How the search for the next Steve Jobs is ruining Silicon Valley


Robert Rodriguez/CNET

Few folks determine within the story of Silicon Valley as prominently as Steve Jobs. After co-founding Apple in 1976, Jobs was famously fired from the corporate in 1985. His Shakespearean return, saving Apple from near-bankruptcy and setting it on the trail to change into one of many world’s most extremely valued corporations, has change into one of many nice American success tales.

Now, a decade after Jobs died on Oct. 5, 2011, on the age of 56 from pancreatic most cancers, his shadow nonetheless looms giant over the tech world. His potential to tie emotional tales to his firm’s merchandise, which he would reveal throughout splashy product launches that sometimes ended with “yet another factor,” is extensively emulated by executives at corporations large and small. As are his top-down management type and obsession with secrecy. Some have even adopted their takes on his trademark uniform: black mock turtleneck, denims and New Stability sneakers.

None of those traits is uncommon for an entrepreneur, reminiscent of the one who constructed an organization that created a few of the world’s most influential tech merchandise, together with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Disruptive innovators are sometimes pushed to do one thing completely different and to check typical knowledge. And Jobs definitely did that.


Jobs confirmed off Apple’s first iPhone throughout a keynote presentation on the Macworld Convention in San Francisco in 2007. Apple, he mentioned, was “going to reinvent the cellphone.”

James Martin/CNET

“They’re engaged on issues that are not simply one other steady step,” mentioned David Hsu, a professor on the College of Pennsylvania’s Wharton College who focuses on entrepreneurial innovation and administration. “In relation to innovation in Silicon Valley, it is this type of ‘We’ll observe one thing off the overwhelmed path.'”

The less-trodden path can generally result in failure, because it did for Jobs in 1985, however it’s one which different Silicon Valley execs have vowed to observe.

His legacy is burned into the backs of the minds of people that really feel that success comes first, no matter niceties or wrongdoing. Generally, workers or mentors may suppose they’ve discovered the subsequent Jobs-like determine to change into a titan of {industry}, creating the subsequent Apple. Of their search, although, poor choices, unhealthy habits and fraud have festered, generally ignored. Good and charismatic, if flawed, founders have led corporations to meteoric rises, and equally stunning flameouts as soon as they got here underneath scrutiny. Like Hollywood celebrities, a celebrity CEO can rise rapidly solely to fall spectacularly when egregious missteps draw consideration. And so they might be ruining it for everybody else.

“I maintain pondering, is there a manner the place as an alternative of an excellent jerk, you possibly can have an excellent humble game-changer in society?” Hsu mentioned. “We have to maintain up and acknowledge there are lots of pathways to success and many alternative methods to contribute.”


Steve Jobs did not stay to see Apple’s new headquarters inbuilt Cupertino, or the presentation theater (above) that bears his identify.

James Martin/CNET

The subsequent…

For all of the wealth, energy and success that the tech {industry} has generated, it is more and more affected by false messiahs who weave tales stuffed with lies, confuse truth-telling brashness with invective, and depend on secrecy not for the drama of the grand reveal, however as a approach to cowl up wrongdoing.

Maybe probably the most egregious is the blood-testing startup Theranos, the place CEO Elizabeth Holmes customary herself because the inheritor obvious, a tech chief on a grand scale, surrounded by a mixture of hype and secrecy, and sometimes showing in a black turtleneck uniform. She began the corporate in 2003, and dropped out of Stanford at 19. A decade later she was being hailed as the subsequent large factor.


Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes posing for a photograph within the documentary, The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley.


This CEO is out for blood,” Fortune wrote on its 2014 cowl story about Holmes and “her secretive firm” that “intention to revolutionize healthcare.” Wired known as the implications of her work “mind-blowing.” And Inc. journal declared Holmes “The Next Steve Jobs.” All of the whereas, Holmes reportedly lied to traders, enterprise companions and prospects concerning the capabilities and accuracy of her firm’s machines. She’s at present on trial for wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Different executives did not copy Jobs’ private type, however they got leeway regardless of their flaws all the identical. At Uber, there was widespread sexual harassment and bro culture behavior contained in the ride-hailing service as much as and together with its co-founder Travis Kalanick. In 2014, when he was Uber’s CEO, Kalanick bragged about how a lot of an eligible bachelor he’d change into, telling GQ, “Yeah, we call that Boob-er.” 

