Cake
  • Log In
  • Sign Up
    • 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.

    • 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 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."

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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!

    • 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.

    • When I joined IBM in Dallas in the fall of 1959, Ross Perot was a "sales trainee -- just-turned sales rep". I had the same senior salesman as my "daddy" as Ross had during his 1st year as a trainee. Both Ross and I were grads of the US Naval Academy, I graduated in 1946 (Class of 1947, wartime 3-year-course); Ross was a '53 or '54 grad. I had received my "wings" and had remained in the service much longer than Ross. So, I was his "junior" re: IBM service even though I was a bit older.

      Our branch manager could never remember my first name (Emiel) and he always called me "Alec". When I opened a sales meeting as a trainee and was followed in front of the group by Ross, he commented that "Henry (our manager) never called me by my first name, only by my last name, 'Alec' -- my first name was "Smart". This illuminates immediately our personal relationship. He had immediately become the #1 salesman in the Dallas Branch -- my claim to fame was that I was a top sales trainee.

      A second interaction that my wife loves to describe went thusly: A new manager was assigned to our Dallas branch office -- a 1st-line manager, not the branch manager. We had met him (Jim) and his wife socially (not IBM-related) through a mutual friend in IBM upper management. So, my wife and my best office-friend Burt's wife decided to hold a luncheon for the new-comer's wife to include other "office" wives. Of course, Ross' wife Margo was included in the group of invited attendees. Suddenly, at home, I received a call from Burt to expect a call from Ross ... and the phone soon rang. Ross proposed two things: (1) we invite the District Manager's wife who resided in Dallas to the luncheon; and (2) that Margo join my wife and Burt's wife as hostesses for the affair. Ross saw inter-personal positive actions quickly and acted ...

      There were other interactions but my intent is to show Ross's wit in the first example -- we remained acquaintances -- unfortunately, my ego would not permit a closer relationship -- I never held Ross on a pedestal -- when you check my net worth, maybe I should have. In example #2, it indicates how Ross would never leave a stone unturned when it came to "upward career orientation". I did not vote for Ross the year he ran for President -- I have always respected him, but ... !!

      As for "sales" ability ... I think that Ross should go down as the #1 in world history. I just could never "schmooz" with him ... he just wasn't the "schmoozin'-type". Maybe that's why he became so successful.

    • Fascinating, emiliano, thanks so much for posting that. It's funny how some people just get launched to the stars. They seem like 1 in a million but when you know them you realize they have the same human weaknesses we all have, maybe more.

      I sometimes wonder if it isn't an unquenchable need for validation that drives them to such heights. If you're comfortable in your own skin, then you don't go to these extremes.

    • Chris, your complimentary comment is appreciated! However, my career, although good to excellent, was never in Perot's league. This is evident by my "Harvard-grad-and-lawyer" son's comment when I pointed out my relationship with Ross -- by explaining that Ross's desk was just behind mine in the IBM Dallas branch office. My son snapped back "Dad, I bet that was the only time Ross was ever behind you"!!

    • Chris, I see that you are a co-founder of CAKE ... I want to let you know that at the age of 91, I became a blogger (3 years ago). After over a couple of hundred blogs I have become somewhat "feeble" mentally ... not actually, but emotionally ... with writer's bloc. Our country's current administration has given rise to many blogs but has also caused a sudden drought ... as indicated in my last few attempts. You might check them out at http://www.oleguyramblin.com

    • Thanks for the pointer to your blog. I have a father-in-law your age and I confess bracing myself for what I would discover in your writings because my father-in-law and his friends are fanatical Trump supporters, believing him to be the greatest leader of modern times.

      I have respect for many republicans and democrats but like anyone in any occupation I think they should have basic decency. Ross has it, even Steve did.

    • My favorite tee shirt states: "Elect a Clown ... Expect a Circus" with a picture of "Mr. T" as a clown. That should quell any fears. But most of my Academy friends are Republicans ... not all are Trump fans, thankfully

    • As a former product guy now in sales (though seriously missing product) it’s weird to see both sides of the argument.

      Many companies do ship crap. The best product doesn’t always win.

      And have you ever try selling something half-baked or unpolished? It’s the worst.

      It fascinates and weirdly encourages me to hear of this sort of friction and disagreement at the highest level of the game. Reminds me that most situations are largely the same, just higher stakes. That puts it both closer in reach from the standpoint of ambition while simultaneously renewing a sense of gratitude and contentment for where I am now.

      Thanks for sharing, Chris. Fascinating story.

    • Thanks, Derek. 🙂 Maybe timing is one of the most important things? I was at General Magic after NeXT and we had two junior engineers who sat not far from each other — Andy Rubin and Tony Fadell. Andy went on to create Android and Tony was key to creating the iPod and iPhone.

      The thing that always got me is that Android didn't seem very good in the beginning. They fast-followed Apple on some key interface ideas, but it still wasn't great for a long while. What many people thought was great was the Windows phone from Microsoft. A Microsoft exec told me they took the extra time to make it great but that got them to market too late, when Android already had momentum.