At the time of writing this article, the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference 2021 is going on. The conference has come a long way but for me, the finest WWDC moment happened in 1997. Let’s take a look at this gem from 1997, where Steve Jobs responds to some harsh feedback with style. In other words, how to take a punch like a pro.
In 1997, Apple bought NeXT which brought Steve Jobs back to Apple. The company was struggling and desperately needed to turn things around.
The new vision for the company was all about getting back to building great products. To do so, Apple needed to focus on improving the macOS’s user experience, stability, and performance. At the time, Apple was working on many projects, and as a result, only six developers remained to maintain the operating system.
Apple dropped the hammer on many projects to address the situation, including Newton and OpenDoc, Apple’s multi-platform software component framework standard. Bitter news indeed for those who had been busy building software for the discontinued products.
Tensions culminated at the 1997 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference when a man from the back of the room asked Steve Jobs this question.
“Mr. Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man. It’s sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed you don’t know what you’re talking about. I would like for example for you to express in clear terms how, say Java in any of its incarnations addresses the ideas embodied in OpenDoc and when you’re finished with that, perhaps you could tell us what you personally have been doing for the last seven years”.
Shots are fired. If this is the question that he waited to ask in front of the full audience, then one can only imagine what kind of unfiltered feelings he was experiencing. Sure, he might be looking at the video and its millions of views thinking, “maybe not my brightest moment.” It’d be easy to judge him when we don’t know his story. It’s probably safe to assume that Apple’s decisions had some serious personal and financial consequences for him. And for sure, he wasn’t the only one. The reaction may not have been particularly classy, but it’s an understandable human reaction.
Think back on a situation when you faced a moment like this. How did you respond? How well would people you know be able to respond? Think of some famous politicians and business leaders. How would you rate their capability to manage a situation like this? A lot of not-so-great recent examples come to mind. It isn’t easy, but we expect leaders to outsmart their own cognitive biases and emotional impulses.
How a person deals with a verbal attack in a professional setting says a lot about the person’s character. Presenting your company vision to a room full of people, no matter what’s thrown at you, a defensive response would only make things worse.
All eyes are on Steve. He has been challenged on a personal and professional level, and so has Apple and its strategy. Looking at it objectively, this is actually a great opportunity for Steve to win back some lost trust. And he needs to do that. The people in the room are building software for Apple. Steve must find a way to keep them motivated and inspired.
There are many ways we could look at Steve’s response. Let’s simplify it to a four-step formula that you can also apply in your own situations.
Before Steve starts responding, he takes a long pause. He’s aware everyone is waiting, but he isn’t rushing to answer. This is not a political debate, there’s time, and he’s the only one with the mic.
Your immediate thoughts are created in the emotional and reactive “System 1” part of the brain. Giving it more time means your thoughts reach the “System 2” part of the brain, which handles analytical thinking and logical processing. When you face a complex question, you’ll do much better if you let the more analytical part of your brain craft a well-thought response.
Many react to insults immediately and emotionally. That’s how communication mistakes tend to happen. Don’t be quick to shoot back. Your goal shouldn’t be to defend your ego or to win an argument. It would be best if you tried to use the opportunity to increase your and their awareness, and together, get inspired about achieving a productive outcome.
Arguing and getting defensive reveals a temporary loss of control. Nobody enjoys working with people who can’t keep themselves together. On the other hand, winning people over increases commitment and motivation. That’s what we want, isn’t it? If a long pause can help us achieve that, then a long pause it is.
Steve takes his time to think very carefully, drinks some water (a classic presenter move to buy more time to think). Not only does this increase his chances of coming up with something clever, but it also tells the audience that he takes the question seriously and gives his full attention to it. You can see the cogs turning as he’s coming up with the response.
Giving your full attention to someone is respectful and increases your charisma during the interaction. Even if somebody else acts unprofessionally, Steve doesn’t go there. He doesn’t throw a disrespectful joke back or try to skip the question. In fact, he probably saw an opportunity to convince the people in the room: the hard decisions are a good thing for everybody in the long run.
Steve’s body language shows he’s calm and confident, and it looks like he’s even enjoying the challenge. There isn’t a shred of insecurity or frustration. A bit of “you don’t know what you’re talking about” isn’t going to affect his mental state at all.
Steve was insulted a bit unfairly in the situation. As we remember, he was kicked out of Apple. Not like he chose to sit it out for the past 7 years. He was also told he has no idea what he’s talking about.
What does Steve do? He avoids getting into an argument, takes a serious but warm tone, and calls the guy a gentleman. Steve acknowledges that on some matters, he’s right, continuing to admit, quite generously, that on some things, maybe Steve doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
This opens the door for developers who were holding a grudge for Steve and Apple to come around. How do you fight a person who doesn’t fight back but instead shows empathy and tries to understand your point of view?
At Apple, things had clearly gone wrong, and there was no denying or dancing around it. Steve takes the time to address the problems making sure to take the side of the engineers, the people in the room. Steve blames the engineering management, the people making the decisions, not the engineers. This tells people he gets what is going on. He’s not some fancy-words leader who’s detached from the everyday reality.
