Steve Jobs shaped my life

I never met Steve Jobs. I’ve never even been in the same room as him, or (to my knowledge), the same city.

So why am I choked up about his death? Because I love the man for what he accomplished, and how he’s changed the world.

Way back in elementary school, I used an Apple //e. I moved Logo’s turtle around on the screen. I discovered something odd: being able to understand that computers were predictable machines, rather than mysteries had separated me. There are an infinite number of things others can do better than I. Other kids could run, they could play team sports and not let down their team. But this, I could do. But what use was it? Computers were only good at being computers. FORWARD 10. RIGHT 45. Repeat 8 times, it was a stop sign.

I learned BASIC and Pascal, but on some level I was still drawing stop signs. I was solving problems no one had.

Around age nine or ten, I was at a school looking at various displays. Most were uninteresting. But there was an original beige Macintosh, running MacPaint.

The Macintosh was something else entirely. That was something useful. I had only a few minutes with it. I moved the mouse about, watching the cursor. I clicked a few things; I think I doodled a bit with the pencil, typed some text, and used the eraser. It made sense to me. More than that, it dawned on me that computers could be things other than a computer. The complexity behind it was boggling, but someone had solved it. Therefore, it was solvable. It wasn’t actually magic, it just felt like it. I didn’t know it at the time, but Steve Jobs had made that experience happen. He didn’t write the code, and exactly how much of the design was his I’ll never know. Many talented individuals had brought that experience into being. But he drove the team, and he pushed the vision.

It would be several more years before my next encounter with the Macintosh, but something had changed for me. I knew a bit about programming already, but now I wanted to solve real problems for real people.

I practiced for years, and I impressed some people, and ended up with a job programming computers. And I enjoyed that job, and I enjoyed what we were building, but it wasn’t what I yearned to build. It wasn’t accessible to enough people. It was still hard-to-hit buttons, activated by sliding a cursor around the screen using a plastic box.

It turns out that computers, even the Macintosh, were too complex. It was tough to master the indirectness of the interface. For a time, I smugly assumed I was smarter than the people who couldn’t get this, but that wasn’t the case at all. If anything, just the opposite: these machines were far more hostile than I was willing to admit. I couldn’t see the problems in front of me.

There was Palm. They made a hesitant half-step in the right direction, but it didn’t last. I knew we were going backwards again, but I didn’t know how or why.

Years passed. And finally, the iPhone. In the iPhone, you could see at last the future, what Apple intended for the next generation. Even if it was just a small, 3.5” cut of it. Again, that was Steve Jobs. Not solely responsible. I don’t even know that it was his idea. But either way, he owned that idea. He nurtured it, he cultured it, and he grew it. He turned complex computers and crappy phones into something entirely new.

But I think you could also see echoes of the past: What Apple had wanted to produce with the Macintosh, but been unable to.

A few years later, we got a bigger slice of the future with the iPad. The iPad does not represent finished by any means, but I believe it is the realization of what Apple truly had in mind with the original Macintosh, and an extension of what they tried to achieve with the iPhone. It’s more than a computer — so much immeasurably more — by being less than a computer. And, again, Steve Jobs was responsible. Not solely, of course. But in the same sense that had it gone wrong, one person would be to blame, if one person must be given credit that person is Steve Jobs.

And along they way, he reinvented the music industry. And he’d have reinvented both television and movies for the better, too, had the existing powers in those industries been more eager to follow.

Through demonstration, Steve Jobs had taught me a few things:

  • Great products are worth using, so they’re worth building.
  • Great things can achieved, even under pressure from others who don’t see the same future.
  • Greatness is revolutionary, but does not ignore what’s gone before.
  • It’s okay to not achieve perfection. Producing something amazing is good enough.
  • Having achieved something amazing, there’s something more amazing just ahead.
  • True greatness means the result is not just easy to use, but unbelievable easy. Magical, even.

There are thousands of developers in the world who’ve learned these same lessons. Many of them learned before me. Some of them learned from different sources. But the entire industry has been influenced by the revolutionary evolution of computing from Apple and Steve Jobs. We make up a small part of his legacy. Part of our job is to use these lessons to build magic. The greater part is to inspire others to build magic.

Thank you, Mr. Jobs. Tomorrow, the temptation will be to say the sun rises on a world with less magic. But that’s only true if we don’t create more of our own.