Steve Jobs Interview: One-on-one in 1995
In April of 1995, Steve Jobs, then head of NeXT Computer, was interviewed as part of the Computerworld Honors Program Oral History project. The wide-ranging interview was conducted by Daniel Morrow, executive director of the awards program.
From his early years -- when he says except for a few key adults 'I would absolutely have ended up in jail' -- to how he felt about Apple in the mid-'90s -- 'The Macintosh will die in another few years [under John Sculley]' -- to his predictions about how the Internet would change the world, this is a rare look at Jobs after his first string of innovations but before he returned to Apple.
Steve, I'd like to begin with some biographical information. Tell us about yourself. Steve Jobs (SJ): I was born in San Francisco, California, USA, planet Earth, February 24, 1955. I can go into a lot of details about my youth, but I don't know that anybody would really care about that too much.
Well they might in three hundred years because all this print is going to disintegrate. Tell me a little bit about your parents, your family; what are the earliest things you remember? In 1955, Eisenhower was still President. I don't remember him but I do remember growing up in the late 50's and early 60's. It was a very interesting time in the United States. America was sort of at its pinnacle of post World War II prosperity and everything had been fairly straight and narrow from haircuts to culture in every way, and it was just starting to broaden into the 60's where things were going to start expanding out in new directions. Everything was still very successful. Very young. America seemed young and naive in many ways to me, from my memories at that time.
So you would have been about five or six years old when John Kennedy was assassinated? I remember John Kennedy being assassinated. I remember the exact moment that I heard he had been shot.
Where were you at the time? I was walking across the grass at my schoolyard going home at about three in the afternoon when somebody yelled that the President had been shot and killed. I must have been about seven or eight years old, I guess, and I knew exactly what it meant. I also remember very much the Cuban Missile Crisis. I probably didn't sleep for three or four nights because I was afraid that if I went to sleep I wouldn't wake up. I guess I was seven years old at the time and I understood exactly what was going on. I think everybody did. It was really a terror that I will never forget, and it probably never really left. I think that everyone felt it at that time.
Those of us who were older, such as myself, remember making plans of where we would meet if the country was devastated. It was a strange time. One of the things we're trying to get a handle on is passion and power. What were the early things you were passionate about, that you were interested in? I was very lucky. My father, Paul, was a pretty remarkable man. He never graduated from high school. He joined the Coast Guard in World War II and ferried troops around the world for General Patton; and I think he was always getting into trouble and getting busted down to Private.
He was a machinist by trade and worked very hard and was kind of a genius with his hands. He had a workbench out in his garage where, when I was about five or six, he sectioned off a little piece of it and said "Steve, this is your workbench now." And he gave me some of his smaller tools and showed me how to use a hammer and saw and how to build things. It really was very good for me. He spent a lot of time with me . . . teaching me how to build things, how to take things apart, put things back together.
One of the things that he touched upon was electronics. He did not have a deep understanding of electronics himself but he'd encountered electronics a lot in automobiles and other things he would fix. He showed me the rudiments of electronics and I got very interested in that. I grew up in Silicon Valley. My parents moved from San Francisco to Mountain View when I was five. My dad got transferred and that was right in the heart of Silicon Valley so there were engineers all around.
Silicon Valley for the most part at that time was still orchards -- apricot orchards and prune orchards -- and it was really paradise. I remember the air being crystal clear, where you could see from one end of the valley to the other.
This was when you were six, seven, eight years old at the time. Right. Exactly. It was really the most wonderful place in the world to grow up. There was a man who moved in down the street, maybe about six or seven houses down the block, who was new in the neighborhood with his wife, and it turned out that he was an engineer at Hewlett-Packard and a ham radio operator and really into electronics. What he did to get to know the kids in the block was rather a strange thing: He put out a carbon microphone and a battery and a speaker on his driveway where you could talk into the microphone and your voice would be amplified by the speaker. Kind of strange thing when you move into a neighborhood but that's what he did.
