Lessons from Steve Jobs

He left behind a life strewn with lessons others can use

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs (Photo courtesy of Apple)

As I sat stunned by the news that Apple Chairman Steve Jobs -- technology visionary, founder of two computer companies and master marketer -- had died, I couldn't help but think about his life and career, both at Apple and during his time away at NeXT and Pixar.

Lately, we've seen a series of CEO shufflings and near-scandals in the tech world -- most recently at HP and Yahoo -- along with CEOs that never quite seem to live up to their role in major companies. I think that there are some prescient lessons that CEOs and managers in all sectors and in companies of all shapes and sizes can learn from Jobs' example.

Be committed to excellence -- Steve Jobs was nothing if not a perfectionist, and many of Apple's most successful products (the original Mac, iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad) grew out of his seemingly endless quest for a product, or a company, to be the very best it could be.

Keep it simple -- One hallmark of many of Apple's recent products, like the iPhone and iPad (both creations of Jobs and Jonathan Ive), is their simplicity. The concept of a device or of a piece of software is pared down to its core, leaving something that is uncluttered and easy to learn and looks beautiful in its minimal approach.

Design matters -- All of Apple's products, from OS X to the iPad to Apple's retail stores, have a signature look and feel to them. That's unique for such a diverse company, but it instantly communicates itself. Design, be it industrial, graphic or architectural, matters immensely and should easily communicate itself to customers and clients.

The user experience begins at the store -- This is where Apple retail and product packaging is brilliant. It sets the mood for a product, guides the customer, excites them and takes them on a journey from the first second of an unboxing through the day-after-day use of a product. User experience is a key part to almost any company -- even when it may not seem obvious.

Marketing is about understanding and connecting with people -- Entire books have been written about Jobs' ability to market solutions. Apple's iPad and iPhone commercials are successful for a single reason: They don't focus on tech specs that many viewers won't understand, and they don't focus on special effects or other gimmicks. They simply show someone using the device, which lets the viewer connect to it in their mind and begin to understand it and why they might want it.

Be involved in every facet of your organization -- During Jobs' time as Apple's CEO, the organization chart resembled a wheel with Steve at the center and managers or departments as the spokes. That almost certainly won't work for most other CEOs, but being aware of what's going on in every part of a company -- and taking an active interest and role in those disparate elements -- builds a better, more tightly connected team.

Inspire those around you -- One of my favorite anecdotes about the original development of the Mac was Jobs' insistence that the team could put a dent in the universe. That's a tall order (though you can easily argue that they succeeded), but it inspired a team that worked as much as 90-plus hours a week. Inspiration is a powerful force and one that every CEO or manager should strive to master in his or her own way.

When you get knocked down, get back up -- This should be obvious, but Jobs really exhibited that spirit. After being forced out of Apple in the mid-1980s, he could have retired, spent his considerable fortune any way he chose, and rested on some sizeable laurels. Instead, he went on to found another computer company. NeXT never achieved the status of Apple -- at least not until 1997, when Apple bought it. That led to Jobs' amazing return to Apple and the transformation of the company that followed.

Changing the world once is never enough -- One of the most amazing things about Jobs is that he revolutionized several industries and literally changed the world multiple times: He helped usher in the PC era with the Apple II; made GUI computers marketable; created the first MP3 player to gain mass market appeal; oversaw the digital distribution of music and other media through iTunes; created the first all-touch screen smartphone and helped build a new software distribution method for it (and for desktop computers); and took the concept of a tablet computer from niche product to mainstream must-have.

We may not all be able to change the world, but real leaders strive to do as much as they can. That's the difference between being a leader and simply being a manager or boss.

While the world today seems a smaller and less-inspired place with Steve Jobs gone, perhaps one tribute we can all give him -- particularly those of us in leadership positions -- is to take some inspiration from the way he lived and apply that to our own lives and work.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple Inc., has passed away. Which of his accomplishments at Apple will be his legacy?

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