Shared-office firm WeWork delayed its IPO in 2019, after public monetary information stories confirmed the corporate bleeding money. As did the bro tradition at Uber, WeWork CEO Adam Neumann’s habits got here underneath scrutiny, particularly for his drug use, alcohol-soaked events and the cultish undertones to his firm’s work tradition.

“Tech traders usually do not care about allegations of fraud, harassment or discrimination, particularly if they’ll revenue from it,” wrote Ellen Pao, a tech investor and head of the diversity- and inclusion-focused Challenge Embody, in the New York Times last month. In 2015, she lost a high-profile court case towards her former employer, the storied enterprise agency Kleiner Perkins, over sexual discrimination and retaliation. “These issues cannot be ignored or pretended away. If the members of the traders’ boys’ membership will not maintain one another accountable, prosecutors should step in.”

Jobs, in fact, is not answerable for any flawed CEO or for the tradition that tolerates their habits. And folks do unhealthy issues far past the tech world. However in the present day, as questions swirl about Silicon Valley’s energy amid growing requires regulation and punishment, the unstated seek for the subsequent Jobs-like determine is turning into a cautionary story that few appear to have realized from. 


Jobs was a gifted story teller.

James Martin/CNET

Gifted storytelling

For many years, the Silicon Valley hero saga has served as a contemporary model of the American dream. And with good cause. When Jobs began Apple with Steve Wozniak and Ron Wayne within the late Seventies, the US was popping out of a interval of intense uncertainty. Throughout that decade, the US pulled out of the Vietnam Conflict, whereas inflation and oil costs skyrocketed. Overseas manufacturing was heating up as properly, simply because the nation’s manufacturing base began its decline.

“Jobs emerges at this second as an completely completely different kind of enterprise chief,” mentioned Margaret O’Mara, a professor on the College of Washington and writer of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. He wasn’t just like the CEOs of massive enterprise that had fallen out of favor, nor was he a typical laptop nerd of the time.

One key high quality Jobs possessed was a present for storytelling, O’Mara mentioned, which impressed folks to consider what computer systems may do at a time when most individuals thought of them mere machines. Lengthy earlier than Google or the general public Web, Jobs talked about how networked computer systems will “have the entire Library of Congress at our fingertips.” He talked about video video games not as trivial wastes of time, as many mother and father did, however as “simulated studying environments” the place “the extra you study the underlying ideas, the higher your rating.” He would usually name computer systems “a bicycle for our minds.”

That inspiration continues to pulse by the tech {industry} in the present day. When he introduced the iPhone 13 final month, Tim Prepare dinner, Jobs’ hand-picked successor, mentioned Apple is “designing the perfect services to complement folks’s lives.” Microsoft’s product chief, Panos Panay, talked of how his firm’s Home windows software program is “a house for billions of individuals to do their jobs, stay their desires and join with the folks they love.” Amazon’s head of units and companies, David Limp, in the meantime, confirmed off his crew’s “subsequent large leaps ahead; science fiction turning into actuality.”

Uber, WeWork and Theranos had their tales, too. Uber talked about how its software program did not simply join drivers and riders, it was altering how we transfer round cities, whereas giving folks a brand new approach to earn a living as drivers. WeWork was creating areas amid a “profound change in expertise, demographics and urbanization” that, naturally, was encouraging extra “versatile, entrepreneurial and collaborative work kinds,” in accordance with one of its early investor presentations

Theranos, a reputation constructed from the mix of the phrases “remedy” and “prognosis,” created adverts for its finger-prick blood-testing service, promising that “one tiny drop modifications all the things.”

“What do you dream for?” an interviewer as soon as requested Holmes. “That much less folks should say goodbye to the folks they love,” she said.

Memorial for Steve Jobs at the Apple Store

An impromptu memorial on the Apple Retailer on Stockton Road in San Francisco for Steve Jobs on the night time of his loss of life, Oct. 5, 2011.

James Martin/CNET

Brash and secret

It is onerous to level to why so many clever folks all through the tech world tolerate unhealthy habits on such a big scale — and for therefore lengthy. Some tech workers say they have been blinded by the promise of driving the rocket ship of success, which inevitably has some bumps alongside the best way. Others say the magnetic personalities of CEOs warp how folks see themselves and the world round them.