This is great. I of course started messing around with this. I was always taught that you needed an amplifier to amplify the voice in a microphone for it to come out in a speaker. My father taught me that. I proudly went home to my father and announced that he was all wrong and that this man up the block was amplifying voice with just a battery. My father told me that I didn't know what I was talking about and we got into a very large argument. So I dragged him down and showed him this and he himself was a little befuddled.
I got to know this man, whose name was Larry Lang, and he taught me a lot of electronics. He was great. He used to build Heathkits. Heathkits were really great. Heathkits were these products that you would buy in kit form. You actually paid more money for them than if you just went and bought the finished product if it was available. These Heathkits would come with these detailed manuals about how to put this thing together and all the parts would be laid out in a certain way and color coded. You'd actually build this thing yourself.
I would say that this gave one several things. It gave one an understanding of what was inside a finished product and how it worked because it would include a theory of operation. But maybe even more importantly it gave one the sense that one could build the things that one saw around oneself in the universe. These things were not mysteries anymore. I mean you looked at a television set you would think that "I haven't built one of those but I could. There's one of those in the Heathkit catalog and I've built two other Heathkits so I could build that."
Things became much more clear that they were the results of human creation, not these magical things that just appeared in one's environment, that one had no knowledge of their interiors. It gave a tremendous level of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one's environment. My childhood was very fortunate in that way.
Importance of education
It sounds like you were really lucky to have your dad as sort of a mentor. I was going to ask you about school. What was the formal side of your education like? Good? Bad? School was pretty hard for me at the beginning. My mother taught me how to read before I got to school and so when I got there I really just wanted to do two things. I wanted to read books because I loved reading books and I wanted to go outside and chase butterflies. You know, do the things that five year olds like to do. I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it. And they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me.
By the time I was in third grade, I had a good buddy of mine, Rick Farentino, and the only way we had fun was to create mischief. I remember we traded everybody. There was a big bike rack where everybody put their bikes, maybe a hundred bikes in this rack, and we traded everybody our lock combinations for theirs on an individual basis and then went out one day and put everybody's lock on everybody else's bike and it took them until about ten o'clock that night to get all the bikes sorted out. We set off explosives in teacher's desks. We got kicked out of school a lot.
In fourth grade I encountered one of the other saints of my life. They were going to put Rick Farentino and I into the same fourth grade class, and the principal said at the last minute "No, bad idea. Separate them." So this teacher, Mrs. Hill, said "I'll take one of them." She taught the advanced fourth grade class and thank God I was the random one that got put in the class. She watched me for about two weeks and then approached me. She said, Steven, I'll tell you what. I'll make you a deal. I have this math workbook and if you take it home and finish on your own without any help and you bring it back to me, if you get it 80% right, I will give you five dollars and one of these really big suckers she bought and she held it out in front of me. One of these giant things. And I looked at her like "Are you crazy lady"? Nobody's ever done this before and of course I did it. She basically bribed me back into learning with candy and money and what was really remarkable was before very long I had such a respect for her that it sort of re-ignited my desire to learn.
She got me kits for making cameras. I ground my own lens and made a camera. It was really quite wonderful. I think I probably learned more academically in that one year than I learned in my life. It created problems, though, because when I got out of fourth grade they tested me and they decided to put me in high school and my parents said "No.". Thank God. They said "He can skip one grade but that's all."
But not to high school. And I found skipping one grade to be very troublesome in many ways. That was plenty enough. It did create some problems.
This seems like such a good place to talk about your experience in the fourth grade. Do you think that had a major impact on your own interest in education? I mean if there is anyone in the computer industry that is associated with computers and education it has got to be you and Apple. I'm sure it did. I'm a very big believer in equal opportunity as opposed to equal outcome. I don't believe in equal outcome because unfortunately life's not like that. It would be a pretty boring place if it was.
But I really believe in equal opportunity. Equal opportunity to me more than anything means a great education. Maybe even more important than a great family life, but I don't know how to do that. Nobody knows how to do that. But it pains me because we do know how to provide a great education. We really do. We could make sure that every young child in this country got a great education. We fall far short of that.
