Friday, October 25, 2013

How smart guys pitched their ideas to Steve Jobs, the prickly perfectionist

Steve Jobs looked at the world in binary mode. Either your idea was shitty or it was fantastic – nothing in between. That made the life difficult for people presenting ideas to him. How did they manage it? What tactics did the smart folks employ to get their ideas accepted? Let’s see in this article. Your boss or reviewer may not be as “binary” as Jobs, but the techniques may still come handy.

Show it privately: This is how Jonathan Ive, the key designer behind iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad and Steve’s close friend dealt with the situation. Ive and his team were working on multi-touch technology for the MacBook Pro in their spare time. He knew that it could be a game-changer technology. Ive says, “Because Steve is so quick to give an opinion, I don’t show him stuff in front of other people,” Ive recalled. “He might say, ‘This is shit,’ and snuff the idea. I feel that ideas are very fragile, so you have to be tender when they are in development.” Ive demoed the multi-touch idea in a one-on-one meeting. Fortunately, Jobs liked it and said, “This is the future.”

Create a Fine-tune-It-Yourself kit: Chris Espinosa was a Berkeley drop-out and part of Mac development team. On his own he decided to design a calculator for Mac. When he showed the first demo to Jobs, he said, “Well, it’s a start, but basically, it stinks.” Jobs felt that the background color is too dark, buttons are too big etc. Espinosa started to refine the design based on Jobs’ feedback. But with every iteration came more criticism. After a number of iterations, Espinosa got fed up and created a brilliant solution - “The Steve Jobs Roll Your Own Calculator Construction Set”. It allowed Jobs to tweak and personalize the look-and-feel. Jobs spent ten minutes and fine-tuned it to his taste. This design shipped on the Mac and remained the standard for fifteen years.

Quietly disregard the comment and go ahead: During the Mac development, the team desperately needed a 5 ¼ inch hard drive. The one being developed in the Apple corporate office was buggy.  Belleville, head of Mac Engineering team, suggested two options to Jobs. One, sourcing it from Sony,  and two, sourcing a Sony-clone from Alps Electronics, a smaller Japanese supplier. Jobs and Belleville flew to Japan and saw both the products. Jobs thought Alps was great and Sony was shitty. Belleville was appalled as he felt that Alps could not deliver it within the required timeframe. Anyway, Jobs ordered Belleville to cease all work with Sony.

Belleville gave a go ahead to both the companies. One engineer from Sony, Hidetoshi Komoto, would work clandestinely at Mac engineering team. They would hide him whenever Jobs visited. Eventually, Alps folks admitted that they would need eighteen more months for production to start. At that point, Belleville told Jobs that he might have an alternative to the Alps drive ready soon. With a big grin on his face, Jobs said, “You son of a bitch!”

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. Jonathan Ives story is on page 468, Espinnosa story is on page 132, Belleville story is on page 145-147. Photo source:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Practicality of Gandhi’s vision of “education through the hands” today

“The old idea was… the craft was to be taken in hand wholy separately from education. To me, that seems a fatal mistake… The brain should be educated through the hands. Why should you think that the mind is everything and the hands and the feet are nothing?” Mahatma Gandhi said while addressing the teachers gathered in Wardha for a three week training program in February 19391. Is this still relevant today? Let’s explore.

Gandhi illustrated his point through the example of hand spinning. He said, “Take the instance of hand-spinning. Unless I know arithmetic, I cannot report how many yards of yarn I have produced on the takli… Take geometry next. What can be a better demonstration than the disc of the takli? I can teach all about the circle in this manner, without even mentioning the name of Euclid.” He said one could teach history through the history of cotton.

Gandhi’s address is more than 70 years old. So let’s first check if the basic claim still holds according to the state-of-the-art research. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman writes in his best seller Thinking, fast and slow, “As cognitive scientists have emphasized in recent years, cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain2.” For example, when you hold a warm cup of tea, you are more likely to think that the other person at the table is trustworthy after only a brief interaction. So looks like the basic claim still holds.

I feel that a more general principle underlying this vision is related to experiential learning. How do you create opportunities for students to experience the new concept through the body? In my lecture on introduction to design thinking at IIMB last week, each student re-designed a wallet for his/her partner. At the end, everybody prototyped their best idea using craft paper and got it validated from the partner. When students are learning about empathy, they actually interview shopkeeprs, people on the street or whoever is relevant to the topic. Case study method is another form of creating an experience, though it is somewhat weaker than “doing by hand” method.

What about literature? How do you create an experience? One low-cost medium is theatre. When you enact a literary piece, you are creating experiences especially for the participants. However, I am sure there are topics for which it may not be easy to create experiences, say for example, wave functions in Quantum Mechanics?

Gandhi held a strong view on this. He said in the same Wardha address, “I have said that all instruction must be linked with some basic craft. When you are imparting knowledge to a child of 7 or 10 through the medium of an industry, you should, to begin with, exclude all those subjects which cannot be linked with the craft. By doing so from day to day you will discover ways and means of linking with the craft many things which you had excluded in the beginning.” I feel that such exclusion is neither necessary nor practical.

For me the key take-away is this. For every concept that is being taught, I ask, “How can I create an opportunity for the student to experience the concept?”

1.     Gandhi’s address in Wardha is available online here. Also in “Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi” by D. G. Tendulkar, Volume 5 (1938-1940), The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt of India, pages 41-43.
2.     Kahneman’s statement is in “Thinking, fast and slow”, page 51.