What we can learn from Steve Jobs

As I write this, it’s less than a week since the death of Steve Jobs, and it’s impossible to write an article about IT without thinking of the man who has rightly been cast as our day’s equivalent of past industrial greats like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

You don’t have to own an iPod or a Mac or love Toy Story to appreciate that Jobs’s vision and leadership has literally transformed whole industries – personal computers, music, films, mobile phones, and now tablets – and much has been written about his lasting impact on our modern life.

As we lament his untimely passing, it’s perhaps useful to reflect on what we can learn from his approach to technology, to see if there are lessons for us in the way that IT is planned, deployed and used in the third sector. Here are a few thoughts.

The first lesson is that specifications are meaningless.

Too often technology comes down to ‘specs’, to the technical jargon and numbers. What’s the GB, the GHz, the RAM? How many megapixels, or what slots or interfaces does it have?

Jobs was one of the few to call the bluff on this technobabble and to see it as ultimately meaningless. To him, the real spec to worry about was always user experience.

Under Jobs, Apple moved away from numerical one-upmanship and focused on the end-to-end experience of technology for an end user, and they developed an integrated approach to hardware and software that made computers as easy as possible for people to use and get on with their real work.

This is a useful principle to keep in mind as we implement IT solutions, as too often the super-duper new network goes in (with all its great specs and new features) but staff members come in and can’t print, or can’t find their documents. Technology should be nearly transparent: like a good pair of shoes, it should be so comfortable we don’t notice it at all, let alone trip over it all the time.

The second lesson is: don’t give users what they want.

At first blush, this may seem to fly in the face of the previous point about focusing on user experience. But in actual fact, users often don’t understand, certainly at the outset of a project or before the implementation of a new technology, what they really want.

Jobs liked to quote Ford’s adage that if he’d asked his customers what they wanted, they’d have asked for a faster horse.

Under Jobs, Apple never followed current market trends, or conducted focus groups, and certainly never listened to the experts and armchair pundits. Instead, they looked around the next corner and single-mindedly pursued a particular vision of what the best system or solution would be.

Whether it was a new-fangled input device called a ‘mouse’, a computer without a floppy drive, or a mobile phone without a keyboard, no focus group could have come up with the idea or indeed endorsed it.

A tablet computer? That’s been tried for ten years and has never caught on, the experts said. Nobody wants a tablet! Jobs ignored this ‘wisdom’ and forged ahead with the iPad. The rest, as they say, is history.

The message here is that a good IT strategy should be bold, visionary and forward-thinking, which is not what you get if you focus on the ways things are or have always been done.

The third lesson is that failure can be very useful.

We all fail sometimes, but most of have learned to pick ourselves up and carry on, trying to distance ourselves as quickly as possible from the failure and whatever caused it.

Steve Jobs was a serial ‘failure’ – a college drop-out, fired from the first company he founded, Apple, just as it was getting going, founder of NeXT Computers which was a commercial disaster, the list goes on.

What set him apart was that in each instance he learned from his failure and came back stronger. We can all learn from success, but it takes a special person to learn from getting things very wrong.

Getting fired from Apple, Jobs said, was the best thing that ever happened to him. After taking some time out, he invested in a tiny animation company called Pixar. He started NeXT and developed the technology that would later be the basis of Mac OS X and the iOS operating system that runs iPhones and iPads.

Like Jobs, a good IT strategy should be nimble and learn a lot from past mistakes.

The fourth lesson is that technology should embrace wider values like good design.

Apple, Jobs always said, lives at the crossroads of technology and the liberal arts, and that’s what separates it from other computer companies.

It is no secret that part of what makes using a Mac or an iPad so enjoyable is the special effort that went into crafting the devices and their software, almost as works of art.

And this aesthetic imperative reflects a deeper truth, namely that technology on its own doesn’t resonate with the values of most human beings, but when it is elegantly conceived and executed it can become a powerful delivery agent for the things that do.

That’s an important message for those who work with these technologies in the third sector: that IT for IT’s sake, packaged in dull beige boxes with all their fancy specifications, will always fail, but IT designed for the important things in life – whether that’s the fundraising campaign of a charity, or simply meaningful family movies or photos – is what endures.