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Silicon Valley veteran doing Technical Community Management. Photographer with a strong interest in birds, wildlife and nature who is exploring the Western states and working to tell you the stories of the special places I've found.
Author and Blogger. They are not the same thing. Sports occasionally spoken here, especially hockey. Veteran of Sun, Apple, Palm, HP and now Infoblox, plus some you've never heard of. They didn't kill me, they made me better.
Person with opinions, and not afraid to share them. Debate team in high school and college; bet that's a surprise.
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Monthly Archives: August 2011
Amelio is a smart and impressive man, and he’s known for leading the team that developed the first commercial CCD sensors while working for Fairchild Semiconductor. He later became CEO of another chip manufacturer, National Semiconductor, where he was instrumental in restructuring the company and helping it to regain profitability. Amelio was there to give us confidence after Apple had been pretty bruised under John Sculley and Michael Spindler.
It wasn’t an encouraging visit.
I remember Amelio going on and on about the past problems at Apple, and how he was going to fix them. Click here for an Apple video of ‘the speech.’ He had a long list of fixes, but what was lacking was a coherent, compelling vision. He was going to do ‘something’ about the clones, finally replace System 7, and settle down all the politics and warfare between Apple divisions.
I had some specific questions, but he dodged them. It wasn’t convincing, and I wondered if Apple was going to pull itself out of what seemed a certain death spiral. After killing Copland and failing to make a deal for the BeOS, Amelio invested in NeXT and brought Steve Jobs back to Apple. At the end, Amelio got Apple back to making a small profit, after years of losing millions. It was a tiny victory, but certainly not a turn-around.
Amelio was finally ousted from Apple in July 1997 via a boardroom coup engineered by Jobs. The rest is history.
As someone who was there, I don’t think Amelio has gotten credit for what he did, only blame for what he couldn’t. So a few quick words in defense of Amelio might be in order.
Michael Spindler left behind an exceptionally broken company that was bleeding from all pores. Product quality sucked. Morale sucked. Inter-division fights and politics had many company operations almost at a standstill. The company proceeded to lose over a billion dollars in a quarter, which even today is a lot of money.
He fixed a lot of things. He staunched most of the flowing red ink. He restructured QA. He re-arranged the product lines away from Spindler’s ongoing disasters.
He stabilized the patient. He kept it alive until they cold transport the patient to a medical team that could patch it up properly. Without Amelio, Apple would not have lasted long enough to allow Steve to figure out how to turn it around.
One of the things he did was NOT buy Gassee’s company, Be. The general consensus on the inside of Apple at the time was Gassee felt Apple had no other options and got greedy on the pricing. True? I wasn’t there. But the expectation among all of us was that Be and Gassee was coming, and then all of a sudden it was off, and then all of a sudden, it was Steve. And the rest was history. It went against the common thinking of the time, and it can’t have been an easy decision to bring back a company founder and someone who clearly could make a play for control of the company (and ultimately did). It took some serious guts to make that call, and Amelio did it.
Now, there were things Amelio couldn’t do. He was a numbers guy. He tried to connect to the geeks and couldn’t. they never seemed to warm to him, and so he struggled to motivate and work on morale. He wasn’t really a product innovator; the national semiconductor background is as a jellybean semiconductor company where product generations are tied to fairly discrete improvements. The product like didn’t catch on fire as much as it used to, but it still didn’t inspire. He fought organizational intransigence but didn’t seem willing to put heads on stakes; he wanted to convince people to follow him instead of realizing that sometimes, you have to not give them the option of saying no, and killing them if they don’t obey.
That wasn’t a problem for Steve. And it was necessary; a few public beheadings in front of IL1, where division heads who played the “I outlasted the last two CEOs, I can ignore you until you’re gone” game suddenly went away, and all of the other people who were putting their own priorities ahead of Apple either straightened up or ran for the exits.
Steve was the reconstructive surgeon in Tokyo who did the reconstructive surgery and made the patient healthy and pretty again, but Amelio was the guy in the Mash tent near enemy lines who kept them alive long enough to get there. (and if I want to stretch this analogy into silliness, that would make Mike Spindler north korea, not Microsoft. IMHO. but I won’t go there).
So while Steve did a transformation on the company that I still marvel at (even as I watched it happening from the inside), that was possible because of the foundation that was laid before he returned, and that foundation was laid by Gil Amelio. And generally, he doesn’t get much credit for that. Mostly because he’s not Steve, and Steve is a hard act to follow (or precede).
