Not that long ago, I found myself working at a high tech start-up. It was amazing. The company had been started by a brilliant if eccentric man who had new ideas every day. And I worked along side a hardware genius who could make just about anything work. I, of course, was doing the software. And we did some amazing things. But we ran out of money. And so the company was taken over by a bunch of would-be real estate tycoons. They forced the brilliant creator out, brought in their incompetent friends, and proceeded to destroy the company. They didn’t know anything about technology. About the only thing they knew about how high tech start-ups were managed was that everyone worked long hours in a garage.
To some extent, they were right. When I was writing the base code for our application, I spent months sleeping at the “office” because all I did was code. I loved working on that. There really is something special about working on a project that is unlike anything else in the world. What the real estate folk didn’t understand is that this is all about self-actualization. When they came in and dismantled what we had built and turned the high tech start-up into a reseller of someone else’s products, all the creative initiative was drained from the best people at the company.
But still, I would hear from these deluded tycoons that the problem with the company was that everyone wasn’t working 80 hours per week in the garage. They, of course, worked very little. When they were in the office, they were checking out the prices of boats. But they thought they were William Hewlett or Steve Jobs. What they never realized was that these guys were actual engineers. They did the actual work. Or at least they did in the beginning when they worked out of a garage.
So I have extremely mixed feelings about Aaron Sorkin’s new Steve Jobs biopic. Because the reason that people, like the real estate guys, think so highly of Steve Jobs has nothing to do with the work that he did in that garage. Wanna see the garage? Of course you do!
I have a fair amount of respect for what Jobs and Steve Wozniak did in that garage. It was cool. But why is it that Jobs is held up as a major figure in American life and not Wozniak? After all, Wozniak was the true computer genius. It’s simple: Wozniak isn’t a billionaire. So regardless what the story is that Sorkin tells in this upcoming movie, it will be about the myth of “Steve Jobs: billionaire,” not “Steve Jobs: guy who helped out while Steve Wozniak created the Apple-1.” To me, Steve Jobs is that guy who created an extremely litigious company that held back innovation in the computer industry. (Don’t worry: I say even worse things about Bill Gates!)
There’s a difference between people who really get things done and make the world a better (or at least more interesting) place, and people who are just really good at self-promotion. It is the ultimate question you have to answer when you are buying anything, but most definitely anything having to do with computers. Are you going to be like the would be real estate tycoons and buy into the myth. Or are you going to see reality. Being blinded by myth is an extremely costly choice.