I know from my own education that if I hadn't encountered two or three individuals that spent extra time with me, I'm sure I would have been in jail. I'm 100% sure that if it hadn't been for Mrs. Hill in fourth grade and a few others, I would have absolutely have ended up in jail. I could see those tendencies in myself to have a certain energy to do something. It could have been directed at doing something interesting that other people thought was a good idea or doing something interesting that maybe other people didn't like so much.
When you're young, a little bit of course correction goes a long way. I think it takes pretty talented people to do that. I don't know that enough of them get attracted to go into public education. You can't even support a family on what you get paid. I'd like the people teaching my kids to be good enough that they could get a job at the company I work for, making a hundred thousand dollars a year. Why should they work at a school for thirty-five to forty thousand dollars if they could get a job here at a hundred thousand dollars a year? Is that an intelligence test?
The problem there of course is the unions. The unions are the worst thing that ever happened to education because it's not a meritocracy. It turns into a bureaucracy, which is exactly what has happened. The teachers can't teach and administrators run the place and nobody can be fired. It's terrible.
Role of computers in education
Some people say that this new technology may be a way to bypass that. Are you optimistic about that? I absolutely don't believe that. As you've pointed out, I've helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world and I absolutely convinced that is by no means the most important thing. The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can.
The elements of discovery are all around you. You don't need a computer. Here - why does that fall? You know why? Nobody in the entire world knows why that falls. We can describe it pretty accurately but no one knows why. I don't need a computer to get a kid interested in that, to spend a week playing with gravity and trying to understand that and come up with reasons why.
But you do need a person. You need a person. Especially with computers the way they are now. Computers are very reactive but they're not proactive; they are not agents, if you will. They are very reactive. What children need is something more proactive. They need a guide. They don't need an assistant. I think we have all the material in the world to solve this problem; it's just being deployed in other places. I've been a very strong believer in that what we need to do in education is to go to the full voucher system. I know this isn't what the interview was supposed to be about but it is what I care about a great deal. . . .
The market competition model seems to indicate that where there is a need there is a lot of providers willing to tailor their products to fit that need and a lot of competition which forces them to get better and better.
I used to think when I was in my twenties that technology was the solution to most of the world's problems, but unfortunately it just ain't so. I'll give you an analogy. Alot of times we think "Why is the television programming so bad? Why are television shows so demeaning, so poor?"
The first thought that occurs to you is "Well, there is a conspiracy: the networks are feeding us this slop because its cheap to produce. It's the networks that are controlling this and they are feeding us this stuff."
But the truth of the matter, if you study it in any depth, is that networks absolutely want to give people what they want so that will watch the shows. If people wanted something different, they would get it. And the truth of the matter is that the shows that are on television, are on television because that's what people want. The majority of people in this country want to turn on a television and turn off their brain and that's what they get. And that's far more depressing than a conspiracy.
Conspiracies are much more fun than the truth of the matter, which is that the vast majority of the public are pretty mindless most of the time. I think the school situation has a parallel here when it comes to technology. It is so much more hopeful to think that technology can solve the problems that are more human and more organizational and more political in nature, and it ain't so. We need to attack these things at the root, which is people and how much freedom we give people, the competition that will attract the best people.
Unfortunately, there are side effects, like pushing out a lot of 46 year old teachers who lost their spirit fifteen years ago and shouldn't be teaching anymore. I feel very strongly about this. I wish it was as simple as giving it over to the computer.
I'm really glad we had a chance to talk about it. To talk about other things, so much has been written about you rather than go over a lot of those stories I was going to ask which one you think is the best and the fairest and if there are aspects of your career that you think have been left out. I have to tell you truly that I'm pretty ignorant about it because I haven't read any of them. I skimmed one one time and read the first ten pages and they got my birthday wrong by a year. If they can't even get this right then this is probably not worth reading. I don't even remember the name of the one I skimmed.
I always considered part of my job was to keep the quality level of people in the organizations I work with very high. That's what I consider one of the few things I actually can contribute individually -- to to really try to instill in the organization the goal of only having 'A' players. Because in this field, like in a lot of fields, the difference between the worst taxi cab driver and the best taxi cab driver to get you crosstown Manhattan might be two to one. The best one will get you there in fifteen minutes, the worst one will get you there in a half an hour. Or the best cook and the worst cook, maybe it's three to one. Pick something like that.
