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Steve Jobs Is Gone; Turn the Page

I watched the video of a commencement address given by Steve Jobs in 2005 to graduating students at Stanford University and had mixed emotions about it. The late chairman and ex-CEO of {complink 379|Apple Inc.}, wrapped up his address with the phrase, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” It has since gone viral and been folded into the growing pile of witty, catchy, and supposedly “great” maxims of our generation. (For those who might not have seen it, the video is at the end of this blog.)

Jobs apparently believed in the statement and used it to his advantage, but he also had numerous problems along the way. Throughout the second half of his life, after being tossed out of Apple when he clashed with the then CEO, Jobs himself probably wondered if he wasn't over-hungry and maybe too foolish. He also had some scorn tossed his way, with many believing that even his return to Apple in the late 90s was unlikely to save the company.

The man dropped out of college but audited enough courses to (in my opinion) earn a college degree. Today, however, people are focused more on the fact that he didn't finish college and yet became a billionaire and an industry icon. We forget that it could have turned out differently for him. How many people similarly dropped out of college before and after him, and we don't know their stories today simply because they failed spectacularly? As someone recently told me, “In a war, only the victor gets to tell and frame the story; we hardly ever hear from or care what the loser has to say.”

I asked my kids to watch Jobs's Stanford speech and hope they'll draw the right lessons from it. I can't tell them what those “right” lessons might be, though. As they grow up they'll figure that out and come up with a few of their own. What I know is that I don't want them to not get a college education. This is why: Steve Jobs didn't earn a college degree, but I don't believe he ever hung a sign out at Apple's headquarters for college dropouts to come and work at the company. Instead, he recruited well educated technocrats, and lots of them. “As of September 25, 2010, the company had approximately 46,600 full-time equivalent employees,” Apple said in its most recent annual Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

Many of the positions that made Apple what it is today are filled by degree holders, including software engineers, chip designers, accountants, supply chain experts, etc., who stayed in college, earned their degrees, and toiled day and night, unknown, in a cubicle for the great Jobs. They are a part of his story and a part of his success. They are unsung today, however, because not one of them is Steve Jobs; no company gets to have two of such in a generation. To these unsung heroes, I say, “Thank you, for staying hungry and foolish in your own peculiar way.”

And now that Jobs is gone, these individuals are the way forward for Apple, the electronics industry, and the larger economy. One of them may turn out to be larger than Jobs later in life, but for now, keeping the industry humming will involve the humdrum work that many of us are good at but for which we'll never be recognized, except perhaps by the fellow in the cubicle next to us and in the annual company events.

Apple in recent years has not broken any new ground in product innovation. Yes, that statement may seem controversial, but the company didn't invent the digital music player, the smartphone, or the tablet PC. It instead modified them and made them hugely attractive. That was the Steve Jobs genius. But we need more than incremental improvements. I long for greater innovations, the jaw-dropping ones that rip through technology barriers and turn the industry on its head. So far, the industry has been shockingly lacking in these. Jobs led the great expansion in the sales of music players, smartphones, and tablet PCs, but all the major OEMs have done is tag along when they could have been breaking new ground themselves. Now that Jobs is gone, who is going to take this industry to new heights?

To be truly “hungry and foolish”, the industry cannot afford to merely stick with the Steve Jobs way; it worked for him but won't for the rest of us. Rather, the next geniuses of the electronics market must pore through the legacy of leaders like Jobs, pick whatever they like from these, dismantle and shatter the myths we've created about them, and chart their own paths. Jobs is gone — a new generation must arise in its own peculiarly hungry and foolish way.

Here's Jobs's speech at Stanford:

17 comments on “Steve Jobs Is Gone; Turn the Page

  1. DataCrunch
    October 10, 2011

    Bolaji, well said.  There are others and there will be others that will provide the world with breakthrough innovations.  What was different with Steve Jobs is that his personality gave him a cult-like status.  That is different than just being book smart and a very unique characteristic.    

  2. arenasolutions
    October 10, 2011

    I thought this was really well said, and an interesting perspective. Particularly on the point of college. Post-graduation a lot of people I knew were looking to work at Apple. And counter to the message of the 2005 speech, it was the stereotypical “achievers” getting hired . . . the people with degrees in the right subject, from the right school. So, that was something to think about.

    Re: the other point you made, I do think though that enough incremental change can be revolutionary, and so it shouldn't be trivialized. No Apple didn't invent music, but I would say the music experience has been completely revolutionized, and that the next generation will truly experience music in a whole new way. Who knows what the implications of that will be?

    I think that's just one example, but I believe incremental changes do make a difference – they are what ultimately led to civil rights, and womens rights, and health breakthroughs… a journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step. While tomorrow's innovators should strive to shatter the mold with something unheard of, that's not the only way that they will be able to make a difference. 

  3. AnalyzeThis
    October 10, 2011

    Bolaji, while I generally agree with you here — especially with your slightly controversial opinion that Apple hasn't truly broken any new ground when it comes to product innovation — I can't say that I also “long for greater technical innovation.”

