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1976 letter from Silicon Valley exec calls Steve Jobs 'flaky' and a 'joker' (cnbc.com)
71 points by Scramblejams 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

Steve Jobs WAS a flakey joker though.

My father was a senior engineer and manager at NeXT, and I often came to the office with him as they built their own manufacturing line. I learned to write my first GUI code on a NeXT Color Station in my father's lab on weekends when he'd go into work. I got to meet Jobs more than once. I realized early on he was a strange and scary guy and that I didn't want to be like him.

Surely ya'll have heard the "triangle firing" story from NeXT? A senior engineer had, as a joke, a triangle up on the wall who's points were labeled "On time, Complete, Under Budget" and at the bottom, "Pick any two." This is a slightly cynical take on a pretty famous constraint diagram. Steve Jobs looked at this and literally fired the guy on the spot for having a "bad attitude." It didn't matter that "it's a joke."

At Apple, Jobs was famously abusive with his staff, demanding that each one be able to entertain and interest him even if that was clearly not their job. It's not a joke to say folks avoided Jobs whenever they could, you could end up with double workload or pressure on your manager or whatever just because you couldn't articulate your current work in a compelling way.

Maybe he succeeded because he was these things, but to many people he was a frightening, tyrannical, capricious person.

>I realized early on he was a strange and scary guy and that I didn't want to be like him.

What about your interactions with him gave you that impression? Genuinely curious.

At first I thought he was joking about putting me to work at NeXT then I realized he might not be. When I said I still wanted to go to college he gave me a look for just a moment like I was an idiot. He never bothered to notice me again.

Not like I had a choice. Holy crap what would my dad have even done to me if I had decided not to go to college...

If you had experience at NeXT on your resume before you turned 18, would you have needed to go to college? Alternatively, what's wrong with working for a couple of years to see if you really wanted to go to college for CS?

If I had the chance to get a job as a programmer straight out of school, I might have chosen that and go to school part time.

I deeply regret not getting a PhD or at least a masters. I'm forever stuck being a slacker without the real insights my peers with such accomplishments have. My career is all about being an operator, and as time goes on this feels more and more hollow.

It's not like most folks even remember NeXT.

If NeXT hadn't been bought by Apple and the operating system hadn't become the basis of OS X and then the iPhone, it would have been no more than a trivia question. But since it is running on over a billion devices, I think most tech savvy people know about it.

While it is easy to say that it is hard to spot “genius,” it is also important to note that people grow and change over time. Maybe being called flaky influenced his growth down the road.

Feedback like this is based on limited interaction with someone at one point in their life, and I hope that many 21-year-olds mature and find their element later.

People do learn over time. I remember Steve Jobs (maybe his stanford address) talking about getting fired from Apple. He said it was a humbling experience but one he learned from.

Job's wasn't 100% successful in all his products, but he was persistent. Even the failures didn't stop him from trying the next thing (Lisa, Newton, eMate[1], Pipin). Even the original mac had lac-luster sales at first.


The Newton came long after Jobs left Apple, it was Scully’s thing. The Pippin was released at the beginning of 1996, while Apple announced the purchase of NeXT that December.

Also, what does "flaky" mean? Maybe Steve was willing to reorganize his priorities rapidly enough that some found it flaky or mercurial, but in hindsight it worked.

Maybe flaky means flaky. Unreliable. Changes his mind a few times per day. Doesn't keep promises. Can't be trusted.

Someone could say that about an opponent's chess strategy only to be beaten.

joker: true, and TFA points out they launched on April 1, at price point of $666.66.

flaky: "Told him we'd like to see what they've got — we'd estimate — then decide. Sounds flaky. Watch it!" Reasonable to me.

Really he was reacting with reasonable skepticism to a true garage startup with no revenue and a tiny budget. He was concerned about getting paid.

Basically the guy didn't take the bet and lost. It happens. You can't predict the future perfectly.

It's also important to remember that Apple was an also-ran among the huge number of companies that dipped their toes into the microprocessor market when it first appeared. Very few survived. Apple only barely survived. Their status as a market Juggernaut is a fairly recent change.

Wasn't he just kind of a hippie back then?

Not surprised an ad exec didn't like him in those days.

