

Jobs was a notorious perfectionist, insisting on subtle details in products, that one might think were insignificant, but to him, we’re almost unconscious forces operating on the consumer.  I don’t believe he was OCD or a control freak.  His drive to perfection was forged from a desire to release the best product possible, only ship it when it was ready, not a day before, and not a day later.  And the big picture (the business and market dynamics) was always at play and close at hand in his thinking, even in the most mundane of details, informing those aims for perfection.

Resolution:  I won’t settle for anything less than my best in my business analysis work.

Show, Don’t Tell

And finally, we get to what was perhaps Steve Jobs’ biggest asset of all, his showmanship, his ability to demo product, to help us visualize and imagine what a product could do.  His power point presentations rarely included bullet points. (in fact, another secret: he didn’t us MS PowerPoint. He had his software team write a custom slideshow software just for him, which eventually became Apple’s Keynote app, which is now sold as part of their iWork suite)   As Guy Kawasaki pointed out in a recent memorial essay, on each slide in his presentation, Steve Jobs only used 60 point type and typically a large splash graphic.  Even when using his words, the language was visual and evocative, his hand motions clearly conveying something like the design trade-offs at play when you optimize a device for one form factor, and you sacrifice a different feature.

Resolution: Make visuals (simple graphics, diagrams, maps, prototypes) part of all my deliverables.  Use clear visual language when working with clients and stakeholders, never be afraid to jump to the whiteboard to elucidate a concept with a quick representation of the terms at hand.

What do you think?  Were you inspired by Jobs too?  I would love to hear more thoughts and reflections on how business analysts can learn from one of the modern masters of communications and technology.



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  1. Curtis Michelson says

    Bill, I interviewed a recent Apple employee (Chris Ereneta) and he shared your take but also offered the flip side of the card; namely, incredibly great place to work with some of the brightest in the business. It’s not like Steve Jobs walked around just brow beating people at every turn. I agree he did that, and from most accounts, could be an S.O.B., but it’s a complex story, not a simple one.

    Listen to the interview with Chris before you make up your mind:

  2. Bill Meacham says

    Fortunately, I have never worked at Apple.

  3. Curtis Michelson says

    Bill, you sound like one of the past victims of Herr Jobs reign of terror. Did you work for Apple, or is this based on stories you’ve read or heard from folks that did work there?

  4. Bill Meacham says

    Yes, but …

    Resolution: I will brow-beat, vilify and disparage people who disagree with me. I will ensure conformity with my edicts by any means necessary. I will exercise total control over the work life of my subordinates. I will listen to lots of opinions, but once my mind is made up I will brook no disobedience.

  5. Curtis Michelson says

    @Karen, I very much concur with you that it’s better to learn from his thinking patterns than just emulate a style. In fact, that’s what I was hoping to convey in the article, but much of what Steve did, was done so large and with such panache, that the style thing is almost impossible to ignore. But bottom line, you’re correct, and you put it beautifully, “encourage both the business people and technical team to generate multiple options and holistically evaluate them at both the granular and strategic levels.” That’s a wonderful turn of phrase.

    I will partly disagree with you that the companies you mention are churning out homogenous workforces of engineers. (I may have misunderstood your point though.) At least, if the recent Google debacle of Steve Yegge’s rant are any indication, there is rich and vibrant dissent and diversity of opinion going on inside the Google campus. From what I’ve heard from Apple employees, there’s equal diversity of opinions happening inside that company. I do believe though that for innovation to not only thrive but be successful in the market, you do need the force of a “fill-in-the-blank” person who has the chutzpah, street cred, audacity, and frankly, power and leadership, to nay a lot of ideas, and to yay only a few so the organizational energy is focused and not dispersed. So, in that sense, the great ones (and there are many more than Steve Jobs) are more like orchestra conductors than solo musicians.