    Yes, you are correct that there hasn't been much in the way of world-changing, industry altering, magical new devices the past bunch of years. As you say, it's been a series of incremental improvements. But these “incremental improvements” have all added up to produce what I think is an astounding amount of progress.

    Compared to 10-15 years ago, we now have access to dramatically more computing power and storage capabilities at a small fraction of the cost. One (literally) small example, let's take MicroSD: this is a pretty cool technology, a couple of gigs of storage on a card the size of your fingernail. In mid-2006, a 2 GB card cost $99. I just bought one for $5.

    Now the MicroSD may not be world-altering technology, but I still think all these “incremental improvements” add up and we've experienced a dramatic amount of technical innovation and progress in the past decade or so. Yes, it would be nice if some of the more futuristic technology started deploying a little bit quicker, but I for one am satisfied with the industry's progress.

  4. stochastic excursion
    October 10, 2011

    To me, “hungry and foolish” means what a lot of commencement speeches try to get across, which is be true to your passion in life.  Foolish, because everybody's passion is so unique, it seems foolish to follow one's own, especially if it means ditching an institution that would have you sell out your passions for a piece of paper.  Hungry because hunger refines character as it motivates excellence.  (Also because if you're a drop-out, chances are you're going to experience hunger.)

    Apple's “Chief Evangelist” in the early years was Guy Kawasaki, himself a law school drop-out (though he did graduate from Stanford).  In preaching to entrepreneurs Guy says to always hire people who are better than you, countering an instinct many managers have to hire people they can out-perform.  Undoubtedly that's part of the staying power of Apple.

    So it follows that the managers at Apple will look for people who are passionate about their work, able to get out of school what they put into it.  Some people, not for lack of drive or talent, may be unable to do that.  I credit Steve Jobs for trying to reach those people.

  5. Anna Young
    October 10, 2011

    @ Dave, I agree.What made Steve Jobs outstanding was his charisma, drive and  passion. He translated this into success.  There are others like you said with unique personalities waiting to come unto the stage of life to take the world to into another innovative dimension.

  6. Susan Fourtané
    October 10, 2011

    Dave, 

    A charismatic personality is part of being a good leader. 

    -Susan

  7. Parser
    October 11, 2011

    @Bolaji, Your article opens up so many good points. I would add that recent sales of iPhone 4s are the show of a cult like status. People hold on to the last piece of Jobs legacy. Apple will have a really hard time next year. They will have to beat the competition and legacy. 

    Who is going to take such a challenge?

  8. saranyatil
    October 11, 2011

    Apple will have a really hard time next year.

    Parser its so true as you rightly mentioned they are goin to face a big battle field with so many companies working on innovation.

    I am just thinkin if Cook can handle this challenge and how successful will he be.

  9. Jay_Bond
    October 11, 2011

    This was an excellent article and brought up some very good key points. I think you were spot on when talking about Apple and inventions. The biggest thing Apple did was take items we already had like music players and phones and make them better. They made them unique and innovative, but they still existed. I too am waiting for the next “big thing”, the item that gets unveiled and all you can say is “WOW”. Who is up for that task? Hopefully somebody wants that challenge.

  10. maxmin
    October 11, 2011

    Yep, Steve Jobs had no degree, but he recruited the best of the best to work for him.  See the detailed Steve Jobs bio:  http://www.allaboutstevejobs.com/bio/long/01.html or download the PDF version:  http://allaboutstevejobs.com/bio/Steve_Jobs_Bio.pdf

  11. Tim Votapka
    October 11, 2011

    There's no doubt Apple set some high standards under Jobs' leadership, and I agree the current team has some serious challenges ahead with him gone. Yet, let's not forget Jobs and Apple are two different entities. Jobs was brilliant in what he accomplished. Apple the company is a product of many individuals from Tim Cook on down.

  12. Ariella
    October 11, 2011

    Good point, Tvotapka. A company may owe a lot to a particular individual, but it takes more than one man to make it a success.

  13. Hawk
    October 11, 2011

    @Rich, You were always a riot!

  14. Mr. Roques
    October 12, 2011

    Steve Jobs and Apple are two different things. Let me repeat that.

    While Steve Jobs was a great leader (and every good thing you can come up with), I didn't buy my iPhone because I wanted to be like Steve… I bought it because it's such a good phone, its simple: “its cooler”. 

    So while leadership-wise Cook and Jobs don't compare (so far), Cook just needs to keep bringing good products and Apple should do just fine.

  15. Anna Young
    October 13, 2011

    @Mr. Roques, You're right. Steve Jobs is not Apple and vice versa. However, what I appreciated was Steve's innovative mind and the success (with the cooperation of his team of course) he brought Apple. I'm sure you'll agree that, without all these qualities and success, he wouldn't have been a household name we all know him for. I'm sure Tim Cook is equally a good leader in is own right. I wish success in his position as the CEO of Apple.

  16. Adeniji Kayode
    October 14, 2011

    I think this is a time to know who is really the drive behind Apple's success and also a time to know if Cook can continue from where Steve stopped.

  17. JADEN
    October 19, 2011

    If there is anything that Steve Jobs proved over the years, it is that when it comes to innovation.  Apple is more of success because of his ideas.

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