In the field that I'm in the difference between the best person and the worst person is about a hundred to one or more. The difference between a good software person and a great software person is fifty to one, twenty-five to fifty to one, huge dynamic range. Therefore, I have found, not just in software, but in everything I've done it really pays to go after the best people in the world.
It's painful when you have some people who are not the best people in the world and you have to get rid of them; but I found that my job has sometimes exactly been that: to get rid of some people who didn't measure up. And I've always tried to do it in a humane way. But nonetheless it has to be done and it is never fun.
Is that the hardest and the most painful part of managing a company from your point of view? Oh sure. Of course. At times I've been pretty hard about it and a lot of times people haven't wanted to leave and I haven't given them any choices.
If somebody wanted to write a book about me, most of my friends would never talk to them but they could go find the handful of a few dozen people that I fired in my life who hate my guts. It was certainly the case in the one book I skimmed. I mean it was just "let's throw the darts at Steve." Such is life. That's the world I've chosen to live in. If I didn't like that part of it enough, I'd escape and I haven't, so I'm willing to put up with that. But I certainly didn't find it very accurate.
I've got a couple of questions I'd like to ask you about specifically about your experience at Apple. Looking back at the years you were there, what were the accomplishments you are most proud of? Are there a couple of Apple stories you really like to tell? Apple was this incredible journey. I mean we did some amazing things there. The thing that bound us together at Apple was the ability to make things that were going to change the world. That was very important.
We were all pretty young. The average age in the company was mid to late twenties. Hardly anybody had families at the beginning and we all worked like maniacs, and the greatest joy was that we felt we were fashioning collective works of art much like twentieth century physics. Something important that would last, that people contributed to and then could give to more people; the amplification factor was very large.
In doing the Macintosh, for example, there was a core group of less than a hundred people, and yet Apple shipped over ten million of them. Of course everybody's copied it and it's hundreds of millions now. That's pretty large amplification, a million to one. It's not often in your life that you get that opportunity to amplify your values a hundred to one, let alone a million to one. That's really what we were doing.
If you look at what we tried to do, it was to say "Computation and how it relates to people is really in its infancy here. We are in the right place at the right time to change the course of that vector a little bit." What's interesting is that if you change the course of a vector near its origin, by time it gets a few miles out its course is radically different. We were very cognizant of this fact. From almost the beginning at Apple we were, for some incredibly lucky reason, fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time. The contributions we tried to make embodied values not only of technical excellence and innovation -- which I think we did our share of -- but innovation of a more humanistic kind.
The things I'm most proud about at Apple is where the technical and the humanistic came together, as it did in publishing for example. The Macintosh basically revolutionized publishing and printing. The typographic artistry coupled with the technical understanding and excellence to implement that electronically -- those two things came together and empowered people to use the computer without having to understand arcane computer commands. It was the combination of those two things that I'm the most proud of. It happened on the Apple II and it happened on the Lisa, although there were other problems with the Lisa that caused it to be a market failure; and then it happened again big time on the Macintosh.
You used an interesting word in describing what you were doing. You were talking about art not engineering, not science. Tell me about that. I think there's actually very little distinction between an artist and a scientist or engineer of the highest calibre. I've never had a distinction in my mind between those two types of people. They've just been to me people who pursue different paths but basically kind of headed to the same goal which is to express something of what they perceive to be the truth around them so that others can benefit by it.
And the artistry is in the elegance of the solution, like chess playing or mathematics? No. I think the artistry is in having an insight into what one sees around them. Generally putting things together in a way no one else has before and finding a way to express that to other people who don't have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight that makes them feel a certain way or allows them to do a certain thing. I think that a lot of the folks on the Macintosh team were capable of doing that and did exactly that.
