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A tough job, post-Jobs: Q&A with a local Apple alum

jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Ron Johnston of Atascadero worked for what was then called Apple Computer Inc. in Cupertino as a software engineering manager for almost 13 years, from 1981 to 1993.

He described the iconic Steve Jobs — who on Aug. 24 announced he would step down as CEO of what is now Apple Inc. — as the most competitive leader he has ever known, with a charisma and vision for innovation that would make people think anything is possible.

When Johnston joined the company, it was just a few years after Jobs, along with co-founder Steve Wozniak, introduced the Apple I, one of the first personal computers resembling what they have become today. Johnston would stay on at Apple after Jobs resigned as chairman following a power struggle with the board of directors.

Today, Johnston owns Atascadero-based Johnston Systems, a consulting firm specializing in helping small-to-medium-sized businesses use technology to improve their operations.

Once blamed for lacking the business skills to make Apple successful, Jobs — who returned to the company and became CEO in 1997 — provided the vision for innovations that would affect not only personal computing, but also mobile telecommunications, the music industry and media distribution.

The Tribune asked Johnston about working with Jobs in the early years at Apple — reflecting the company’s successful expansion far beyond personal computing — what it was like after Jobs left the first time and what the company might be like without him again.

Q: Going back to the time when you worked at Apple during Jobs’ first stint in charge, what do you recall of your impression of him at the time? Did you have any idea of what the future was for Apple during that first period when he was in charge?

A: By 1981, 4-year-old Apple had grown so much that its imported president and vice presidents thought Steve mostly irrelevant to the company’s future and wouldn’t let him lead the important projects (like the Apple III or the Lisa). He was allowed to grab the reins of an obscure project (the Macintosh) from its founding leader and was absolutely driven to prove himself through this project.

He was extremely picky about who he would admit to his Mac team and had no qualms about pirating people he wanted from other projects in Apple. He didn’t so much choose people for their proven technical pedigrees, but for their creativity, ability to innovate and disdain for conventional wisdom. He built a very small team that worked extremely hard, basically giving up any pretense of a life outside the Mac project.

He refused to build a computer that would be simply measured by its technical specifications, viewing his creations as both technology and art, where the aesthetics of the computer and the elegance of the user experience mattered more than the checklist of technical features.

His team had to use leading-edge technology to build its computer, but he didn’t want the customer conversation to be about bits, bytes or benchmarks, but about how easily you could use it.

He wanted to build a “Volks-Computer” — a machine “for the rest of us.” That meant his team had to find ways to hide the complexity of its creation, so people could just use it and find that it just did the right thing.

He was (and is) the most competitive leader I’ve ever known. He wanted to win — all the time. That means he competed against other companies, but even more against other Apple teams.

He told his team they were like “pirates” who could do what they wanted and change directions quickly, and to whom rules didn’t apply. The rest of the company was like “The Navy,” caught up in following orders and carrying out plans someone else handed down — and doomed to be beaten by the pirates. ...

Steve was always a charismatic and visionary leader, even to those he was openly competing with. He painted a view of the future that wasn’t just about a better, lighter, faster computer, but about changing the world with what we did. Listening to Steve talk, whether in big company meetings or smaller team gatherings ... you experienced the famous “reality distortion field,” where he convinced you that almost anything was possible.

Q: In terms of the business culture and idea generation, and what it was like to work there, what seemed to change the most at Apple when Jobs left the company?

A: Working at Apple during the early years with Steve Jobs was exhilarating. Working on the Lisa and the Mac (friendly competitors), we knew we were doing things no one else could match, and we were convinced we would revolutionize the world with our creations. Steve Jobs and (then-CEO) John Sculley were a good team, with Steve leading in the vision, and John making the company work. They needed each other, because Steve had no respect for the day-to-day mechanics of finance, operations or management. ...

When Steve left, the tone of the company changed. Sculley was never a visionary, and nobody rose to take Steve’s place. Apple’s product vision dimmed, and over the next 10 years, Apple lost the “magic” and “reality distortion field” that had so motivated the designers to overachieve and build exciting and trend-setting products.

Q: Going back to the time when Jobs left, what did you think at the time might happen to Apple following his departure?

A: Initially I thought Steve leaving would be good for Apple, because I felt he was flying Apple into the ground and that we’d go bankrupt under his unchecked leadership. However, that was short-sighted; I wasn’t accounting for his vital role as product visionary.

Q: Later as an outsider, what did you think might happen to Apple at the time when Jobs returned?

A: I immediately saw a more mature Steve Jobs, as he addressed Apple gatherings such as the famous World Wide Developer Conference, and I was ecstatic that he’d returned. I knew he’d bring his famous creativity and product vision back to bear on Apple and thought he could save the company. (At that time it was nearly bankrupt.)

Q: Did you think that Jobs defied people’s expectations after he returned to Apple?

A: No, by the time Apple bought NeXT (in 1996) and brought Steve back as an “adviser,” I think most people hoped he could turn the company around. Apple had suffered through a succession of lackluster CEOs ... who failed to focus Apple’s product strategy. Consequently, the Apple product line was bewilderingly huge, and customers couldn’t get their arms around what Apple was. Steve quickly re-established himself as a worthy Apple spokesman and visionary, and lived up to the pundits’ expectations.

Q: An entrepreneur is lucky to change the landscape of a single business or industry. But Jobs helped revolutionize four with the innovations he led. What do you think it is about Jobs that made that possible?

A: Steve wants to win by creating great products. He never compromises. That makes him hard to work for but ultimately drives his teams to stretch higher than they ever thought they could. You might hate how unreasonable Steve is being when you’re in the line of fire but end up loving him when you find a way to do something better because he wouldn’t settle.

Q: Now that Jobs is no longer at the helm, as an outsider, what do you think will become of Apple without its iconic leader?

A: I think Apple has a big challenge. Steve is a bigger-than-life personality and gets away with driving teams hard. Apple has to find a way to replace Steve’s role with someone people will respect and follow. I’m not sure we’ve seen any other Apple leaders capable of stepping into Steve’s shoes.

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