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    • Chris

      Part 1:  A few years after Steve Jobs was exiled from Apple and launched NeXT (his new computer company) he was invited to Ronald Reagan’s birthday party. He told us the guests were greeted with a row of trumpeters as they walked a red carpet to the entrance.

      Steve said it was Reagan who introduced him to John Akers at the party—then CEO of IBM, one of the largest and most respected companies in the world at the time.  They had been a fearsome competitor to Apple. Steve did what he loved to do: he laid into Akers about the dark future of his company. Steve’s team was building the future of computing and IBM would be left behind. 

      Akers suggested they work together. That led to what I understood to be a $60 million license of NeXT’s soon-to-be-finished (so they thought) operating system. A few years later, I was hired at NeXT to repair the IBM/NeXT relationship.

      Ralph Derrickson welcomed me by saying I’d be a hero if I succeeded and otherwise it was nice knowing me.

    • Chris

      Part 2: Ross Perot was NeXT’s first investor. He had contacted Steve after watching a documentary, The Entrepreneurs, and he invested $20 million. He called it the safest investment he ever made. 

      Ross was famous in the day for founding Electronic Data Systems, which was acquired by General Motors for $2.4 billion. It was a company that operated computer systems as a service for big companies. GM placed Ross on their board and he became a feisty and outspoken board member whose dramatic quotes about GM appeared everywhere:

      I come from an environment where, if you see a snake, you kill it. At GM, if you see a snake, the first thing you do is go hire a consultant on snakes. Then you get a committee on snakes, and then you discuss it for a couple of years. The most likely course of action is — nothing. You figure, the snake hasn't bitten anybody yet, so you just let it crawl around on the factory floor. We need to build an environment where the first guy who sees the snake kills it. 

      I met him at a fancy developer’s conference we held at Davies Symphony Hall in SF, Steve’s favorite venue. It seemed strange to see a buttoned-up executive hanging with Steve at a conference filled with young coders in sneakers. Ross believed shoes should have laces, never slip-ons, and be polished. He had a military haircut.

      We had hired Penn & Teller to perform and they were on stage with a wooden dummy when Steve & Ross entered. Steve hopped on the stage and asked nicely if he could briefly interrupt the show to welcome the developers. He told them how important he knew they were. It was perfect.

      I cringed when he invited Ross to say a few words. Steve had a habit of putting unprepared guests on stage during his keynotes and they looked wooden and unrehearsed. Ross strode briskly on stage in his bolt-upright posture, faced Penn & Teller’s dummy and cracked, “You remind me of the GM Directors I serve with!” The room exploded with laughter as Ross and the dummy carried on. Even Steve was dying.

    • Chris
      Chris MacAskill

      Part 3: It didn’t take me long at NeXT to believe the trouble with the relationship was Steve. Everyone on the team I spoke to thought IBM’s endorsement of our operating system was crucial and if IBM failed to ship it, bad PR for us. Steve simply said about the relationship “they don’t get it.”

      IBM asked me to demo NeXTstep on their IBM RS/6000 workstation at a trade show, so I did. It felt good to have a machine muscular enough to power our UNIX-based system that had heavy graphics. I wondered if Steve was afraid that their hardware would upstage ours.

      Whatever the reason, we had failed to get him to believe the relationship was important and I thought Perot was the one man in the world who could. So I called him. What could go wrong? Ross had told us he was happy to hear anyone’s ideas and he had said publicly that Steve was the damndest one-man-band he had ever known. 

      One of his quotes about GM was:

      I answered every customer complaint about a General Motors car the whole time I was on the GM board. This created great trauma inside GM because there was a department that did that. I tried that department, and all they did was send out form letters. 

      I got Tom Walter on the phone. He was Ross’s partner, whom we called Darth Vader. Ross was very short with a high-pitched fast-talking voice and Tom was very tall with a deep, slow voice and sculpted face.

      I explained that with the board meeting coming up, we the employees of NeXT felt the #1 thing Ross could do is persuade Steve how important the IBM relationship was. Ross had started his career as IBM’s top salesman and I assumed EDS was a huge IBM partner. Tom said he would talk to Ross and call me back. He did the next day and said Ross agreed, but it was the #2 thing on his list. He didn’t say what #1 was.

      Internally I was thinking perfect! Steve likes older, accomplished men who admire and mentor him, and Ross is the only person I knew whose clock speed matched Steve’s. They had an obvious bromance going over 3 years. Ross was the second-richest American and he got there via computers.

      Steve asked me to set up the machines for his demo to the board. Awkward. I hadn’t told him I called Tom Walters. But we did have cool new products to show so I was sure the board meeting would be great.

