The Tech Conundrum: No Company would Ever Hire a Steve Jobs

By Rob Enderle August 31, 2011

Last week Google shut down another failed project, this one was a recent $200M acquisition.     There has been a lot of that of late, with  Cisco shuttering $500M Flip and HP holding the record with its near shuttering of the $1.2B Palm.     The big news is Steve Jobs stepping down from Apple and while it amazes me how many people appear to think that won’t change Apple, given how unique and integrated he is at that company, an even bigger wonder is that the employee selection process at all the tech firms generally would prevent a young Steve Jobs from being hired, let alone promoted into management.     Now he did make it into Atari but he likely should have been fired by them.   

Think about that for a moment…if you look at Steve’s background and took it against engineering-centric hiring practices, the CEO of the decade couldn’t get a job as a secretary let alone in management.    That would be like saying if Hercules applied for a job as US football linebacker no one would take him even though he could likely take out the entire line of the opposing by himself (if he were real of course).  

And here is the kicker; I don’t think Apple would hire him either since they employ similar practices.     To me that goes beyond being sad, yet I don’t see anyone working to even understand this problem let alone fix it.   Let’s explore this.  

Post Jobs:   An Increasingly Drab Technology World

What brought this to mind was a recent review of Jobs’ own prophetic quotes.   The two that stand out were made in 1996:

“I am saddened, not by Microsoft’s success — I have no problem with their success. They’ve earned their success, for the most part. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third-rate products.” (Triumph of the Nerds, 1996) 

“It’s like when IBM drove a lot of innovation out of the computer industry before the microprocessor came along. Eventually, Microsoft will crumble because of complacency, and maybe some new things will grow. But until that happens, until there’s some fundamental technology shift, it’s just over.” (Wired, February 1996)

“The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste. And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products.”

“The desktop computer industry is dead. Innovation has virtually ceased. Microsoft dominates with very little innovation. That’s over. Apple lost. The desktop market has entered the dark ages, and it’s going to be in the dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of this decade.”

This is the world that existed before Jobs came back to Apple and set an example.   We’d gone to largely beige boxes and there were even beige laptops.   Even Apple made them.   Apple never dominated PCs but he made design important and his competition against Microsoft gave us Windows 7 and had a massive influence on Windows 8 (which is looking really good).  

This is on top of the part that he was CEO of the decade.  

But No One Would Hire Him

He never graduated college. That alone would have kept him from even being interviewed at places like Microsoft or Google (realize that Bill Gates didn’t graduate either).    Now if you read his background, even if he got the job, he likely wouldn’t make it through the first 3 months.  

In fact he was fired from Apple for some of this bad behavior and it was a quirk of fate that brought him back on board with the NeXT operating system that Apple so desperately needed to stay alive.    In effect, he came back in a bit more mature, at the top of an organization he couldn’t move up through.    When Apple was failing and the board needed a new person to run it, they apparently didn’t (at least there is no record that they did) consider Steve Jobs, instead hiring Gil Amelio who was, based on his background, really a bad fit.    You get the sense that they were pretty much looking for warm bodies who had been CEOs of similarly sized tech firms, not for the skills necessary to drive a consumer technology company.  

Wrapping Up:   Why Most CEOs Suck

If you think about it, most CEOs, when compared to Steve Jobs, suck.   But that is because they typically arrive by a magical process where they out-maneuvered their peers to get to the top job using skills that aren’t particularly useful when they arrive.    They typically were really good at one specialty, self-promotion, and one-on-one meetings. Then they get a job where the skill set required encompasses a complex company, puts them in front of large audiences, and requires them to sell the company and its products to investors.    A running joke in the tech industry is that most of the CEOs wouldn’t know how to use most of the products they sell. It is actually kind of a surprise that we don’t have more companies failing than we do.    

I actually think it would be worthwhile to develop a process to find and nurture the next Steve Jobs, hell, I think it would be good for the industry and the country if we had a lot more of them than just one.   Finding the raw talent that could become a Steve Jobs and then refining it is doable.   I’m just surprised that I can’t find anyone who is interested, even at Apple, in doing it.    Kind of sad when you think about it.  

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Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group. To read more of his articles on TechZone360, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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