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Ciciora’s Corner - Balance and Priorities

Thu, 11/03/2011 - 10:56pm
Walt S. Ciciora, expert on cable and consumer electronics issues

It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are important.

I was in the lobby of a hotel in Los Angeles when the television screen announced that Steve Jobs had died. Of course, this was quite a shock. A few moments later, remembering how he looked at recent appearances and his leaving Apple recently, it was obvious that this was coming; I just didn’t want to face the reality of it.

Walt S. CicioraThe press has been filled with stories about Jobs. The most surprising, and perhaps most elegant, is the special issue of Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine. It has a black-and-white photo of Jobs on the cover, and it is entirely devoted to him. Particularly respectful, there is not a single advertisement or paid testimonial in the entire publication. I would recommend getting a copy while you can. A book on Jobs by Walter Isaacson is out. Isaacson is an excellent writer.

Jobs has been compared to Thomas Edison. There are similarities, but the comparison is not, in my opinion, appropriate. While both were creative, they were creative in different ways. Edison was more focused on the technology and on making a profitable business with technology. Jobs was more of an artist, a designer. While his name is on a large number of patents, many of them are design patents. He was concerned about how the product looked and functioned. The human interface was always paramount. He had a unique talent in that regard. So much of consumer electronics and computer equipment (and cable set-top boxes) is confusing to use, counterintuitive and frustrating. I’ve always felt it’s a big mistake to build products that make their purchasers feel stupid. Apple and Jobs never did that. Their products are both beautiful to behold and intuitive to use.

The consumer industry likes to use focus groups to evaluate product designs and ideas. Jobs felt he didn’t need that. Jobs felt he knew. This level of self-confidence is only justified by a history of being right. Jobs said: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” He showed it to them time and time again.

When someone of the caliber of Jobs passes, much of the coverage is hagiographic – making him into a saint, ignoring his human faults. A few pieces brought out some of the darker side. The article in the Oct. 8 Financial Times had a startling title: “Visionary, game-changer, genius … but also a freak.” Wow! The subtitle: “Apple’s culture reflects its deeply paradoxical founder.” Apple’s culture is intensely secretive. It’s difficult to find out what goes on inside. Part of that is to protect the design of products under development. But the articles imply it goes a bit beyond that.

Perhaps the most troubling hints are about how top employees are sometimes treated. Apparently there is a lot of what could be called bullying, as well as a huge amount of pressure to get things done quickly and on par with the project’s goal, no matter how difficult that may be. The personal consequences are long hours, little time for family, depression, divorce and children growing up with inadequate contact with a parent. There were stories in business magazines earlier this year about suicides at the contract manufacturer’s facilities in China. The photographs of the manufacturing facility showed clean, bright, gleaming surroundings. But there were nets outside the windows in the dormitories to prevent suicide attempts. A few of the attempts were successful. The article implied the work environment was mind-numbing, with little intellectual stimulation. Fortunately, the article claimed that efforts were being made to improve things.

Many of us have seen situations in our industry where the pressure to get something major done was intense and the reason for the deadline was not communicated, or seemed artificial or unnecessary. The consequences for employees include cancelled vacations, missed family events, trouble at home, children missing parental contact and so on. And a year or two later, the reason for the urgency can’t even be remembered. Furthermore, the reward for doing the near impossible is the expectation that it can be routinely done: “So here’s the next project. Do it just as quickly and with the same limited resources.”

This leads to the question of whether this is the only way. Do truly great products and project executions have to come at such a high personal cost? Or is it possible to find a more balanced approach that better accommodates personal priorities? I’m not sure it is possible. We live in a highly competitive environment that stimulates the high standard of living we enjoy. But it seems there will always be someone who puts in unreasonable hours, drives especially hard and forces the rest of us to try to keep up, particularly when there is so much unemployment.

There is a quote in the Businessweek issue that should be kept in mind: “It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” The difficult personal decision concerns discerning the things that are really important.

Email: wciciora@ieee.org

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