    • Chris

      Tom and Ross showed up looking like the odd couple. I was not in the board meeting for the following drama, but we soon heard the blow-by-blow from the people who were. It went something like this:

      Steve demoed our brilliant new Workspace Manager for 20 minutes while Ross’s eyes glazed over. Here’s a clash I didn’t see coming: Ross was all about sales while Steve was all about product. Ross eventually put his hand up and said, in his fast-talking East Texas accent: “Steve, I believe you. You don’t need to demo to me. You have the best computer on the planet, just like you said. And Sun has the worst, like you said.”

      “My question is why does Sun have sales growth that looks like this?” (Gestures up and to the right.) “While our sales curve is flat. Now, it seems like there’s one of two things it could be: Either that man cain’t sell a computer.” (Gestures toward Todd Rulon-Miller, our VP of sales, who went ashen.) “Or, our customer has a problem with our computer we don’t know about. Why don’t we call them and ask, if ya ain’t buyin’, why ain’t ya buyin’? If ya tell us why ya ain’t buyin’, we can fix it so you can buy it!”

      “Which one of those is it Steve?” Apparently, it was a rare occasion when Steve was at a loss for words. I never spoke to anyone who knew what he was thinking, but he got up, walked out of the board meeting, into his office, and started doing email. We could all see that because both the board room and Steve’s office had glass walls.

      Ross and Tom were left sitting in the boardroom and Ross started asking what just happened. Tom was saying “now Ross” in his slow soothing way while Ross’s speech accelerated. “Did the CEO of this company just walk out of a board meeting? He’s got my $20 million dollars! Does he not want me here? If I leave, I ain’t ever coming back.”

      And with that, the man who was famous for for saying at EDS they went in to meeting rooms to fight, but they came out unified even if they had to agree to disagree, exited the room loud and fuming.

      As they headed for the stairs, I saw Ross notice a shocked-looking young woman. He stopped, stuttered, and said (to the best of my memory): “Uh, well, you just remember! THAT man changed the world!!” (Gestures towards Steve’s office.) “There ain’t many people who’ve done THAT!” And he kept walking out the door, toward a run for the President of The United States. So much for my dreams of him fixing the IBM deal.

    • Chris
      Chris MacAskill

      My conclusion: What we adored about Steve and what I believe placed him in the same pantheon as Edison and Ford, is how he was absolutely possessed with building great products. He tried to move fast but really it was greatness at any cost. We all know many companies which are growth at any cost, but that wasn’t Steve.

      Yes, NeXT’s operating system took forever to develop. It was years late. So was Toy Story. But NeXTstep became OS X, iOS, and Watch OS and drove Apple’s renaissance because it was so well crafted.

      I think anyone who didn’t share his passion for getting every detail right and who pushed growth above making great products caused Steve’s head to explode, even if they were Ross Perot. Steve detested the way some companies "would push shit out the door."

    • vegasphotog

      Another AWESOME insiders story Chris. Thanks for sharing. Man, you know how to type and capture the persona perfectly!

      Why don’t we call them and ask, if ya ain’t buyin’, why ain’t ya buyin’?
      If ya tell us why ya ain’t buyin’, we can fix it so you can buy it!”

      The Ross Perot campaign was a pivotal moment for me as a voting American. Up to this point I had subscribed to the family beliefs that the GOP was all about pro-business, yadadadada and I belonged to the Orange County Young Republicans. But, as I started asking myself questions about the true net results of the GOP, Perot symbolized someone free from the taint of influence and and attitude of FULL STEAM AHEAD. At that point I changed my voting status to Independent and have never looked back. I actually worked a call center for Ross Perot's campaign mostly because I knew he would never win but his wealth and autonomous attitude and passion for America was most important. I thought and still believe that American politics are doomed to fail (or, it probably already has) until we adequetly support a third party system.

      Sorry for the political sidehack but your story was absolutely emblematic of two forces of nature at that period of time.

    • kbasa

      My wife was at EDS when all that was going on, writing cellular telephone technology code. To say that EDS moved rapidly and decisively would be an understatement. They built a flat, egalitarian structure where everyone worked hard.

      Then they hired Dick Brown and lit the whole thing on fire chasing stock prices.

    • md

      I worked on the Perot deal as one of NeXT’s outside lawyers and was dumbfounded that it actually closed because of how impossible it was that a match between Steve and Ross would last. But it did. Chris Mac sees all!

    • Chris

      I was as dumbfounded as you, mds. I don't remember ever seeing two people who seemed so different hitting it off like that.

    • Shewmaker

      The fallacy of the perfect mousetrap

      Univac was superior to the card reading IBM computer

      Betamax was superior to VHS

      The processor in the Apple//e was superior in algorithm processing to the initial processor in the first IBM PC when the speed was identical.

      There are many other examples. The fact is that better product does not by itself cause the world to beat a path to your doorway. It can help (and among geeks with money it often does help) but reaching the mass market requires more than just having the best product.

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