Steve Jobs: The Tech Bully Poster-Boy Credit: Image credit: thierry ehrmann via Flickr
Human Resources

Steve Jobs: The Tech Bully Poster-Boy

It is 1983 and this is a job interview with Steve Jobs and Andy Hertzfield for the role of software manager at Apple. You’re in the hot seat and begin to engage in the usual interview protocol.

Suddenly Steve Jobs burst out: “How old were you when you lost your virginity?”  

You’re confused. Flustered. “What did you say?”  

“Are you a virgin?” yells Jobs even more insistent as you sit and squirm in your seat. “How many times have you taken LSD?”

You can feel a flush rising to your face. What has any of this got to do with anything?

Now the second interviewer, Andy Hertzfield, chips in. He’s attempting to switch the topic to something more relevant. You sit up straight, attempt to regain composure and begin your interview response… 

Only Jobs is back in the fray: “Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble,” he says in the face of your answers.

“I guess I’m not the right guy,” you stammer awkwardly, as you clatter up to leave.

Steve Jobs was a bully of the worst kind. Yes, sometimes he was horrible because he had “high standards”, but often he was evil in the way only “wanton boys” are to flies.

The episode above is pulled straight out of Walter Isaacson’s ground breaking biography as described by Hertzfield.

Yet oddly, there is something about Steve Jobs and all Apple products which inspires a quasi-religious response. This means that despite the horribleness of the man, many members of his workforce felt they did their best work under him.  So, maybe it doesn’t count as bullying when there was so much buy-in from others?  

“My job is to not be easy on people,” Jobs told Fortune. “My job is to make them better. My job is to pull things together from different parts of the company and clear the ways and get the resources for the key projects. And to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better, coming up with more aggressive visions of how it could be.” 

However, while perfectionism and wanting to create a better product can sometimes achieve results, it is certainly not always the case.

In the corporate setting radical ideas rarely surface because they are squashed by a committee of risk-averse individuals who stifle innovation. Steve Jobs firmly put a stop to that by pushing ideas through on his own terms.

Yet there was a downside which can get forgotten amongst the successes. When Jobs had free reign over an organisation, he could also ruin products with endless whim-like demands. Factories had to be painted certain colours. Products had to look nice at the expense of functionality. And at NeXT (his next job after the first stint at Apple), Jobs proved a tyrannical despot who actively slowed down a process.

Dr. Namie, Director of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) believes the characteristics exhibited by Jobs are common in the tech industry:

“The narcissism of the tech entrepreneurs is excessive. The type of personality who starts these kinds of companies are very tough to deal with. They’re quite full of themselves and they’re not about democracy or inclusion. So, they’re natural bullies. But the media will never call them bullies because they’re seen as geniuses and they’re the inventors of our era.”

 “A tech firm is like a dysfunctional alcoholic family where the parent is the drunk,” he added. “The poor family. Nobody else drinks but they all have to walk on eggshells. People check their dignity at the door in those kinds of companies. They live a deferred life because the sun is burning so brightly at the top of the company and everyone else is supposed to be a bunch of nothings. It is sickening.”

Steve Jobs’ bullying started young. The first recorded case was in the third grade (aged eight or nine). He and some friends “basically destroyed” the teacher, he once explained. And even though it is a full three years since his death, his bullying was hitting the headlines again this spring.

In a court case where tech workers appealed to the legal system about Google, Adobe, Intel and Apple’s alleged conspiracy to keep workers’ wages low, people were asked to refrain “from unfairly portraying Jobs as a ‘bully’ at the trial.”

Maybe it wasn’t relevant in that particular instance, but there is little to dispute it. The Bite in the Apple, a book by Jobs’ ex-girlfriend and mother of his first child, Chrisann Brennan, published October 2013, painted an even darker portrait of a psychological abuser. In this, she described a “brilliant misfit” who became “positively despotic” and entered a "whole new category of unkindness".

In fact, when Brennan fell pregnant in 1977, Jobs denied paternity saying: "28% of the male population in the United States could be the father". This was ludicrous especially as he did eventually accept the legitimacy of his daughter and she even came live with him for a period in her teens.

To take it one step further, the Gawker argued Jobs’ awfulness contributed to global problems, too. “Apple's success has been built literally on the backs of Chinese workers,” it wrote “many of them children and all of them enduring long shifts and the spectre of brutal penalties for mistakes. And, for all his talk of enabling individual expression, Jobs imposed paranoid rules that centralised control of who could say what on his devices and in his company.”

“Over and over, people referred to his reality distortion field,” said Jobs’ biographer Mr. Isaacson. “The rules just didn’t apply to him, whether he was getting a license plate that let him use handicapped parking or building products that people said weren’t possible. Most of the time he was right, and he got away with it.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, but an equally powerful psychological weapon described in Isaacson’s book was the sheer volume of crying Steve Jobs went in for. "Steve was kind of irate and agitated and irrational about lots of things," Google co-founder Sergey Brin told Fox news. While company Vice President Jonathan Rosenberg, added: "In our interactions with Steve, he generally exhibited an irate, difficult, ornery, and petulant behaviour."

