So Steve Jobs stepped down as Apple CEO yesterday, and people far and wide are sharing their stories of the man. Mine might be the smallest of any you’ll read, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway.
The reason I tell it is that once I started working at Apple (in 1999, a couple of years after Steve returns to the company), people started asking me if I’d met him. Something about the way they asked, or a look in their eye, made me realize what they really wanted was a “blood in the water” story about the CEO with the famous temper, or temperament, or something. I’d heard stories myself (one is that he’d sometimes ask people he encountered in the elevator what they worked on, and basically make them justify their job right there and then), but they were just stories to me. Oh, I had no doubt that he was emphatic in arguing about things, but I didn’t know any credible stories of him really laying into an employee he’d met at random.
Still, after just a few years it had become kind of ridiculous how many people asked me if I’d met Steve, who seemed to have an expectation of a good, juicy Steve story. I think at least a few of them asked if he’d yelled at me.
Indeed, I did pass Steve from time to time on the Apple campus. At least twice we simply made eye contact, smiled, and said “Hello” to each other, and continued on our ways. Once I saw him approaching with a look on his face that said “I’m on a mission and no one is going to get in my way.” I got out of his way and he walked on by.
But here’s the real story I have to tell:
In 2003 I started biking to work regularly. For a number of years I worked in Infinite Loop 1 – 2 floors below the CEO’s office. Despite being only on the second floor, I always took the elevator to bring my bike to and from my office: My office was big enough to hold my bike comfortably (so I didn’t have to lock it up outside), and it was awkward to carry it up and down the stairs; I was always afraid I’d damage the wall or the bike. I would wait for an empty elevator if someone else was waiting so I didn’t inconvenience them.
So one warm summer day (2004, maybe?) I’m leaving work, in full “biking dork” regalia (biking shorts, helmet, gloves, clip-on shoes), and I go to the elevator and hit the “down” button. The elevator arrives and (of course) there stands Steve. I think, “Great, he’s wondering why I can’t just walk my bike down one flight of stairs rather than stopping his elevator.” But since it would be truly stupid to let him go on without me (“I’m going to inconvenience you and do so for no reason whatsoever because I’m an idiot!”), I get in the elevator. The doors close.
Steve looks at the bike, looks at me, and says, “Beautiful day for a bike ride.”
I’m not very comfortable talking to famous or powerful people (you should see me stammer when I meet a science fiction author whose work I admire). Thinking quickly but not clearly (in other words, being something of an idiot), I say something like, “It’s nice. A little warm, though.” Steve is having none of this and responds along the lines that I’m picking nits. I allow that he may be right. By this time we’ve left the elevator and walked out the front doors of the building.
I remember thinking as we went outside that it was a little warm, but in the grand scheme of things, here we were in Silicon Valley where it’s almost always a beautiful day for a bike ride. So what did I really have to complain about?
I bet there are lots of employees with stories like this. The “blood in the water” stories seem more like legends (or, more likely, the stuff of high-level meetings among people whose job descriptions include going at it tooth-and-nail with the CEO, meeting a line worker like me would never hear about). Maybe he was different his first go-round at Apple, but if so, he’d grown a lot by the time he returned.
Oh, and no one I’ve told this story to has seemed disappointed by it. So maybe they didn’t really want the blood after all.