In the popular conception, the late Steve Jobs is a megalomaniacal jerk who screamed, bullied, and pushed until he got whatever he wanted.
But according to Don Melton, who started the Safari and WebKit projects at Apple, Jobs was a bit misunderstood. “Steve was not some mercurial ogre or cartoon autocrat. He was just very, very busy,” Melton wrote in a recent posting on his personal site. “He didn’t have time for ‘yes men,’ the easily frightened, or those who didn’t know what the [expletive] they were doing or talking about.”
Just like any other business executive, Melton added, Jobs demanded excellence from his subordinates. Melton himself endured several punishing product reviews over the years, as Jobs systematically tore apart various builds of Safari.
“He knew when something was right, but he didn’t always tell you what he wanted when it wasn’t,” is how the posting describes Jobs’ process. “And he was very clear when he didn’t like it. Some misinterpreted this behavior as being overly critical, but it was actually time-saving clarity, albeit uncomfortable on occasion.”
Jobs had a habit of firing off unexpected questions, partially to see how subordinates would react. Before his first meeting with Jobs—and this counsel could well apply to anyone with a big presentation to give before a superior—Melton was advised to get to the point, never make up answers, and remain calm. Armed with that information, he would make it through multiple meetings with Jobs over the years—and now believes that, thanks to the experience, he can pretty much handle anyone on the planet.
Other publications and colleagues, of course, have detailed Jobs at his worst: berating everyone from contractors to smoothie-makers, firing people without notice or severance, and denying stock options to early Apple employees. “There are other times, I think honestly, when he’s very frustrated, and his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody,” Apple design maestro Jony Ive once told Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson. “And I think he feels he has a liberty and license to do that.”
Whatever Jobs’ faults, though, Melton emphasizes that his former boss was a “real person” who “had to deal with the ordinary and mundane aspects of life like everyone else.” Whatever your opinion of Apple’s mercurial co-founder, it’s also undeniable that the man conducted an intense product review.
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