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July 01, 2014

Steve Jobs: Genius, Baby Boomer, Sadist.

steve jobs illustration_02.jpg
Image: M. Nudelman/Biz Insider

Oh, the Humanity, Dude: Was Jobs seriously out of line asking employees "what are you working on?"

Business Insider has an interesting short piece on Steve Jobs. Interesting because it's a possible (read: for sure) reflection on generational differences in leadership styles, thick-skinned-ness and senses of humor in the workplace. Born in 1955, Steve Jobs was a Baby Boomer with an off-the-chart work ethic which, whether or not you like Boomers, Boomers are known for. By the time of his death in 2011 he was, at 56, older than most of his employees, many in their 20s and 30s.

Business Insider's Lisa Eadicicco, an accomplished, clearly talented and young (I'm guessing mid-20s from her bio, which makes her all the more impressive) tech news writer, explains "Why Apple Employees Never Wanted To Have Lunch With Steve Jobs". And I list further below Jobs-Apple employee interactions in the piece that help answer the question. In her article, our friend Ms. Eadicicco interviews Apple ex-employee David Black, who worked at Apple for 12 years before leaving two years ago to launch his own start-up. Black notes that whenever Jobs would have his lunch on Apple's patio, "employees would finish their lunches within 15 to 20 minutes" and exit. The idea was to avoid this dreaded scenario:

One of the first things they teach you at Apple is to be prepared to answer [Job's] question, 'What are you working on?'

"No one would fill the seats near him," Black said to Business Insider. "Just because you wanted to be ready for that moment."

Two incidents with interns/employees are cited. In one

Jobs asked an intern what he had been working on while in the elevator. He mentioned that he was doing QA (quality assurance) for a product. Jobs then asked him, 'Why are you going down? You should be going back up to work.'

The kid completely went pale-faced," Black said. "And Steve said 'Hey, just kidding.'

In the other, a luckless intern

ended up in the elevator with Jobs. When he asked her what she was working on, he also asked to see the project right then and there.

"What are you working on?" Brutal. Uncalled for. Oh, the humanity. Seriously, are these dick moves by Jobs? Rudeness? Or opportunities for an employee to shine? A toxic leadership style? Or just another passionate and occasionally abrasive manager-partner-owner asking employees reasonable questions with just a hint of irony and weird humor? In other words, just Steve Jobs being a wry and consummate Baby Boomer?

Am I missing anything here?

Frankly, I can't think of a more reasonable question--even one posed by a guy who intimidated lots of people--than "What are you working on?" And certainly for some with even average moxie that question was an opportunity in glowing lights. Yesterday I asked one Baby Boomer lawyer I once worked with--a real go-getter one, a gunner--what she thought of Jobs's question. Her response:

I would want the interaction with my boss, Jobs. Sell him on my enthusiasm, work ethic, and great next idea- might result in a promotion, a raise, or just good old-fashioned thanks.

Questions?

Posted by JD Hull at July 1, 2014 02:22 PM

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