"Startup" people and "the suits" often don't see eye-to-eye, even today. Paul Graham describes how Yahoo's "anti hacker suit-culture" did Yahoo in. (paraphrased)

He wrote: "That's why people proposing to destroy [hacker culture] use phrases like "adult supervision." That was the phrase they used at Yahoo. But there are worse things than seeming irresponsible. Losing, for example."

Wow. Adult supervision. That’s pretty insulting.

Is that from an article or a book? I’m curious to have a look myself.


Yes, Paul Graham is opinionated, for good or bad.

For a while, when he was at Atari, Steve walked barefoot and didn't shower, thinking his fruit only diet would lead to no body odor. That would roughly coincide with the time period of this anecdote.

Didn't he also wash his feet in the toilet?

Yeah, he like never bathed and smelled all the time. I don't care who you are, but I'm always going to be skeptical of people you can't figure out basic hygiene

A good reminder that it's difficult to spot genius, whether you're an experienced VC or just some local printer looking to get paid.

Also, any honest examination of Steve Jobs biography would tell you that many of the skills/genius that he used to re-invent the world in the second half of his career he didn't possess at the beginning and learned along the way.

Really, the only thing you need for certain as an entrepreneur is courage -- because you can't teach that.

Our society doesn't exactly pay attention to anyone who thinks differently.

Apple’s famous ‘think different’ campaign is based on the opposite idea. They used Lennon, Henson, Einstein, Ghandi, etc as examples. They got plenty of attention for their different ideas.

It's that whole "first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win" thing. Jobs had reached the "laugh" point by then

15 yeas ago, the default position of the space launch industry was to ignore Elon Musk. He could barely get a laugh. 10 years ago, the industry was starting to laugh. Unfortunately they were still laughing 5 years ago, at his ridiculous self-landing rockets -- as if that would ever be a thing -- And now he has, for all intents and purposes, won. That's just the life-cycle for this kind of thing.

Of course worth nothing that 99% of the time the Status Quo laughs at someone or something, it's because that someone or something will never amount to beans. Ridicule is a universal feature of disruptive innovation -- if nobody is ignoring or ridiculing you, you're definitely not being disruptive -- but it correlates much more strongly to failure than to success.

>It's that whole "first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win" thing. Jobs had reached the "laugh" point by then.

He was flaky and kind of a joke though. His entire life the only times he managed to be a decent contributor was when he was the boss of an entire company and got his way 100% of the time. Even then he was an incredibly toxic leader and was known for throwing tantrums on a regular basis.

He was incredibly talented, but he had more than his fair share of personality defects.

Every single interview I have ever seen with anyone who actually worked for him, they said that was an exaggerated caricature. Not that he couldn’t be demanding or opinionated or had outbursts, but none of them ever used words like toxic.

If you can't control your temper at work to the point where you become known for doing things that can be accurately described as an "outburst", you are toxic. Especially if you are in a position of leadership. You can be passionate about something without being a jerk.

That’s a really big leap from what is reasonable in this case. The Steve’s at this time were actually just two guys in a garage looking for a deal on printing. If I owned a advertising, marketing, and printing company I doubt I would have looked at those two and said “Ah ha! Geniuses! I shall definitely believe they need a lot layout and marketing work done. I should give them a discount. And he’s not unreasonable he’s just eccentric and excited. How reasonable.”

He was young, had a relatively crazy idea, no sales or customers, and no money. And a humongous personality and ego. If anything I can’t imagine describing him any other way to a coworker.

"They laughed at Einstein...but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

Yeah, I don't think the solution should be to get all entrepreneurs to take improv classes.

How do you compare Elon Musk to Steve Jobs? I’m genuinely interested. In my mind, the first has built the biggest profit machine the world has ever seen. The latter is still experimenting and burning a lot of cash. Sure, both are quite charismatic.

(I’m not trying to be judgmental here, just trying to find a common measure)

I used to be a huge fan of Musk. I still am in some ways. But his recent behaviour is not worthy of his stature. I am specifically referring to:

1. Repeatedly failing to keep promises and coming up with excuses, very unlike Jobs who would not let even his VP's miss a deadline.

2. His rant on the earnings call with a few analysts who were asking genuine questions seemed so immature. You could never imagine Jobs would do such a thing.