If you study these people a little bit more what you'll find is that in this particular time, in the 70's and the 80's the best people in computers would have normally been poets and writers and musicians. Almost all of them were musicians. A lot of them were poets on the side. They went into computers because it was so compelling. It was fresh and new. It was a new medium of expression for their creative talents. The feelings and the passion that people put into it were completely indistinguishable from a poet or a painter. Many of the people were introspective, inward people who expressed how they felt about other people or the rest of humanity in general into their work, work that other people would use. People put a lot of love into these products, and a lot of expression of their appreciation came to these things. It's hard to explain.
It's passion in the truest sense of the word. The computer industry is at a very critical juncture where those people are clearly leaving the field.
What are they doing? Hard to say. They're not being attracted by something else. They're being driven out of the computer business. They're being driven out because the computer business is becoming a monopoly with Microsoft. Without getting into whether Microsoft gained its position legally or not -- who cares? The end product of the position is that the ability to innovate in the industry is being sucked dry. I think the smartest people have already seen the writing on the wall. I think some of the smartest young people are questioning whether they'll really get in it.
Hopefully things will change. It's kind of a dark period right now or about to enter.
Apple had a reputation as a company that absolutely broke the mold and set its own course. Looking back from where you are today with NeXT, do you think that, as Apple grew larger, it could have sustained that original approach? Or was it destined to become a big standard American company? That's a funny question. Apple did grow big and sustain that approach.
When I left Apple it was a two billion dollar company. We were Fortune 300 and something. We were 350. When the Mac was introduced we were a billion-dollar corporation; so Apple grew from nothing to two billion dollars while I was there. That's a pretty high growth rate. It grew five times since I left basically on the back of the Macintosh.
I think what's happened since I left in terms of growth rate has been trivial compared with what it was like when I was there. What ruined Apple wasn't growth. What ruined Apple was values. John Sculley ruined Apple and he ruined it by bringing a set of values to the top of Apple which were corrupt and corrupted some of the top people who were there, drove out some of the ones who were not corruptible, and brought in more corrupt ones and paid themselves collectively tens of millions of dollars and cared more about their own glory and wealth than they did about what built Apple in the first place -- which was making great computers for people to use.
They didn't care about that anymore. They didn't have a clue about how to do it and they didn't take any time to find out because that's not what they cared about. They cared about making a lot of money. So they had this wonderful thing that a lot of brilliant people made called the Macintosh and they got very greedy. And instead of following the original trajectory of the original vision -- which was to make this thing an appliance, to get this out there to as many people as possible -- they went for profits and they made outlandish profits for about four years. Apple was one of the most profitable companies in America for about four years.
What that cost them was the future. What they should have been doing was making reasonable profits and going for market share, which was what we always tried to do.
Macintosh would have had a 33% market share right now, maybe even higher, maybe it would have even been Microsoft, but we'll never know. Now it's got a single-digit market share and falling. There's no way to ever get that moment in time back. The Macintosh will die in another few years and it's really sad.
The problem is this: No one at Apple has a clue as to how to create the next Macintosh because no one running any part of Apple was there when the Macintosh was made -- or any other product at Apple. They've just been living off that one thing now for over a decade and the last attempt was the Newton and you know what happened to that.
It's kind of tragic, but as unemotionally as I can be, that's what's happening. Unless somebody pulls a rabbit out of a hat, companies tend to have long glide slopes because of the installed bases. But Apple is just gliding down this slope and they're losing market share every year. Things start to spiral down once you get under a certain threshold. And when developers no longer write applications for your computer, that's when it really starts to fall apart.
There's obviously a lot of emotional attachment to Apple. Oh sure. Apple could have lived forever and kept shipping great products forever. Apple was for awhile like Sony. It was the place that made the coolest stuff.
Is there a user of Apple or a story that you could tell that in your mind exemplifies what the company stood for and its values at its best? What customers were using the Apple when you were there? There were two kinds of customers. There were the educational aspects of Apple and then there were sort of the non-educational.
On the non-educational side, Apple was two things. One, it was the first "lifestyle" computer and, secondly, it's hard to remember how bad it was in the early 1980's. With IBM taking over the world with the PC, with DOS out there; it was far worse than the Apple II. They tried to copy the Apple II and they had done a pretty bad job.
