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A post recently showed up in my LinkedIn feed.  It was a video showing a talk by Steve Jobs and claiming to be the “best marketing video ever”.  I disagree.  I think it is the worst ever.  I hate it.  I wish it would go away.  I have deep respect for Jobs, but on this one, he ruined everything and we’re still dealing with the damage.

A little context:  In the 1990’s, Apple was in its “beige box” era.  I was actively involved in desktop support for Macs at the time.  Most of my clients were advertising agencies, and one of them was TBWA Chiat Day, which had recently been hired by Apple.  Macs, once a brilliant product line, had languished, and had an out-of-date operating system.  The GUI was no longer unique to them as Microsoft had unleashed Windows 95.  Apple was dying, and there were even rumors Microsoft had acquired it.

In came Steve Jobs.  Jobs was what every technology company needs–a visionary.  Apple was afflicted with corporatism, and Jobs was going to have none of it.

One of his most famous moves was working with Chiat Day to create the “Think Different” ad campaign.  When it came out, I hated it immediately.  First, there was the cheap grammatical trick to get attention.  “Think” is a verb, so it’s modified by an adverb (“differently”).  By using poor grammar, Apple got press beyond their purchased ad runs.  Newspapers devoted whole articles to whether Apple was teaching children bad grammar.

The ads featured various geniuses like Albert Einstein and Gandhi and proclaimed various trite sentiments about “misfits” and “round pegs in square holes”.  But the ads said nothing about technology at all.

If you watch the video you can see Jobs’ logic here.  He said that ad campaigns should not be about product but about “values”.  The ads need to say something about “who we are”.

I certainly knew who Chiat Day was since I worked there.  I can tell you that the advertising copywriters who think up pabulum like “Think Different” couldn’t  write technical ads because they could barely turn on their computers without me.  They had zero technological knowledge or capability.  They were creating “vision” and “values” about something they didn’t understand, so they did it cheaply with recycled images of dead celebrities.

Unfortunately, the tech industry seems to have forgotten something.  Jobs didn’t just create this “brilliant” ad campaign with Chiat Day.  He dramatically improved the product.  He got Mac off the dated OS it was running and introduced OS X.  He simplified the product line.  He killed the Apple clone market.  He developed new chips like the G3.  He made the computers look cool.  He turned Macs from a dying product into a really good computing platform.

Many tech companies think they can just do the vision thing without the product.  And so they release stupid ad campaigns with hired actors talking about “connecting all of humanity” or whatever their ad agency can come up with.  They push their inane “values” and “mission” down the throats of employees.  But they never fix their products.  They ship the same crappy products they always shipped but with fancy advertising on top.

The thing about Steve Jobs is that everybody admires his worst characteristics and forgets his best.  Some leaders and execs act like complete jerks because Steve Jobs was reputed to be a complete jerk.  They focus on “values” and slick ad campaigns, thinking Jobs succeeded because of these things.  Instead, he succeeded in spite of them.  At the end of the day, Apple was all about the product and they made brilliant products.

The problem with modern corporatism is the army of non-specialized business types who rule over everything.  They don’t understand the products, they don’t understand those who use them, they don’t understand technology, but…Steve Jobs!  So, they create strategy, mission, values, meaningless and inspiring but insipid ad campaigns, and they don’t build good products.  And then they send old Jobs videos around on LinkedIn to make the problem worse.

I’ve been thinking about the corporate world, how it operates, and the effects of corporatism on our lives.  If you’re a network engineer and think this is boring, pay attention.  Corporate culture, the influence of Wall Street, and the rise of a non-skilled management class have direct impact on your work and personal life.  The products you use are heavily influenced by corporate culture.  Why vendors release certain products, when, and how, are all controlled by corporate culture.  When a company tries to sell you something that doesn’t work and doesn’t serve your needs, when the company discontinues support for a product you bought after crashing and burning with it, when companies force products down your throat with buzzword messaging that means nothing to you, corporate culture explains it.

If you work in a corporation, the culture creates politics which affect what projects you work on, your career trajectory, and how you interact with your team.  In your personal life, the food you eat and drugs you take are very much explained by corporate culture.

I wrote in a previous post about the lack of anything permanent in the corporate world.  Everything seems to be temporary, everything is always in flux.  Companies are afflicted by short-term thinking, and short-term thinking is killing everyone.

One way this manifests itself is quarter-by-quarter thinking.  We all know sales people are judged on a quarterly basis, but corporations in general are as well.  Publicly traded companies have to present results to analysts, and thus to investors, every single quarter.  The results are compared against the last quarter, against the same quarter the previous year, and against other companies in the industry.  The results have a huge impact on stock price, executive compensation, and even executives’ jobs.

The effect of this trickles down to all levels of a public company.  Business units are judged by the quarterly performance of their products.  This means product managers are judged by the quarter, much like sales people.  Product managers are not commissioned directly like sales people, but they live and die by quarterly numbers.  As a result, they want to do everything possible to ensure quarterly numbers shine.

Now, imagine you are a product manager.  You have a deal worth, $20 million on the line if you deliver specific features the customer wants.  You are going to do anything possible to win the deal, so your quarterly numbers look good.  Now it probably is the case that the $20 million customer’s feature requests are specific to their environment.  That is, adding the features will help that one customer, but probably very few others.  So, instead of trying to build a product that caters to a broad range of customers who might bring smaller deals, you end up building a product that caters to a narrow set of customers that make you look good in your quarterly business reviews.

Now this type of short-term thinking might be an obvious problem if you planned to spend twenty years at your company.  But instead you spend two years at a company, so you only have to pull this off for eight quarters.  You can put big happy numbers in your LinkedIn profile (“successfully drove record quarter of $100 million in sales!”) and then exit stage right to repeat the process elsewhere.  And the folks left-behind have to clean up the mess.  Keep in mind your success within the company is also being judged by non-technical MBAs who are looking to do the same thing you are.