Admit the mistakes, especially if they’re yours. This clears the air, and you can move forward. If people think somebody is full of BS, even good ideas get quickly labelled as trash.
Suppose you were insulted like this and made it this far without a hasty half-answer or a snarky comeback; congratulations. You took the punch and de-escalated the situation with some zen-like communication wizardry. This a foundation we can use to start dealing with the actual question.
“How does that fit in a cohesive larger vision that’s gonna allow you to sell 8-10 Billion dollars of product a year?… You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and figure out where gonna try to sell it…As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with what incredible benefits can we give to the customer“.
Thanks to our cognitive biases, we’re quick to think we got it right. No matter how confident we are, sometimes we’re wrong because we’re not aware of something important. Often the issue comes down to two people dealing with different questions. Resolving a bigger problem can result in a sub-optimal outcome for the smaller problem. Many times the information about the bigger question or even its existence isn’t equally available. The lack of awareness of this bigger problem will make the solution to the smaller problem look foolish.
People hate it when they’re being told that they’re wrong even without hearing their point of view. It’s not only demotivating but also, the person saying what’s right and what’s wrong is coming off a hard-headed person with low emotional intelligence. In the worst case, when the person is told what to do, and the available evidence suggests it’s a bad idea, this leaves the person thinking something along the lines of “it’s sad and clear he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Have you seen this image of the construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge? Initially, you may have been thinking, “oh no, that looks like a construction failure of a century,” because it appears that the ends of the bridge will not meet. The question your mind is seeking an answer to is how to make a bridge. But that isn’t the right question.
The question the bridge designers had to solve is how to make a bridge that connects right-hand traffic with left-hand. Having shared knowledge and thinking about the right question, your mind immediately goes, “ooooh, ok.” Knowing what’s the right question to solve, those engineers and bridge planners who just a moment ago seemed like they don’t know what they’re doing now seem like geniuses. (If you just developed a sudden and uncontrollable urge to know more about the bridge, you can check out this short article by Fast Company).
Instead of getting defensive or arguing about something, you can turn even a heated debate into a productive problem-solving session by simply sharing relevant information and what’s the problem you’re trying to solve. This de-escalates a confrontation, putting everybody on the same side. Used in a discussion, it also allows you to learn something new. If there’s a brilliant idea, there’s space for it to puts you on the same side.
The question Steve was asked is “How Java in any of its incarnations addresses the ideas embodied in OpenDoc?“. Instead of starting to defend Java – an unproductive debate that might take him on thin ice – he guides the discussion to what matters by revealing the real problem Apple was trying to solve:
“How does that fit in a cohesive larger vision that’s gonna allow you to sell 8-10 Billion dollars of product a year?”.
By asking the right question, the focus is taken away from the irrelevant question, which one is better, OpenDoc or Java. The right question can be generalized to “where do we want to be in the future and how to get there.” Starting from “what tech do we have now and how can we improve it” is a dangerous path to take.
Focusing only on improving what you have now is short-sighted. It can easily lead to a situation where it’s no longer possible to get to where you need to go. Just ask anyone who used to design or develop software for Nokia’s Symbian OS mobile phones.
Apple had concluded their current path wouldn’t lead to success, so they did some radical changes to get back to making great products for customers. The wise and simple, though, is where the common ground is laid. This is the core belief Steve wants you to accept: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it.”
The customers don’t care about OpenDoc or Java. They care about how Apple products can make their life better. And Apple wanted to scale up the business beyond Apple’s proprietary technology. Steve gives a sincere apology for the faith of OpenDoc and moves on.
The sooner you correct the course better the chances of success. Be brutally honest about we are on the right path or should we change the course. The vision is about where do you need to be in the future and drawing the path backwards from that ideal future.
Ok, so OpenDoc is dead. How do we then get to 8-10 billion dollars of product a year?
Steve tells a story about the first laser printer and how customers were sold when they saw a printout and then continues:
“That’s where Apple’s gotta get back to. There’s a whole lot of people working super, super hard right now at Apple, burning the midnight oil to execute some of these things and they’re doing their best…
And I think what we need to do is to support them and see them through this and write some damn good applications to support Apple on the market. That’s my own point of view.”
He concludes the response with:
“Mistakes will be made, some people will be pissed off, some people will not know what they’re talking about but I think it’s so much better than where things were not very long ago. And I think we’ll get there.”
Try This Simple Magic Formula
Here’s how Steve takes it a step further:
The first thing Steve does is already happens at the beginning of the question. He’s lightening the mood with the “here it comes,” pretending to defend himself with a chair. This is Steve communicating to the audience that it’ll be all right no matter what is coming. He keeps the answer entertaining later as well, ensuring a nice, positive mood. It sets the tone back from arguments and personal attacks to a productive debate.
There’s one thing left unanswered: Was Steve right? We don’t have A/B testing of real-life, but in 1997, Apple was going towards bankruptcy, and at the time of writing this article, Apple is the most valuable company in the world.
Not bad for a guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.