Goodbye, Maximum Leader

[Ed. Note.: Yeesh.  I haven’t blogged in about a year!  I have so many things to tell you about (Parklet! Rickshaws! China!) & will be getting to it ASAP. But this broke the log jam & I plan to be writing more soon. Sorry  for the delay dear readers (assuming you are still out there!)]

[PLEASE NOTE: The opinions below are entirely my own & do not represent those of anyone else, much less Apple, Inc.]

Steve Jobs
Over the past 9 and a half years, I’ve often fantasized about sitting down at lunch with Steve Jobs. I frequently walked past him eating with Jony Ive at the Apple cafeteria and considered it.1

The last time I saw them having lunch together was a few months back, but that time I didn’t experience the wild flash of “what if I just sat down and started talking!?”.  That time, I could tell something was very wrong: just seeing the sadness in their eyes and the silence between them made me hurt. I convinced myself that it was just that Steve wouldn’t be coming back to Apple. I think I was very wrong.

Since Steve died last week, I’ve been surprised at how much it has affected me, and in the aftermath I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why.  What was he to me? I’ve been having a hard time finding the right word.

The first word that comes to mind is “hero”, but Steve was no hero of mine.  He could be too mean too often for that.  I’m sure a lot of people will start calling him one, that seems inevitable, but I dislike the process of whitewashing his story.  It’s so disingenuous and ultimately devaluing.

So what then? “Pioneer” – too impersonal. “Eminence” – meh. “Mahatma” means “a person regarded with reverence or loving respect” but even besides the fact that Gandhi has that covered, it captures none of the “why” since it is just an honorific.  “Visionary” is pretty good but fails to capture the real world drive he imparted to my life.

So what is the word for someone for inspires your best, focuses your creativity, and creates the standards by which you judge yourself and the world around you?

In the end, something I often said in jest, to defuse criticism, makes the most sense to me. I’ve always been sensitive to the fact that my reverence for him was dramatic and that my need to find out everything he said and digest it could be easily mocked.  I was also aware that to critics, we Apple people were just simple-minded thralls animated by Steve Jobs. We’re often dismissed as a cult, or at least a cult-of-personality.  So a good while back, I started referring to Steve as “Maximum Leader,” in hopes that I could preempt such criticisms by co-opting the term ironically.  It was a “wink & a nod” that said “I know you’ll just think I’m a fan boy, but I’m smarter than that – you can tell because I’m using irony.”

But in the end, I guess the real irony is that that is how I felt, and the joke was the truth:   Goodbye, Maximum Leader.   In some part, I’ve been following your lead since I was 15. Thank you for all that you gave me.  It has made all the difference.

I saw my first Macintosh, in late 1984 or early 1985, in a dorm room at my high school, and it changed me the first time I used it.  The promise of the Mac, and of the graphical user interface it brought to the world, was the idea that humans could be empowered by technology to do great things.  Or as Jobs put it, computers as “bicycles for the mind.”  I was hooked.

In college, when I picked a major, I decided on Computer Science and Political Science.  From the get-go I wanted to be a Macintosh programmer.  Later on, my love for animation and cartooning melded with my software engineering side, and the other thing I wanted was to be a programmer at Pixar.2 Though I knew Steve Jobs was involved at Pixar, I didn’t make much of it at the time.

After college, in 1991, I moved to California with hopes of eventually working at Apple or Pixar.  While working for a Mac game company, I almost got a job at Apple, but failed to & quickly relocated to the far-more-stimulating pastures of San Francisco. In the 11 years that followed, it seemed unlikely that I’d ever work at Apple, but I remained a Mac programmer even as Apple was dying because I loved the Mac so much, and still believed in it.3

Then in 2002, 5 years after Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, someone from Apple called & asked if I’d be interested in working on iTunes.  Apple was still struggling mightily at that point & it’s future was far from certain. The iPod had just recently been introduced, but was nowhere near the cultural phenomenon it would become, and the iTunes Music Store was still a year away, so very few people believed Apple was going anywhere & the industry press was still waiting for Apple to fail. But, despite a lot of smart advice not to, I did it. The chance to work on software that I loved for a company that I loved was never much of a question.