And then there’s that great unanswerable question: what if they had bought Be instead of NeXT and brought in Gassee instead of Jobs? What would Apple be today? Or would it just be a memory of what once was?
If you really want to understand the impact of Steve Jobs on society, try to conceive of what our society would look like today if he had never been returned to Apple and never took it back over. Imagine a world without Apple, not just the products it ships, but the products it’s forced everyone else to innovate to keep up….
This world would be a much different place, and it’s hard to see many scenarios where it would be better off without him.
I happened to be having coffee today with an old friend today, someone who’d worked with me back at Apple. I got the news on Steve as I left the parking lot just after we’d broken up the party.
I’ve been pondering Steve and his impact on my life since. My direct interactions with him were quite limited; I almost ran over him once outside of Infinite Loop 1 as I was coming in for a meeting and he popped into the street without really looking, Jon Rubenstein and Eddy Cue in tow. He almost returned the favor once as he drove in to work as I was in the same crosswalk headed to yet another meeting on the loop. I spent a number of afternoons in his board room on the fourth floor in customer and vendor meetings, especially when open source companies like Zend were part of the discussion, because early on, I was one of the noisy ones about those technologies. He was never at those meetings, but his presence was.
I remember standing in IL1 one day when Fred Forsyth popped out of the stairwell and hurried out onto the street, and I realized he was using the stairs to avoid ending up in an elevator with Steve. He wasn’t alone. Steve could be — was — tried to be at times — a very intimidating person. His saving grace was that he held himself to the same standards he expected of others. Too few leaders do that.
Mostly, I’ve been sitting back and realizing just want an impact the man has had on my life. not JUST my years at Apple, but all across my life. The Apple II was the first computer I used instead of peeked. I bought an early Mac — a 512K — and later put a massive ten gig hard drive on it via the floppy port, and upgrading it to a huge 2 megabytes of RAM. I never thought I’d fill that drive up.
I did, of course, and many drives since. I’ve spent some time tonight trying to think about how many Macs I’ve owned over the years, and in all honesty, I can’t. My time at Apple spanned the Mac II to the Mac Pro, an just stop for a second to think about how much these computers changed and how much power they gained in that time — and despite that and all of the enhancements added to the system over that time, someone familiar with a Mac Pro would find a Mac II usable, and vice versa. they’re both recognizably Macs.
One of the things that drove me in the last years at Apple was that I was in a situation where I could create things that allowed a company that was reshaping society the ability to do so; how often do you have the opportunity to “move the needle” in a meaningful way?
Steve moved that needle almost routinely. His “one more thing” became a cliche; underneath that cliche those one more things have transformed the world we live in.
I am who I am today in large part because of Steve. Not directly, but through the companies he founded and the products he built and the technologies he fostered; even more importantly, because of the people he brought in and mentored who turned into people that mentored me. Because of the thinking and attitudes he promoted and inoculated that became part of what I’ve become.
What makes me melancholy today is that this is clearly the end of an era. Pundits will now start proclaiming this the end of apple, of course, because that’s what pundits do. Eventually they’ll be right, too, because nothing lasts forever. But while there is nobody at Apple who can be Steve, the most important thing he did at Apple was build a team of people who each understand what is needed so that collectively they can carry on what Steve did. None of them alone is Steve; collectively, they have been taught to understand the how and why of Steve, and so I think Apple is going to be fine.
What makes me happy today is something even more important — that Steve chose to walk away on his terms, with his shield and not on it. He’s smart enough to pull back before life does it for him.
Here’s hoping he continue to enjoy his life on his terms without the pressures of trying to run a company like Apple, and be a person like Steve in that goldfish bowl he’s lived in. Now is his opportunity to just be Steve, be with his family and friends, and enjoy life on his terms. I do hope we as a society gives him that opportunity and doesn’t try to peek and peer more than he wishes us to.
So thanks, Steve. I’m the person I am because of you, what you did, the opportunities you created, and the attitudes and expectations you baked into those around you.
When I left Apple, I had a stack of pictures of mine printed, and I wrote up thank you notes to a bunch of people who’d been influences in my time there. the first one I did and delivered was to Steve. No idea if he got it or kept it; doesn’t matter, either. But it was important to me at the time to say thanks to a bunch of folks, and he was at the front of that line.
Tonight, I say thanks again, because you can never say it too many times.