3. His challenge with Buffett about moats and starting a candy company. This seemed so utterly silly and childish although you could argue he was joking. But again, I just cannot imagine Jobs talking like a loose character in public.

FYI:- I am long Tesla stock and think it could still be a great company although my confidence in that is a bit down at the moment.

1) Jobs wasn't wildly off on every technology deadline NeXT ever set itself? Really?

2) Same "question" - which was actually just an analyst gainsaying the firm's estimate, not a question at all - three times in a row as if it hadn't been answered the first time. It's not childish to refuse incivility. It's childish to pretend incivility is civility.

3) "Moats" - actually Network Effects that are typically leveraged as illegal extensions of market power. (As was the case in question: with Musk refusing to illegally block the interoperability of Tesla's charging stations.) Musk felt maybe staying on the right side of the law (enforced or not) might be cool. You don't. That's nice. This realm of law hasn't been enforced much since the end of the seventies, but it's still there. The fact that it's usually grownups who go to jail, doesn't mean it's childish to obey the law.

Why shouldn't Musk start a candy company as his responce to Buffet's chortled taunt if he cares to? Gotta be more fun than production hell. Or even start a tunnel company. (He said he was serious re candy. Maybe he likes candy.)

SpaceX is starting a period when it will be gathering immense profits, since as the low-price leader it won't need to pass on the savings from booster reuse to its customers, and doesn't plan to.

Granted, Jobs profits came from a closed system and illegal moats vs interoperability (not that those laws, or many others, are enforced vs corporations very often.) Whereas Musk doesn't admire those who leverage mere Network Efforts.

This is not really correct; SpaceX has lowered their base price from $62mm to $50mm in the past year or so.

True but not relevant to reuse savings, since reuse without expensive refurbishing hasn't happened yet, and reuse at all rather rarely; it will be common with the Block 5 Falcons just coming into use now. There's no planned drop in price to reflect that reuse.

Er, you have no idea if what you just said is true, the only fact is the price drop.

Just google the news, you'll find the description of Block 5 and what it means there; and previous articles will tell you how many refurbishments have been made and what relaunches have been performed, and whether there are or aren't SpaceX announcements of price drops. FWIW, the first stage (which is the only reusable stage now) “represents close to 60% of the cost" of a launch.

If you want more detail, you'll want to find a transcript of Musk's teleconference with reporters on May 10 2018.

Now what are your sources, sir, that justify your scorn, certainty and incivility?

I'm not expressing scorn and incivility, and I'm pointing out the uncertainty as to why SpaceX lowered their price.

You just asked me to read what I've already read; the price drop was announced in that May 10 teleconference. There was no explanation of why the price was dropped, so reuse may have been a part of the price drop.

And I claimed there is no plan now for a further price drop; so I take it you're now saying you were agreeing vehemently with me the whole time and making no further claims that I ever contradicted; yet doing that with the words "you have no idea what you're talking about" is in no way uncivil?

Elon Musk promises he'll deliver self driving electric cars and reusable spacecraft. It's hard to find things that would get tech enthusiasts more excited.

If he were reinventing the shipping or fertilizer industry while burning as much cash and treating his employees as poorly, no one would idolize him the way he is idolized now.

Treating your employees pretty terribly unfortunately often comes with the package for alot of "visionary leaders". If you have a single minded focus toward one specific goal, you forget alot of basic decency.

Steve Jobs was also famous for being a shitty boss.

The note to Bob says Jobs, "Wants it for nothing." Rose probably thought "you must be joking." hence, the joker epithet.

Funny how the phone numbers they wrote down were only seven digits--the area code was assumed. I still remember parts of the rural area where I grew up where you only had to enter the last four numbers. The town was so small, the phone system knew who you were calling just by those last four.

There's plenty of rural areas even today where people assume the area code, and act surprised when someone gives them a different one.

It happens to me a city of 160000 in California. I have a Boston prefix and occasionally confusion ensues. I start with 781 which they do not recognize and so assume I am skipping the prefix and then the number ends up 3 digits too long :-)

Seems to me that he was calling him a Joker because Jobs wanted a service from them ("catalog sheets") without paying for it or without paying the going rate ("Wanted it for nothing").

