The photo above is of Steve Jobs and me. There’s Steve sitting down. He is attentively listening to me. This is amazing in itself as Steve wasn’t known as a big “listener” kind of guy.
The tall guy bending over and pointing to something on a computer screen is me. I’m telling Steve how we are building a global network of big data and analytics using his computer he just introduced into the market. I was 26 at the time. He was 33. We both had hair then. His tie, I am convinced, was selected by a personal “Steve” shopper flown directly from Milan. I found my tie at an off-price discount store called Syms.
It was 1988. We were both in that sealed off top secret computing room talking about cool software and saving Western Civilization.
Reagan was President then. Bill Maher recently asserted Steve’s left-leaning party affiliation saying that, “[Steve] was an Obama voting, pot-smoking Buddhist.” Whatever. I’ll wager that he voted Republican that year.
We are in a vault deep inside the NRO near Washington DC. The NRO is a government organization that at the time even the acronym was classified. Now you can go online to their website and shop for coffee mugs and logo’ed sports apparel with proceeds supporting the expansion of democracy around the world. The NRO runs the nation’s spy satellite program including the NSA. The NSA is a bit better known. Especially recently. It has been on the headlines as apparently we’ve been eavesdropping on a few Prime Ministers. I think Germany, France, and the U.S. have been doing just that since long before the Napoleonic wars. I don’t get all the hullabaloo. I mean, what are satellites for?
About three years before, I was in California in my OP shorts with a Vanilla Ice bleached flattop and 3 or 4 gold hoop earrings in my left ear. I was sitting in my school office with a few weeks left on finishing my Master’s in Space Physics and listening to Depeche Mode when a complete stranger named Leo — a bald jovial short round guy — came into my office, sat down, said something polite, and then without any provocation asked if I wanted a job. I thought about it for a few minutes and said OK.
A few days later, sans the earrings and now wearing a suit that really didn’t fit, I was writing software for a research satellite in an old building in Santa Monica. I was passed around and after a series of new jobs and more than a few lie detecter tests, I found myself in Washington DC working for an organization that I couldn’t tell anybody about. In my spare time I put together a briefing on how terrible their current technology was and some four star general bought it. At 26 and still wondering if I would ever grow facial hair, I was put in charge of modernizing the NRO. I did have to tell them I never used marijuana but that’s just a checkbox on a form and the subject never come up under polygraph.
Things continued to move pretty quickly. In 12 months we went to DARPA and MIT to get advice and installed probably the first private internet around the globe. Then there was a Business Week article on Steve Jobs and his new computer after getting kicked out of Apple. I got a demo and instantly fell in love. We bought a few of them to set up a lab. Then we bought and deployed 10 or 20 thousand of them. Steve’s next largest customer at that time was 200. That’s why I think that year — 1989 — Steve was probably a pro-big-military-spending Republican, independent of what Maher thinks.
That’s the first NeXT computer nicknamed the Cube in the photo there. They were black anodized metal and looked great compared to the gray personal computers out of IBM and Dell. They were a pretty amazing idea — just too expensive for education. Tim Berners-Lee used a NeXT Computer just like you see in this photo at CERN and created the very first web server and web browser. The operating system is now the core of the Mac OS. The whole thing was a huge success. To people’s amazement, I quit the NRO and left for California to work for Steve’s company; now a religious convert and back in torn blue jeans.
We worked in a building in Redwood City that had the interior designed by the famous Pei with a lot of pine floors, granite, and a floating staircase. Pei is the same guy that did several buildings here in Dallas including the famous Ewing Building below and the infamous Dallas City Hall that most think could possibly be the ugliest building in the world. But I digress. My only point is that Steve had a a very acute sense of design.
I am not implying that I was an intimate of Steve’s. There were several layers of management between me and him. But I still hold very fond memories.
For example there was the time that I was in the glass walled conference room with one of our leading customers when Steve, a stickler for detail, ran up the stairs in front of all of us with a roll of toilet paper in his hand yelling in a very loud voice that “this isn’t the right toilet paper! I told you that!” to one of his four admins. I looked at our high profile guests across the table, smiled innocently and said, “That same detail goes into our products.”
There was also the time I was asked to chaperone his personal guest — a Rear Admiral for the Navy who I will not name — at the first NeXT World at Moscone. These were awesome events where Steve would get on stage and talk to a crowd of 10,000 people who were in a religious fervor about the next big thing that was coming. That night I took the Admiral to one of the technology after parties that used to be prevalent in the early 90’s. This one was put on by Oracle. He in uniform and I in a suit took a taxi to the building. A grown man with nothing on but high heels and a teddy handed us each a test tube with some colored liquid in it. Sipping the contents, we went inside. There were many rooms and the place was packed. We got to the main dancing room and there are 10 or 20 ropes hanging down from the ceiling with buck naked performers going up and down the ropes performing tricks while the band played techno. I looked around and realized the Admiral was gone. I lost the Admiral. I was horrified. I spent the next two hours looking for him in the throng of heaving sweating bodies dancing or drinking and never found him. I took the taxi back and starting thinking of my next job and the reaming I was going to get that morning. The Admiral was surely dead or sold into sex slavery or worse – bloating out the Nation’s secrets under a spot light, under the influence of whatever was in that test tube. How could I be so dumb???!!!
I ran into the Admiral the next morning on my way to tell management. He slapped me on the back and thanked me for having a fantastic time. He got home about 3am.
There is much, much more to say of course. I eventually left NeXT for a startup called Lighthouse Design. We got bought by Sun Microsystems when Java was just getting going. Then I started my own company, Dorado. It’s been an incredible ride since then. I learned an unbelievable amount from that 34 year old man. I learned not to live someone else’s life. I learned the difference between a vision and a fantasy. I learned that small details matter when you’re doing something really big. I learned the difference between selling and evangelizing. It was he who taught me that…
The Journey Is The Reward.