One question in all this could be: does it reveal something damning about the industry as a whole? Following a piece we drafted a few years back we straw polled our own audience on whether the Steve Jobs school of awfulness was crucial for company leadership and a shocking 15% of respondents felt that it was, whilst 26% felt it might be.

Maybe in the world of original products and new technology you just do have to be that horrible. And a great number of people would argue it is entirely worth it. What do you think?

 

IDG Connect editorial around bullying:

Article: Is Bullying Rife in Tech?

Video: Bullying in the IT industry

Article: IT Careers: Success vs. Bullying

Q&A with Experts: Bullied at Work: What Can You Do?

Report: Bullying: The Uncomfortable Truth About IT    

 

 

Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect

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Comments

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Faye Kane, girl brain on October 03 2014

> maybe it doesn’t count as bullying when there was so much buy-in from others? Tell it to the 1939 Jews. "Buy-in from others" changes it, alright. That changes the experience from being merely unfair and wrong, into a psychotic nightmare. Why do you think Jobs should get a free pass? Because he's rich? Because he's smart? That just makes him an arrogant geek — the worst kind. It's guys like him that make the normals hate the rest of us. And explain how he got a handicapped pass when he wasn't handicapped. Who did he threaten or bribe? Someone at DMV? A handicapped employee? Someone who knew about it should have blown the whistle. Let him bully the cops. People like Jobs make me SICK. The Apple employees should have unionized—unless he purchased all the state politicians, too. -faye kane ♀ girl brain

no-images

John C. Campbell III on October 04 2014

I suggest the author Google "Accidental Empires How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date" by Robert X Cringely and buy a copy (if the free online is gone) AND MEMORIZE IT. Jobs and his buddies funded their first computer by selling dope and little blue boxes to rip off the phone company. Captains of Industry these people were NOT sleazebags they were (and little Billy Gates was their "Camp-Follower." This is the "origions of the micro-computer industry and only a little has changed.

no-images

Joseph Bentzel, Platformula Group on October 04 2014

I choose to file this one in my "Don't hate the player, hate the game" folder. As this essay points out, there are lots of data points on the 'glass half empty' side of Steve. I choose to look at the 'glass half full' side. And besides, nowadays with the competition for developers and good product manangers as intense as it is, many people will just walk on you anyway if you get in their face---unless they consciously decide to engage with the 'brilliant neuroses' of a given tech maestro. It's kind of like the Beatrice Kiddo character in "Kill Bill". She studied under the ancient Kung Fu master, took all the crap and abuse he dished out, and ultimately learned the secret 5 finger technique that saved her life. At the end of the day, that's why people will work for a guy like Steve. As they say in the 12 step programs, ...."if you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps..." Lots of people wanted what he had and so did the tech industry as a whole.

no-images

on October 05 2014

Creating great products for people must feel annoying for the average technician, who is damned to copy or simply double specs to excel the template. Because typically arrogant and disinterested. Apple is the better side of the belligerent, deeply religious and paranoid sniffing USA, as it currently exposes itself to the rest of the world.

no-images

Dan Skill on October 05 2014

Hi , I'm CEO of LifeSocial. Is bullying rife in the tech industry? Not necessarily. Yes at a few companies like Apple, but on a whole no and it's not needed. People work at their best when they are happy and motivated to do awesome things. Bullying them works for a short period until someone turns and says screw you. Apple are not innovators, the iPhone was already thought of, iPods were originally invented by a UK company. It's amazing how naive we are when it comes to Apple. I went for a job at Apple years ago, in fact I walked out and told them to screw themselves they will never get me to work for them. They have crap in their contract terms that are absolutely amazing about living and breathing Apple, Apple comes first to anything. I'm sorry but I made a commitment to my wife and kids and in fact my own life comes before Apple.

no-images

John on October 06 2014

I have been in the industry for a long time... Steve Jobs wasn't THAT good in producing innovative products. And He certainly wasn't a leader to be admired. Apple has been, and continues to be a company with a modest percentage of the PC market. They could have had it all if they were really that good. Apple did hit a "home runs" with several products in the last few years (Ipod with a integrated/legal method of music distribution and the smart phone market) But there are many more examples of their failures. The current market value of their stock is not related to bullying by Jobs. Yet.. we still have a large group of people buying into his myth... Selling his myth?.. Steve was VERY good at this!