Also, I'm not sure if I agree with the transcription in one part. Doesn't seem to be "Our catalog sheets", but rather "10 (something?) catalog sheets". The (something) is probably an abbreviation or shorthand. Maybe 10 inch? Or 10 thousand? I really don't understand the context well enough to be sure, but it seems like the writer thinks he's being unrealistic and asking for more than he needs for a price that's not realistic. Which would make the "joker" assessment pretty understandable.

Hey, it had worked for him in the past! When he was 12 and needed parts to build a frequency counter, he looked up Bill Hewlett (of Hewlett–Packard) in the phone book, called him at home, and talked him into getting the parts for free. Plus he got a summer internship at HP out of it.

Steve Jobs was only 21 in 1976

Once again we have a 'lucky sperm' event. Have no idea of the 1000's of others that were called jokers or derided that went nowhere. And by the way business back in the 70's was like that. You had to have a certain degree of respectability to get noticed and be able to get what you needed. I speak from experience having been there. And Jobs was weird so what. Weird becomes genius after success and money. Then it's brilliance.

Steve Jobs had poor enough taste to say that pie menus suck! ;)


It's the 30 year anniversary of CHI’88 (May 15–19, 1988), where Jack Callahan, Ben Shneiderman, Mark Weiser and I (Don Hopkins) presented our paper “An Empirical Comparison of Pie vs. Linear Menus”. We found pie menus to be about 15% faster and with a significantly lower error rate than linear menus! So I've written up a 30 year retrospective:

This article will discuss the history of what’s happened with pie menus over the last 30 years (and more), present both good and bad examples, including ideas half baked, experiments performed, problems discovered, solutions attempted, alternatives explored, progress made, software freed, products shipped, as well as setbacks and impediments to their widespread adoption.

Here is the main article, and some other related articles:

Pie Menus: A 30 Year Retrospective. By Don Hopkins, Ground Up Software, May 15, 2018. Take a Look and Feel Free!


Steve Jobs Thought Pie Menus Sucked “That sucks! That sucks! Wow, that’s neat! That sucks!”

On October 25, 1988, I gave Steve Jobs a demo of pie menus, NeWS, UniPress Emacs and HyperTIES at the Educom conference in Washington DC. His reaction was to jump up and down, point at the screen, and yell “That sucks! That sucks! Wow, that’s neat! That sucks!”

I tried explaining how we’d performed an experiment proving pie menus were faster than linear menus, but he insisted the liner menus in NeXT Step were the best possible menus ever.

But who was I to rain on his parade, two weeks after the first release of NeXT Step 0.8? (Up to that time, it was the most hyped piece of vaporware ever, and doubters were wearing t-shirts saying “NeVR Step”!) Even after he went back to Apple, Steve Jobs never took a bite of Apple Pie Menus, the forbidden fruit. There’s no accounting for taste!

I used to work for someone who thought he was the new Steve Jobs.

If you can see through the lies and manipulation tactics it can work out but some people will not get out alive if they can’t adapt.

One thing I noticed was that rude language or sexual references were kind of used as a calibration technique to try to gauge people. I am sure he did this and many other little subtle tricks unconsciously as he wasn’t really that clever. Manipulating people was his talent so to speak and he seemed to enjoy to have a little puppet theater around where he could play with people as he pleased.

> One thing I noticed was that rude language or sexual references were kind of used as a calibration technique to try to gauge people.


Exactly this sort of thing is something to watch out for with sociopaths or whatever the personality classification is called for this type of person.

The reason they do this is to shake you up and monitor your reaction. I don’t think they know why they do it exactly - it’s just a button they found they can press and they happen to have a gift that enables them to parse the response and from that response extrapolate which kind of abuse they can subject you to to make you dance.

I don’t know what the approproate response to the question would be other than a straightforward dry yes or no without lifting an eyebrow, but that would probably be hard without some sort of training as the questions come out of the blue and even the smallest discomfort you might feel will be picked up by the person.

What are "catalog sheets"? What was Jobs asking for?

Layout and design for a print ad.

No biggy, as long as we never get a US President like that.

Does it count if the reality distortion field is replaced with a reality denial field?

Okay, I avoid flaky people too, but what's wrong with being a joker?

I'm sure he was a flaky joker then.

Well, they weren't wrong.

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