You needed to know a lot. Things were kind of slipping backwards. You saw the 1984 commercial. Macintosh was basically this relatively small company in Cupertino, California, taking on the goliath, IBM, and saying "Wait a minute, your way is wrong. This is not the way we want computers to go. This is not the legacy we want to leave. This is not what we want our kids to be learning. This is wrong and we are going to show you the right way to do it and here it is. It's called Macintosh and it is so much better. It's going to beat you and you're going to do it."
And that's what Apple stood for. That was one of the things.
The other thing was a little bit further back in time. One of the things that built Apple II's was schools buying Apple II's; but even so there was about only 10% of the schools that even had one computer in them in 1979 I think it was. When I grew up I was lucky because I was in Silicon Valley. When I was ten or eleven I saw my first computer. It was down at NASA Ames [Research Center]. I didn't see the computer, I saw a terminal and it was theoretically a computer on the other end of the wire. I fell in love with it.
I saw my first desktop computer at Hewlett-Packard which was called the 9100A. It was the first desktop in the world. It ran BASIC and APL, I think. I fell in love with it.
And I thought, looking at these statistics in 1979, I thought if there was just one computer in every school, some of the kids would find it. It will change their life.
We saw the rate at which this was happening and the rate at which the school bureaucracies were deciding to buy a computer for the school and it was real slow. We realized that a whole generation of kids was going to go through the school before they even got their first computer, so we thought: The kids can't wait. We wanted to donate a computer to every school in America.
It turns out that there are about a hundred thousand schools in America, about ten thousand high schools, about ninety thousand K through 8. We couldn't afford that as a company. But we studied the law and it turned out that there was a law already on the books, a national law that said that if you donated a piece of scientific instrumentation or computer to a university for educational and research purposes you can take an extra tax deduction. That basically means you don't make any money, you lose some but you don't lose too much. You lose about ten percent.
We thought that if we could apply that law, enhance it a little bit to extend it down to K through 8 and remove the research requirements so it was just educational, then we could give a hundred thousand computers away, one to each school in America and it would cost our company ten million dollars which was a lot of money to us at that time but it was less than a hundred million dollars if we didn't have that. We decided that we were willing to do that.
It was one of the most incredible things I've ever done. We found our local representative, Pete Stark over in East Bay and Pete and a few of us sat down an we wrote a bill. We literally drafted a bill to make these changes. We said "If this law changes we will donate a hundred thousand computers at a cost of ten million dollars to us."
We called it "the kids can't wait bill." Pete Stark introduced it in the House and Senator Danforth introduced it in the Senate and I refused to hire any lobbyists and I went back to Washington myself and I actually walked the halls of Congress for about two weeks, which was the most incredible thing. I met probably two-thirds of the House and over half of the Senate myself and sat down and talked with them.
It was very interesting. I found that the House Members are routinely less intelligent than the Senate and they were much more kneejerk to their constituencies -- which I found initially quite offensive but came to understand later to be a really good idea. Maybe that's what the framers wanted. They weren't supposed to think too much, they were supposed to represent. The Senators are supposed to think a little more. The Bill passed the House with the largest favorable majority of any tax bill in the history of this country. What happened was it was in during Carter's lame duck session and Bob Dole who was then Speaker of the House killed it. He would not bring it to the floor and we ran out of time. We would have had to have started the process over in the next year and I gave up.
However, fortunately something unique happened. California thought this was such a good idea they came to us and said "You don't have to do a thing. We're going to pass a bill that says 'Since you operate in the State of California and pay California Tax, we're going to pass this bill that says that if the federal bill doesn't pass, then you get the tax break in California'. You can do it in California, which is ten thousand schools". So we did. We gave away ten thousand computers in the State of California. We got a whole bunch of the software companies to give away software. We trained teachers for free and monitored this thing over the next few years. It was phenomenal. One of my great experiences and one of my biggest regrets was that really tried to do this on a national level and got so close. I don't think Bob Dole even knew what he was doing but he really unfortunately screwed up here.
That's a great story. That's part of what Apple was about.