It has been 9 and a half years now, and Apple has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  Very quickly, I realized that I was working on software that brought thousands (now many millions) of people joy4: a better convergence of my personal and my professional aspirations is scarcely plausible.  But even more than professionally, my time at Apple has transformed the way I think and the way I see the world.

In that time, I’ve been a part of the flourishing of the iPod, a simple device that has brought a lot of real joy, the introduction of the iPhone, I think the greatest transformational device I’ve ever seen and a hell of a lot of fun, and finally the iPad, which is coming into its own as the true “computer for the people” that Steve set out to build so long ago.  It is not correct to say that Steve “made” all these – because I know better, but it is true that without Steve, we at Apple wouldn’t have made these things as well as we have.5

On some level, these things represent what I think of as Apple’s values, and Apple’s values were cultivated by Steve Jobs. Over time, a  good many of these values have become some of mine as well, while others have strengthened values that I already had:

  • empowerment
  • excellence
  • beauty
  • delight
  • humanity

I’ve learned that making powerful things simple and accessible enriches lives.

I’ve learned that excellence in what you ask of yourself is the only excellence that ever matters.

I’ve learned that the more you care about something, the more honest you should be with it and about it.  This certainly applies to things, but even more so to people.

I’ve learned that the honesty of a made thing is quickly evident and that the beauty evidenced on the outside should match the beauty of the thing on the inside and vice versa.

I’ve learned that the greatest joy someone who makes things can have is to delight people, both themselves and others around them.

I’ve learned that technology is at its best when it fosters, empowers, and connects our humanity.

Goodbye Steve.  Thank you.

– love ‘deep


My memorial at my office...

The small memorial I made at my office. I don’t usually wear so much black. (Update 10/21: Indians wear white at memorial services. I thought about wearing white at Jobs’ memorial here at work, but realized I was too American to feel legitimate in white & too Indian not to wear a kurta: So I wore a black kurta: amusingly ‘Deepian.)


Things to watch…

Crazy Ones, narrated by SJ

Bicycles for the Mind

2005 Stanford Commencement Speech

I loved this commencement speech when I watched it back in 2005, and love it even more now.  I’m happy to say that my life so far has stacked up pretty well against his advice, except maybe the “death” part.  I’m unfortunately still too scared of it to contemplate it as a useful tool.


1. So no, I never had lunch with him: I respected him too much to intrude and also I liked my job too much.  I did fumble through a brief elevator conversation once and he smirked at one of my Disco Ball costumes one Halloween. The only significant interaction was when I asked him a question about Apple’s behind-the-scenes approach to corporate giving at a company meeting.  We had a smart back and forth about it, but I’m not allowed to discuss it, since company meetings are confidential.↩

2.The late 80’s were many years before any of us had seen “Toy Story,” and thus many years before anyone other than computer geeks had heard of Pixar.  It was known to “our people” for its animated short films, which were part technology demonstrations and part art form.  As a cartoon maven, the combination of computers and animation was (and is) electric.↩

3.By then, I no longer believed that we were going save the world ecologically simply by making new technology (we must change ourselves first), but technology still had a role, perhaps even a big one, and I still believe that personal computers can empower people.↩

4. And yes, some pain I’m afraid.  We’re sorry – truly.  The best way to let us know of bugs and other problems in iTunes is here. And yes, we really do read what you send in.↩

5.Now we’ll make new things.  Hopefully, we’ll live up to Steve’s standards.  We have a pretty good shot.↩

17 thoughts on “Goodbye, Maximum Leader

  1. Steve had that same deep sense of mission and purpose, drive, vision, and self-knowing and confidence that the likes of Gandhi, Einstein, and other rare people-who-moved-the-world-forward (whether in spirituality, science, etc.) had.

    It’s been neat to see what happened when those traits were applied to high technology.

    Thanks for sharing, Deep!