There’s additionally the Jobs story itself. Fired from Apple following an influence wrestle with the corporate’s board and then-CEO John Sculley, Jobs, then 30, was identified for his fiery mood and obsession with cultivating thriller concerning the subsequent large factor Apple was engaged on by siloing groups and swearing them to secrecy. He labored like loopy and anticipated it of everybody else.

“I felt that I had let the earlier era of entrepreneurs down — that I had dropped the baton because it was being handed to me,” Jobs mentioned, reflecting on that point, during a Stanford University commencement address in 2005. “It was awful-tasting drugs,” he mentioned of being fired, “however I suppose the affected person wanted it. Generally life hits you within the head with a brick.”

Even after Jobs returned in 1996, he was identified for his brashness. He fired some Apple workers mere moments after assembly them in an elevator. In 2006, when he joined the board of Walt Disney as its largest shareholder, Jobs reportedly launched himself to the top of ESPN by saying, “Your cellphone is the dumbest fucking concept I’ve ever heard.” (ESPN on the time was providing branded phones and wireless plans, which have been all the fad again then.)

The alternate, captured within the e-book Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, ended when Jobs turned and walked away. Disney reportedly lost $135 million on its Mobile ESPN venture that yr.

“He was positively a truth-teller,” mentioned Eric Schiffer, model administration professional and chairman of Fame Administration Consultants, who makes knowledgeable examine of industry-defining CEOs as he helps companies and celebrities construct their manufacturers.

To Schiffer, the important thing was that Jobs was selecting “fact over pleasantries.” By comparability, he mentioned the unhealthy habits of some executives all through Silicon Valley ignores that Jobs was usually pushing his engineers to consider the human beings they have been constructing machines for. “That is the place most individuals fail,” he added.

“I do not suppose his intention was to be a jerk,” Schiffer mentioned of Jobs. “His intention was to inform the reality and crack the mould, and have a hyper-high commonplace that in case you did not meet that, he was going to let you already know.”


Revelations concerning the bro tradition Travis Kalanick oversaw at Uber induced a reckoning within the tech {industry}.

James Martin/CNET

Altering course

Silicon Valley’s reckoning with its leaders, their habits and its personal picture has led to some modifications. Many giant corporations, together with Apple, Google, Microsoft and Fb, began releasing common stories about range and inclusion efforts inside their worker bases up to now seven years. They’ve additionally begun deemphasizing their CEOs on stage throughout shows and in product releases, giving face time to extra girls and folks of colour who labored on and led groups throughout the firm.

Nonetheless, issues persist. Apple’s come underneath unprecedented strain from workers, who say the corporate’s obsession with secrecy — instilled because the days Jobs was in cost — made folks terrified to blow the whistle on unhealthy habits and allowed a hostile work environment to grow.

Criticism of Fb CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whom Jobs mentored earlier than he died, has grown for his obstinance about altering the basic methods his social community has moderated content material within the face of election interference, mass harassment campaigns and vaccine disinformation in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even Kalanick channeled the tech {industry}’s lenient nature after he was ousted as Uber’s CEO in the summertime of 2017. He reportedly instructed a number of folks on the time he was “Steve Jobs-ing it,” in accordance with reporting from Recode, anticipating to return in triumph though he was fired.

Hsu, the professor at Wharton, mentioned these points are being talked about in tutorial circles, together with at his alma mater, Stanford — the place many Silicon Valley founders, from Google’s Larry Web page and Sergey Brin to Theranos’ Holmes, acquired their begin.

Hsu has been altering his curriculum to incorporate case research and conditions that increase moral questions and conversations. He additionally attracts consideration to lesser-known tech executives identified for his or her optimistic impression, like Sal Khan, who created the nonprofit Khan Academy in 2008 to publish instructional tutorials without spending a dime on the net.

“We’d like a broader recognition of what it means to achieve success,” Hsu mentioned. “Social impression and making a distinction, and reaching that in a myriad of how — you do not have to be the jerk. There are numerous completely different narratives that may be the mannequin.”

Jobs could not have totally agreed. He as soon as mentioned, “If you wish to make everybody completely happy, do not be a pacesetter, promote ice cream.”

However he additionally preached doing the work you’re keen on. “Do not be trapped by dogma — which resides with the outcomes of different folks’s pondering,” he mentioned throughout that Stanford speech in 2005. “Do not let the noise of different’s opinions drown out your individual inside voice. And most vital, have the braveness to observe your coronary heart and instinct.” | How the seek for the subsequent Steve Jobs is ruining Silicon Valley


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