How to Hire the Next Steve Jobs

Nolan Bushnell knows how to spot talent. Among the hires he made two years after he founded Atari in 1972 was an intense and difficult young man who wasn’t fond of bathing. His name was Steve Jobs. In fact, Bushnell was one of the very few bosses Jobs ever had, and the two were close friends for decades.

Finding the Next Steve Jobs book coverIn Finding the Next Steve Jobs (written with Gene Stone), Bushnell  reveals his strategies for identifying out-of-the-box thinkers who can propel a company forward with creativity even if, like Jobs, they are most definitely not the kind of docile and pliable team players that most managers seek out.

After an interesting portrait of Jobs as a young man, Bushnell offers 51 quick, anecdote-driven pieces of advice for hiring managers, divided into two categories: finding people like Jobs and keeping people like Jobs. In both sections his suggestions are clever, inspiring, counterintuitive, and sometimes controversial.

His main premise is that rules stink. “Situations vary. Flexibility is always necessary. If you try to apply the same rules to every person or circumstance, you will find you’ve planted a field that is sterile and homogenous. In that environment, creativity will wither and die. The constant application of inflexible rules stifles the imagination.”

And so, he says, ignore college credentials, invent wacky job titles, accommodate the personal quirks of potentially creative employees, hire obnoxious people, even hire crazy people, although to be clear, when he says crazy he means people like the Wright Brothers or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, not true lunatics. Hire the people who come up to you after you make a speech. Hire waiters or salespeople who love their job and make you a happy customer. Always ask interviewees about the books they read, and consider taking them sailing or bowling to see how they react when they’re out of their comfort zone.

How do you hang onto your creative employees? Bushnell has a fun streak (he was also the founder of Chuck E. Cheese), and he doesn’t seem to mind the kind of liberal workplace that would make many managers squirm. Scatter toys around the office, he says. Throw beer busts on Fridays. Promote pranks. Let employees set up secret skunk works. Host retreats. Give out funny awards for the worst ideas of the quarter. You can even encourage ADHD of a sort by understanding that truly creative people get bored working on a single project and letting them launch several efforts at the same time.

“Creativity is every company’s first driver,” Bushnell writes. “It’s where everything starts, where energy and forward motion originate.” So if you stumble across someone as creative and productive as Steve Jobs and he wants to sleep under his desk, then get him a futon and install a shower in the men’s room. If he wants to bring his dog to work, let him. (If he wants to bring his gun to work, however, draw the line.)

By the time you finish breezing through Bushnell’s fun advice, you’ll probably wish you worked for him, but you’ll also probably think that the ideal workplace he envisions might be a little tough to manage. Nevertheless, even coming out of the box part way is better than staying totally stuck inside it. Creativity won’t thrive in the dark.

Finding the Next Steve Jobs, by Norman Bushnell, paperback, 280 pages. Published by Net Minds Corp.

3 Responses to “How to Hire the Next Steve Jobs”

  1. I respect Mr. Bushnell opinion and agree with him on the need to break stereotypes, for the same reason I am doubtful of some of his recommendations that has become stinky stereotypes.
    We should look at Bushnell’s recommendations as tips but beware of standards. “Standards are good for making thing better not for making better things. Standards are usually very bad for evaluating peoples be careful with profiling if you are looking for talents.”
    I really have trouble with his statement “ignore college credentials”. I agree that college credentials (particularly from certain colleges and universities) mean not too much today but I would like to remind him how much we have gained through history from scholars and university graduates: Plato, Aristotle, Newton, Galileo, Copernic, Einstein, Pasteur, Fermi, to mention a few. Knowledge is not always acquired from formal high education but this is only true for not too many autodidact people. My favorite quote from Alfred North Whitehead says: “Fools act on imagination without knowledge, pedants act on knowledge without imagination.”
    You don’t hire people like Steve Jobs and when you have the fortune or misfortune to hire one you usually fire them or you destroy them. There is very little place in corporate America to such spirits.
    Most of the so-called talent acquisition managers don’t have an idea of what talent they need or even what talent means in the first place.
    HR is not the only problem. There is also a problem with the status quo of dense bureaucratic managerial layers with their own agenda, motivations and also with us. We create mental models of good and bad, right and wrong that must be there but are not monitored and tested constantly against the reality.
    I agree 100 % with Mr. Bushnell about the need for a good environment where innovation can not only grow freely but be properly nurtured and used “remember Xerox Palo Alto?”. The best seed will die in sterile soil and even substandard kernels will flourish in a fertile environment.
    A successful business needs the right combination of People, Processes, Information and a sound leadership able to properly manage these 3 keys factors.

  2. People like Steve Jobs don’t make great employees, they make great entrepreneurs and business owners. If you hire “someone like Steve Jobs,” that person will likely not last at your company (or any company other than their own) for very long. Much better to invest in their business than invest in hiring them as part of your own.