Why I Will Miss Steve Jobs

2011 December 01 05:57 PM

Take a look at the screenshot below, from the iPhone iOS5 weather app:

Screenshot of weather application from iOS5 showing one-week weather forecast

See that word “hourly”? It has meaning. Touching it, or anywhere on the screen, results the display of hourly weather data:

Screenshot of weather application from iOS5 showing hourly weather forecast

False Affordances

So whats wrong with this?

Fixing these sorts of problems prior to release requires one individual to have total ownership of the product. With Steve gone, an no apparent iPhone czar replacement, the number of similar paper cuts in iOS will grow over time.

And this is why I will miss Steve Jobs: he was perhaps the greatest example of our time of the meaning of “ownership”.

What is Ownership?

I once worked on a leaderless software team. I approached my manager and explained that no one on the team felt a sense of ownership over the product. He has no idea what I was talking about and started rambling something about how “everyone is working really hard and if you don’t like it, leave.” I took his advice and, shortly thereafter, the project failed.

There are 3 elements of product ownership.

Caring About the Product

Paul Graham has described this as the thing you think about while taking a shower.

The same applies in marriage. There is an episode of House in which a man turned orange and mentions that his wife hadn’t noticed the change. House diagnoses the problem as drinking too much carrot juice (delish!), and further declares that the patients wife must be cheating on him. This turns out to be true. When you don’t care, or are distracted, you don’t notice the little problems. You are thinking about the wrong thing when taking your shower.

Caring about the product enables you to notice every little problem with it. When you hear some anecdote about Steve Jobs chewing out an engineer because something is 5 pixels off, that is caring about the product. Apathy dulls perception.

Enjoying the benefits of success

This is where every large company falls flat on its face. In medium or large sized companies, the benefits of a product’s success do not accrue to the responsible team, but to the company.

Because corporate owners want to earn as much profit as possible, they often attempt to persuade employees that this element doesn’t matter. Joel Spolsky is notorious for this - he has written at length about why compensation and bonuses are bad ideas - that employees should be driven by “intrinsic” motivation. What a bunch of communist garbage.

I have intrinsic motivation to master the skills that I care about or to build my career - programming, business, marketing, and playing Call of Duty are all things I intrinsically care about. However, working on a specific product is never intrinsically motivated. When someone tells you that asking for more money is wrong, that you should be “intrinsically motivated”, what they are really asking you to do is to abdicate reason. If you are working on a project, there must be a reason, and if that reason is anything other than a desire to make money, or otherwise improve your (or your loved one’s) material well-being, your reasoning assuredly faulty.

Of course, the route to making money doesn’t have to be direct. You might work an unpaid internship in order to build skills in order to eventually get a good paying job. But this is obviously different from developing skill mastery that you care about. You don’t have to pay me money to get me to learn a new programming language (or to play call of duty), I love doing it. But you do have to pay me to use those skills to build your product.

Suffering the costs of failure

Enjoying the benefits of success is the carrot, suffering the costs of failure is the stick. And once again, most medium and large corporations get this totally wrong. They try to shield employees from failure by merging failing teams into the rest of the company rather than firing everyone.

Suffering the costs of failures enables better judgement of risk. Sure, you could decide to stop all work on your year-old project to write a new c compiler, or design a doohickey, but it will dramatically increase your team’s odds of failure. Programmers are notorious for this sort of thing, but this model makes it perfectly clear why. Programmers almost never enjoy the benefits of success (beyond a modest salary). Thus, any programmer that actually cares about programming will seek to improve their intrinsic skills, even if its is detrimental to the success of the project. Put another way, because the programmer’s compensation is low, their cost of failure is low as well, and so they do not assign high risk to project failure - instead, they assign high risk to failing to develop their own skills. After all, it is trivial to find a crap paying programming job - engineers never experienced the great recession. The only way out of crap paying programming jobs is through further skill development.

If project failure does not result in a greater loss to you than failure to develop your intrinsic values, you do not own the product.

What it means

If you are building a startup, you need to own it.

You have to care about the product, so it needs to align with your skills and interests. Trying to build a startup in an area you don’t care about means you will fail to address problems and to seize opportunities that your more caring competitors will exploit.

You have to benefit from you success, so excessive outside investment or too many co-founders diluting your stake will destroy your ability to stay focused.

You have to suffer from failure, so you can’t keep your day job. Perhaps you can build a prototype while employed, but, if you want to take it to the next level, you must quit your job and embrace the startup.

Steve Jobs showed the success possible by embracing these values, and he changed the world in the process.

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