The Steve Jobs approach to IT management

A year after the late Apple leader’s death, the fond memories and accolades keep pouring in. Can you imagine the average IT manager being feted this way? These might be the reasons why not

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Last week, still not entirely finished mourning, there was a second wave of tributes to and reflections on Steve Jobs to mark the one-year anniversary of his passing. It may be many more years, however, before those who run corporate networks learn anything from his life and work.

Most of the coverage around Jobs focused on his ability to turn around Apple after its near-bankruptcy, turning it into one of the world’s most successful companies. His legend has been unfavourably compared with the current travails of his successor Tim Cook, who recently apologized to the entire “Mac Faithful” over the flaws in Maps on iOS 6. People like Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and Square, are among those who must suffer the burden of being identified as the “next Steve Jobs,” contradicting all the hagiography about the Apple CEO’s supposedly unique genius. Let’s all stop the eulogizing for just a few minutes and try this little exercise: how would Jobs have fared in the role of IT manager of an average mid-market firm or enterprise? Given his mercurial reputation as a leader, it’s tempting to think he might quickly be fired, but consider some of his methods:

Simplify, simplify: I was there in Boston in 1997 for Jobs’ triumphant return as interim CEO of Apple at MacWorld Expo, where he showed the dizzying array of Apple desktops and mobile devices. He showed a chart with four quadrants that included professional users, consumer users and so on. By organizing the laundry list of products into four categories, he said, Apple would be able to know what was worth keeping and what wasn’t. Similarly, the best IT managers try to reduce the number of servers they manage through virtualization, cast off what they’re not good at by turning to managed services and using the cloud as a way of getting their compute resources in a more on-demand fashion.

Identify your real customer: After years of unsuccessfully trying to sway CIOs, Apple more or less turned away from the business sector, focusing instead on the consumers that had more appreciation for Apple’s stylish designs and treated its products as status symbols rather than necessary evils. IT departments would be in far better shape than they are today had they noticed the way in which consumer technology was slowly surpassing the quality of what they were (sometimes disdainfully) issued at work. The result is Apple got into the enterprise anyway, but via frustrated employees who are now forcing companies to consider bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs.

Satisfy unvoiced needs: There were already plenty of mobile phone companies long before Apple introduced the iPhone. Tablets had been offered by dozens of vendors before the first iPad made its debut. Apple bucked conventional wisdom by becoming a late entrant to markets where the products on offer hadn’t necessarily met the expectations of users. The result was unimaginable success. Today most companies have set up functional voice and data communication systems, and IT departments don’t often seem eager to revamp them into something that ties the benefits of unified communications to what employees and customers may not even realize they want. It is the role of the innovator to imagine the art of the possible and then turn it into the kind of reality people can’t remember living without. That’s where Jobs, chronically dissatisfied, excelled.

In fact, maybe it’s better not to think of what Steve Jobs would have been like as an IT manager. Instead, think of him as a user — that annoying, demanding, even elitist employee who wants only the best technology, and lots of control along with it. Satisfy the average knowledge worker’s inner Steve Jobs, and you may start getting some tributes of your own.

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1 Comment

  1. For some reason, a few weeks ago I re-discovered, buried on my iPad, the book about Steve Jobs. I’ve now read the first few hundred pages (on my iPad its 900 pages long)…to the point where he’s just been pushed out of Apple.
    Based on what I’ve read so far, he was indeed a perfectionist and inspriational, but he would neither have joined an already big company (e.g. Atari or HP) nor survived in one with his management style. Assuming what’s in the book is a valid portrayal, of course.

    Don Sheppard / 10 years ago