  2. Thanks for the window onto your thoughts ‘Deep. Also on the list should be “Engagement”. Although there’s a tendency to feel sadness and loss about the disengagement technology brings, there’s something hopeful about seeing people excited and participatory in their world. There’s a bigger conversation to be had here about ‘coding’ these values into physical places. (Also makes me wonder if perhaps my partiality to PC is because they fight back a little more?) LOVED seeing the photo of you at work!

  3. Thanks for sharing!

    I was very sad last week, too, and I was trying to figure out why. It finally kinda gelled that Steve Jobs returned to Apple at the same time that I started working in hi tech, and the first iPhone shipped when I went back to Adobe ten years later. So I felt like my career fortunes were running in some kind of distant parallel to his.

    I met him in the fall of 1997 when he was a keynote speaker at the Macromedia user conference at Moscone. I greeted him, brought him to my boss and fetched him a drink of plain hot water. He thanked me and told me that I was an angel. It occurred to me that someone who was so famously confrontational in his interactions actually said something quite nice to me.

    He came back to MACR shortly after that, and spoke before the entire SF office. He was recounting his return to Apple, and how one of the first things he did was to “get rid of all the barnacles.” To this day and wherever I work, I often find myself proposing that we do just that.

    So I am sad that part of an era is over and that the world has lost a genius, but I’m grateful for the enormous mark he left. His accomplishments have made me think about the value of vision, certainty, and being uncompromising.

  4. I treasure the story about the time Steve Jobs dragged a programmer out into the parking lot to explain why onscreen buttons needed rounded corners. “Look at the traffic islands! They all have rounded corners! WHY IS THAT?!” One of my own intellectual weaknesses is that I too often tell rather than show. I keep this story in mind as a corrective.

  5. thank you for this. beautiful and honest.
    so funny – the only time I ever talked to steve was the same day you did. I was sitting next to him and Johnny in cafe macs when you made your grand entrance as the human disco ball. the four of all looked at you, then at each other and I just said, “I love me some ‘Deep.” We all chuckled and went back to eating….

  6. Nice insights from “someone inside.” I think what I respect him for the most is his absolute belief in the power of good design to transform as much as the power of the engineering. It is a rare leader who espouses such values in business beyond surface treatments. Apple’s products take the design expressions all the way from the inside to the outside and back again. Imagine if he had taken over a Big Three auto maker?

  7. Deep – thank you. Thanks for sharing and thanks for making what you’ve shared so worthwhile. – Jeff

  8. Nice one! I’m a fan of Apple products and of Jobs, but was wondering why I keep biking past his house on my way to/from work ( it is sorta on the way).

    He stands out to me, simply because he
    a) Shipped when he said he would
    b) made sure they worked *before* he shipped, and
    c) made them look and feel beautiful and by association, made me feel beautiful.

    Look around us. Govt, workplace (except yours), customer service of any kind – all I feel is frustrated at how badly things work, if they did at all. It feels like we are living in a political stalemate – not all the time, but lots of times.

    Then there is Steve. Relief – oh yea, he’ll make it better for me.

    There was Steve. Damn, I need someone to give me that!

  9. Thanks, Deep! I really enjoyed learning more about how you got where you are (and your Steve stories).

  10. Thoughtful reflections. I’ve loved Apple products since I first saw the Apple II+ after working with a bunch of TRS80 computers. It was amazing. In the past when I worried about what was at the time the hypothetical scenario of Apple losing its way with the passing of Steve your analysis of the Apple culture gave me some hope that the good parts of his spirit would survive. Now that the hypothetical has become reality I know that you will go forth and be a contributing piece to ensuring that his vision survives.

  11. Of course I, as someone who has drunk the Cool-Aid, am deeply affected by Steve’s death – but the thing that strikes me is that others, who have not drunk the Cool-Aid, who were cynical, critical, dismissive, quick to point to the cult-ish aspects of supporting and believing in Apple, these others, they are also so deeply affected around the world. Amazing and validating. I am with you ‘Deep in the logic of “maximum leader”.

  12. Thanks for sharing that, ‘deep. Beautifully written and very thoughtful – as usual.

    When we asked Kelly how SJ had impacted his work, he also expressed how SB had pushed him to make good things better and more refined, and what a difference it made.

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