no-images

John on October 06 2014

Agreed with most of Cringely's observations. But I take exception to these guys being really the origins of the micro-computer industry. There were numerous players that are no longer remembered by the general public. Contrary to WIKI's abbreviated overview , the microprocessor was around many years before 1977. I built my first home computer long before this. For most people .. IBM (it's buying into the market)legitimized the personal computer as a serious tool. Certainly nothing to do with Steve Jobs or his "leadership" skills. He did see the money - and indeed the impact - that personal computers COULD have. Just like most of the rest of us in the industry. It could be argued, none of the early hardware providers would have had an any impact until some of the real productivity software was made available (first word processing, then spreadsheets, databases, then graphic art,etc...) Wasn't until the early 80s when the industry really demonstrated an understanding of this. ("knowing" and "doing" are very different) Most the real pioneers in these fields are forgotten.

no-images

Faye Kane, girl brain on October 03 2014

> maybe it doesn’t count as bullying when there was so much buy-in from others? Tell it to the 1939 Jews. "Buy-in from others" changes it, alright. That changes the experience from being merely unfair and wrong, into a psychotic nightmare. Why do you think Jobs should get a free pass? Because he's rich? Because he's smart? That just makes him an arrogant geek — the worst kind. It's guys like him that make the normals hate the rest of us. And explain how he got a handicapped pass when he wasn't handicapped. Who did he threaten or bribe? Someone at DMV? A handicapped employee? Someone who knew about it should have blown the whistle. Let him bully the cops. People like Jobs make me SICK. The Apple employees should have unionized—unless he purchased all the state politicians, too. -faye kane ♀ girl brain

no-images

John C. Campbell III on October 04 2014

I suggest the author Google "Accidental Empires How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date" by Robert X Cringely and buy a copy (if the free online is gone) AND MEMORIZE IT. Jobs and his buddies funded their first computer by selling dope and little blue boxes to rip off the phone company. Captains of Industry these people were NOT sleazebags they were (and little Billy Gates was their "Camp-Follower." This is the "origions of the micro-computer industry and only a little has changed.

no-images

Joseph Bentzel, Platformula Group on October 04 2014

I choose to file this one in my "Don't hate the player, hate the game" folder. As this essay points out, there are lots of data points on the 'glass half empty' side of Steve. I choose to look at the 'glass half full' side. And besides, nowadays with the competition for developers and good product manangers as intense as it is, many people will just walk on you anyway if you get in their face---unless they consciously decide to engage with the 'brilliant neuroses' of a given tech maestro. It's kind of like the Beatrice Kiddo character in "Kill Bill". She studied under the ancient Kung Fu master, took all the crap and abuse he dished out, and ultimately learned the secret 5 finger technique that saved her life. At the end of the day, that's why people will work for a guy like Steve. As they say in the 12 step programs, ...."if you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps..." Lots of people wanted what he had and so did the tech industry as a whole.

no-images

on October 05 2014

Creating great products for people must feel annoying for the average technician, who is damned to copy or simply double specs to excel the template. Because typically arrogant and disinterested. Apple is the better side of the belligerent, deeply religious and paranoid sniffing USA, as it currently exposes itself to the rest of the world.

no-images

Dan Skill on October 05 2014

Hi , I'm CEO of LifeSocial. Is bullying rife in the tech industry? Not necessarily. Yes at a few companies like Apple, but on a whole no and it's not needed. People work at their best when they are happy and motivated to do awesome things. Bullying them works for a short period until someone turns and says screw you. Apple are not innovators, the iPhone was already thought of, iPods were originally invented by a UK company. It's amazing how naive we are when it comes to Apple. I went for a job at Apple years ago, in fact I walked out and told them to screw themselves they will never get me to work for them. They have crap in their contract terms that are absolutely amazing about living and breathing Apple, Apple comes first to anything. I'm sorry but I made a commitment to my wife and kids and in fact my own life comes before Apple.

no-images

John on October 06 2014

I have been in the industry for a long time... Steve Jobs wasn't THAT good in producing innovative products. And He certainly wasn't a leader to be admired. Apple has been, and continues to be a company with a modest percentage of the PC market. They could have had it all if they were really that good. Apple did hit a "home runs" with several products in the last few years (Ipod with a integrated/legal method of music distribution and the smart phone market) But there are many more examples of their failures. The current market value of their stock is not related to bullying by Jobs. Yet.. we still have a large group of people buying into his myth... Selling his myth?.. Steve was VERY good at this!

no-images

John on October 06 2014

Agreed with most of Cringely's observations. But I take exception to these guys being really the origins of the micro-computer industry. There were numerous players that are no longer remembered by the general public. Contrary to WIKI's abbreviated overview , the microprocessor was around many years before 1977. I built my first home computer long before this. For most people .. IBM (it's buying into the market)legitimized the personal computer as a serious tool. Certainly nothing to do with Steve Jobs or his "leadership" skills. He did see the money - and indeed the impact - that personal computers COULD have. Just like most of the rest of us in the industry. It could be argued, none of the early hardware providers would have had an any impact until some of the real productivity software was made available (first word processing, then spreadsheets, databases, then graphic art,etc...) Wasn't until the early 80s when the industry really demonstrated an understanding of this. ("knowing" and "doing" are very different) Most the real pioneers in these fields are forgotten.

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