    I will pick on Microsoft a little bit though. And not because I’m a Mac fan boy (though I am). I’m consistently underwhelmed, almost repulsed, whenever Steve Ballmer talks. Watched about 30 minutes of his recent interview at Web 2.0, and I’m still thinking, how’s this guy able to marshall forces of innovation in any coherent direction? Just energetically speaking, the guy is all over the place – raging like a madman one minute and then diminutive the next. They said Steve Jobs was mercurial. I don’t know what one would call Steve Ballmer. Volcanic?

  6. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook were all started by college drop-outs who were so into their innovative ideas that they couldn’t focus on their engineering classes. Yet, their companies hire the best engineers. The risk here is that we lose innovative thinking by creating a homogeneous workforce. Diversity is more than skin deep. It is more than gender and education. Accepting diversity in the workforce in Coporate America is a challenge. In our actions, we prefer the “hero” as the exception in front of an army of drones.

    Curtis, I notice you couch your “be bold” statement with “if I have real data to back it up.” Steve Jobs did not have any data to back up many of his most brilliant moves. And he lost his Apple job once, and almost lost his shirt with NeXT. As a BA, I’d be more inclined to cultivate another one of his habits, to “recognize genius.” In the leadership role of analyst, I want to encourage both the business people and technical team to generate multiple options and holistically evaluate them at both the granular and strategic levels. To focus on the immediate end user experience and the long view. In other words, rather than trying to emulate his style, I’d want to promote his thinking patterns.

  7. Curtis Michelson says

    Michelle, thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. Steve Jobs left some pretty big shoes to fill, and it will be interesting to see how Apple goes forward.

    We did a tribute event here in Orlando last week and one person in attendance said, “how did the guy do so much, since he had no college degree, was not an engineer or programmer, etc.?” And the gentleman who made that comment specifically referred to the success of engineers turned CEO’s like Google’s Sergey Brinn and Larry Page.

    Hearing that gentleman’s question, made me realize again how we BAs are more like Steve than we are the Sergey and Larry’s of the world. Any really successful tech company, needs not only top engineering talent, but real leadership. It’s the leadership style of Steve Jobs that made the difference. And the more I think about it, seems like one of the keys to that leadership style, was Steve’s nose for “the good”. i.e., his aesthetic sense. He knew what had value, and was able to persuasively bring people around the concept of ‘the good’ as he saw it. That seems to be one of the differentiating factors. And I think that’s the value BAs bring to many a technology conversation/debate. What’s the highest ‘good’ here? What will bring the most value?

  8. Michelle Swoboda says

    Curtis, great article and very inspiring. I have always been inspired by Steve but I tend to let daily ‘stuff’ get in the way. This is a reminder for me to continue to think about what I can provide to my customers instead of waiting for them to decide. Then I will come up with something unexpected and magical!

  9. Curtis Michelson says

    @Bennet, for sure. yeah, there’s a lot of gold in “them thar hills”. Hmm… you’re giving me an idea for my next series here on BTG! 😉

  10. Nice article with many takeaways.

    There’s probably enough material for a sequel

    Here’s Jobs’s on requirements :

    ” You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new “

  11. Curtis Michelson says

    Thanks Syed. Onwards and upwards!

  12. Curtis,

    The way you have highlighted some of Steve Jobs characteristics and linked them to a Business Analyst role is simply amazing.

    It’s an inspiration that I take from Steve Jobs as many others do and will certainly keep your resolutions in mind, to go that extra mile and deliver BA tasks from a different perspectives that brings innovation and added quality to the work we do everyday.


    Syed Ali

  13. Curtis Michelson says

    @Ravi, thanks. Indeed, if nothing else, the “Big” takeaway is – don’t waste your time on stuff that isn’t important, that you’re not passionate about. Carpe Diem!

  14. Spot on Curtis, the resolutions matches

    The one from Stanford Commencement speech goes deep into all realms of life, be it Business Analysis – “You’re already naked. There’s no reason not to follow your heart.”

    In short with so less time left, we have nothing to loose here. Deliver your best and follow your heart.

    Ravi Pardesi



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