The companies that do the best long-term are those that eschew short-term thinking.  Apple is a great example of this.  They’ve had some disasters, but have generally taken risks to build products with long-term appeal.  I often mention Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, who while he had serious personal problems, forsook short-term gain for long-term performance.  Even within a company, quarterly thinking can vary by business unit and leader.

At the end of the day, however, it’s Wall Street that encourages this.  Like any metric, execs end up chasing their stock price like a dog chasing its tail.  It doesn’t get you anywhere, however much progress you may think you are making.  Meanwhile, you may get rich, but you leave disaster in your wake.

It’s inevitable, as we get older, that we look back on the past with a certain nostalgia.  That said, I think that computing in the era when I was growing up, the 1980’s, was more fun and interesting than it is now.  Personal computers were starting to become common, but were not omnipresent as they are now.  They were quite mysterious boxes.  An error might throw you into a screen that started displaying hexadecimal with no apparent meaning.  Each piece of software had its own interface which you had to learn, since there were really no set standards.  For some, there might be a menu-driven interface.  For others there might be control keys you used to navigate.  Some programs required text commands.  Even working with devices that had only 64 Kilobytes of memory, there was always a sense of adventure.

I got my start in network engineering in high school, in fact.  Computer networks as we understand them today didn’t really exist back then, in the 1980’s, except in some universities and the Defense Department.  Still, we found ways to connect computers together and get them to communicate,  the most common of which was the Bulletin Board System, or BBS.

The BBS was an individual computer equipped with a modem, into which other computer users could dial.  For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of a modem, this was a device that enabled computer data to be sent over analog telephone land lines.  (I hope I don’t have to explain what a land line is, but I’m even finding today that young people aren’t familiar with the concept! I had to drive to a local restaurant when their phones weren’t working to order some food, and when I explained to the teenage hostess that I was getting a busy signal, I got a blank stare in return.  I don’t think she knew what a busy signal is.)  Virtually all BBS’s had a single phone line and modem connecting to a single computer.  The host computer ran special BBS software which received connections from anyone who might dial into it.  It then had a set of functions users could execute, such as sending email, posting messages on public message boards, text-based video games, and file transfers/downloads.  (Keep in mind, the BBS was text-only, with no graphics, so you were limited in terms of what you could do.)  An individual operator of a BBS was called a System Operator or Sysop (“sis-op”).  The sysop was the master of his domain, and occasionally a petty tyrant.  He could decide who was allowed to log into the board, what messages and files could be posted, and whether to boot a rude user.

Because a BBS had a single modem, dialing in was a pain.  That was especially true for popular BBS’s.  You would set your terminal software to dial the BBS phone number, and you would often get a busy signal because someone else was using the service.  Then you might set your software to auto re-dial the BBS until you heard the musical sound of a ring tone followed by modems chirping to each other.

How did you find the phone numbers for BBS’s in the era before Google?  You might get them from friends, but often you would find them posted as lists on other BBS’s.  When we first bought our modem for my Apple II+, we also bought a subscription to Compuserve, a public multi-user dial-in service.  On one of their message boards, I managed to find a list of BBS’s in the 415 area code, in which I resided.  Then, I dialed into each of them.  Some BBS on the list had shut down and I could hear someone saying “Hello??” through the modem speaker.  Others connected, I set up an account, and, after perusing the board, I would download a list of more BBS numbers and go on to try them.

Each sysop configured the board however seemed best, so the BBS’s tended to have a lot of variation.  The software I used, which was the most common among Apple II users, was called GBBS.  GBBS actually had its own proprietary programming language and compiler called ACOS, which allowed for heavy customization.  I re-wrote almost the entire stock bulletin board system in the years I ran mine.  It also allowed for easy exchange of modules.  I delegated a lot of the running of my board to volunteer co-sysops, and one of them wanted to run a fantasy football league.  He bought the software, I installed it, and we were good to go.  I had friends who ran BBS’s on other platforms that did not have GBBS, and their boards were far less customize-able.

Each user on a BBS had a handle, which was just a screen name.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that mine was “Mad MAn”.  I don’t really recall how I thought of the name, but you always wanted to sound cool, and to a 15 year old madman sounded cool.  This was in the era before school shootings, so it wasn’t particularly threatening.  I spelled it with two words because I didn’t know how to spell “madman”, and this was before every spelling mistake was underlines in red.  The second A was capitalized because I was a bad typist and couldn’t get my finger off the shift key fast enough.  Because the BBS population consisted largely of nerdy teenage boys, a lot of the handles came from Lord of the Rings and other fantasy and sci-fi works.  I can’t tell you how many Gandalf’s were floating around, but there were a lot.  I had a Strider for a co-sysop.  Others, like mine, attempted to sound tough.  I had another co-sysop whose handle was Nemesis.

Since each BBS was an island, if someone sent you an email on BBS1, you couldn’t see it on BBS2.  So, if you were active on five BBS’s, you had to log in to all five and check email separately.  At one point a sysop who went by the handle “Oggman” launched a system called OGG-Net.  (His BBS also had a cool name, “Infinity’s Edge”.)  Oggy’s BBS became a central repository for email, and subscribing boards would dial into it at night to exchange emails they had queued up.  This of course meant that it could take an entire day for email to propagate from one BBS to another, but it was better than before.

I’m writing this post in my “NetStalgia” series for a couple reasons.  First, it’s always important to look back in order to know where you are going.  Second, I’ve resurrected my old BBS using an Apple II emulator, and in my next post I’m going to share a few screen shots of what this thing actually looked like.  I hope you’ll enjoy them.