Business magazines that admire corporate executives generally do so because it is their belief that the big guy or gal makes a lot of money for a lot of people. Maybe he or she has also created a fun and supportive company culture. If the company is in high tech and, as is often the case, the head honcho is also the chief nerd, he or she gets further kudos for inventing stuff. Well, I admire Steve Jobs for a lot of reasons, but they generally don't include any of the above. Jobs runs high-tech companies but he isn't nerdy in the least and, as a graduate of Homestead High School, isn't technically qualified to do, well, anything. Apple and Pixar are profitable companies but not dramatically so. And while Apple offers competitive employee benefits, I'm told that staffers in the main headquarters building take the stairs rather than the elevator out of fear of being caught with the boss in that small space. In the case of Steve Jobs, it isn't the obvious things that make us want to admire him but the small and quirky things that make us have to admire him.
Jobs is different from most of his peers in that he takes personal responsibility for what Apple makes and how those products feel to the user. Jobs directs the design process from start to finish, asking endless questions, expressing often conflicting opinions, unfailingly pushing the company toward better, more useful products. The sort of decisions that at most companies are considered finishing touches--the color of a computer case, the look of a hinge, the sound a product makes when it is opened or closed--are to Jobs the very heart of the user experience and so are at the core of the design process. Michael Dell doesn't do it that way, but then Michael Dell knows he is no Steve Jobs.
I've spent 27 years talking to, writing about, and watching Steve Jobs. And I have to say he has the best taste in product design, the best ability as a one-on-one technical manager, and the greatest skill at making the rest of us want to buy stuff we don't strictly need of any American industrialist, ever.
There's even something admirable about Jobs's famous "reality distortion field," which he seems to be able to scale at will, whether it means talking the CEO of Canon out of a huge (and eventually worthless) investment in NeXT Inc. or convincing a few thousand Macworld attendees that $249 for an iPod mini is a heck of a deal. Bill Gates, for one, is fascinated by this skill of Jobs's--Gates once told me he thinks it's genetic and can't be learned. And that's the key to Steve Jobs, a man who is driven to succeed and simply can't help himself.--Robert X. Cringely
Robert X. Cringely is a technology entrepreneur and writer.