John Sculley: The Secrets of Steve Jobs’ Success [Exclusive Interview]

Drawing_Sculley

John Sculley, Apple's ex-CEO, talks for the first time about Steve Jobs. Illustration by Matthew Phelan.

In 1983, Steve Jobs wooed Pepsi executive John Sculley to Apple with one of the most famous lines in business: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”

Jobs and Sculley ran Apple together as co-CEOs, blending cutting edge technology (the first Mac) with cutting edge advertising (the famous 1984 ad) and world-class design. But it soon soured, and Sculley is best known today for forcing Jobs’ resignation after a boardroom battle for control of the company.

Now, for the first time, Sculley talks publicly about Steve Jobs and the secrets of his success. It’s the first interview Sculley has given on the subject of Steve Jobs since he was forced out of the company in 1993.

“There are many product development and marketing lessons I learned working with Steve in the early days,” says Sculley. “It’s impressive how he still sticks to his same first principles years later.”

He adds, “I don’t see any change in Steve’s first principles — except he’s gotten better and better at it.”

I met with Sculley in a hotel lobby near Oakland airport. Sculley had been taking meetings for his investment fund and was waiting for a flight back home on the east coast.

Sculley was initially reluctantly to talk about Steve Jobs, his former partner at Apple, who had been both his protégé and mentor.

“I don’t have any contact with Steve these days,” Sculley said in one of our initial emails setting up the meeting. “He’s still mad he got pushed out of Apple 22 years ago… I have no interest to piss him off… My Apple experience is now ancient history and I have gone on with my life and I’m not looking for any publicity or have any ax to grind.”

I persuaded Sculley that I was a big fan of Jobs, and had no interest in digging dirt. What I wanted to know was: How does he do it?

During the resulting 90-minute conversation, Sculley divulged Jobs’s first principles. Here, in Sculley’s words, is Steve Jobs’ methodology for building great products:

John Sculley: The Secrets of Steve Jobs’ Success [Exclusive Interview]

Steve Jobs circa 1984. Illustration by Matthew Phelan.

1. Beautiful design – “We both believed in beautiful design and Steve in particular felt that you had to begin design from the vantage point of the experience of the user… We used to study Italian designers… We were looking at Italian car designers. We really did study the designs of cars that they had done and looking at the fit and finish and the materials and the colors and all of that. At that time, nobody was doing this in Silicon Valley. It was the furthest thing on the planet from Silicon Valley back then in the 80’s. Again, this is not my idea. I could relate to it because of my interest and background in design, but it was totally driven by Steve… What a lot of people didn’t realize was that Apple wasn’t just about computers. It was about designing products and designing marketing and it was about positioning.”

2. Customer experience – “He always looked at things from the perspective of what was the user’s experience going to be? … The user experience has to go through the whole end-to-end system, whether it’s desktop publishing or iTunes. It is all part of the end-to-end system. It is also the manufacturing. The supply chain. The marketing. The stores.”

3. No focus groups — “Steve said: ‘How can I possibly ask somebody what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphic based computer is? No one has ever seen one before.’ He believed that showing someone a calculator, for example, would not give them any indication as to where the computer was going to go because it was just too big a leap. ”

3. Perfectionism – “He was also a person that believed in the precise detail of every step. He was methodical and careful about everything — a perfectionist to the end.”

4. Vision – “He believed that the computer was eventually going to become a consumer product. That was an outrageous idea back in the early 1980’s because people thought that personal computers were just smaller versions of bigger computers. That’s how IBM looked at it. Some of them thought it was more like a game machine because there were early game machines, which were very simple and played on televisions… But Steve was thinking about something entirely different. He felt that the computer was going to change the world and it was going to become what he called “the bicycle for the mind.” It would enable individuals to have this incredible capability that they never dreamed of before. It was not about game machines. It was not about big computers getting smaller… He was a person of huge vision.”

5. Minimalism – “What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do – but the things that you decide not to do. He’s a minimalist.”

“He’s a minimalist and is constantly reducing things to their simplest level. It’s not simplistic. It’s simplified. Steve is a systems designer. He simplifies complexity.”

6. Hire the best – “Steve had this ability to reach out to find the absolute best, smartest people he felt were out there. He was extremely charismatic and extremely compelling in getting people to join up with him and he got people to believe in his visions even before the products existed… He always reached out for the very best people he could find in the field. And he personally did all the recruiting for his team. He never delegated that to anybody else. ”

7. Sweat the details – “On one level he is working at the ‘change the world,’ the big concept. At the other level he is working down at the details of what it takes to actually build a product and design the software, the hardware, the systems design and eventually the applications, the peripheral products that connect to it… He’s always adamantly involved in the advertising, the design and everything.”

8. Keep it small – “The other thing about Steve was that he did not respect large organizations. He felt that they were bureaucratic and ineffective. He would basically call them “bozos.” That was his term for organizations that he didn’t respect.

… Steve had a rule that there could never be more than one hundred people on the Mac team. So if you wanted to add someone you had to take someone out. And the thinking was a typical Steve Jobs observation: “I can’t remember more than a hundred first names so I only want to be around people that I know personally. So if it gets bigger than a hundred people, it will force us to go to a different organization structure where I can’t work that way. The way I like to work is where I touch everything.” Through the whole time I knew him at Apple that’s exactly how he ran his division. ”

9. Reject bad work – “It’s like an artist’s workshop and Steve is the master craftsman who walks around and looks at the work and makes judgments on it and in many cases his judgments were to reject something.

… An engineer would bring Steve in and show him the latest software code that he’s written. Steve would look at it and throw it back at him and say: “It’s just not good enough.” And he was constantly forcing people to raise their expectations of what they could do. So people were producing work that they never thought they were capable of… Steve would shift between being highly charismatic and motivating and getting them excited to feel like they are part of something insanely great. And on the other hand he would be almost merciless in terms of rejecting their work until he felt it had reached the level of perfection that was good enough to go into – in this case, the Macintosh.”

10. Perfection – “The thing that separated Steve Jobs from other people like Bill Gates — Bill was brilliant too — but Bill was never interested in great taste. He was always interested in being able to dominate a market. He would put out whatever he had to put out there to own that space. Steve would never do that. Steve believed in perfection.”

11. Systems thinker – “The iPod is a perfect example of Steve’s methodology of starting with the user and looking at the entire end-to-end system. It was always an end-to-end system with Steve. He was not a designer but a great systems thinker. That is something you don’t see with other companies. They tend to focus on their piece and outsource everything else.

If you look at the state of the iPod, the supply chain going all the way over to iPod city in China – it is as sophisticated as the design of the product itself. The same standards of perfection are just as challenging for the supply chain as they are for the user design. It is an entirely different way of looking at things.”

BTW: The interview with Sculley was awfully gratifying to me personally because many of his points coincided with points I’d made in my book about Jobs: Inside Steve’s Brain. I’d written chapters devoted to Jobs’ perfectionism, minimalism and elitism, and how they have shaped Apple’s business. A major part of the book is devoted to the systems Jobs has built. It was strange but thrilling to hear ideas I’d formulated independently expounded by a former Apple CEO and someone who’d worked with Jobs so closely.

Read the full interview here: John Sculley On Steve Jobs, The Full Interview Transcript

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About the author

Leander KahneyLeander Kahney is the editor and publisher of Cult of Mac. He is the NYT bestselling author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products; Inside Steve’s Brain; Cult of Mac; and Cult of iPod. Leander has written for Wired, MacWeek, Scientific American, and The Guardian in London. Follow Leander on Twitter @lkahney and Facebook.

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