Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Comments on Selling to Steven Jobs by Pierre Bedard

This short book or essay was written by a long-time Silicon Valley professional who has toiled as a writer and a sales rep. In full disclosure, he is acquaintance of mine of many years.  The book is a good way to get a feel for attitudes people have towards work, sales, management, and star figures in Silicon Valley from an enthusiastic perspective.

The overt content of the book is mainly about three things: the author (The book is about 40% over before there are more than passing remarks about Steve Jobs), about Jobs himself from a mainly anecdotal point of view, and about the craft of sales rep. A subtext about how people evaluate one another and establish esteem runs through it.

His image of his audience is not always consistent. On the one hand he writes as if he were explaining Silicon Valley culture to the uninitiate:

"Sit in any meeting in any conference room in the Valley. I challenge you to fine more than two of seven participants who were born in the Untied States. We are a Valley of immigrants." 

(Though many immigrants work there, I find this estimate something of an exaggeration.)

On the other hand he frequently names without explanation people and concepts that are locally famous but far from universally familiar:  "C-level" (local slang for corporate executive)" "NeXT", (an unsuccessful computer company that Steve Jobs headed for a while) "J2ME" (a layer of software that lets a given program run on several devices), "John Warnock" (an inventor of display software and in the C-level of Adobe).

The author is and portrays himself as a French Canadian working-class immigrant. He graduated in French form the University of San Diego and has translated French literary works. He holds and MBA from Sana Clara and a JD, but has not practiced law. He was the sales rep from Adobe to NeXT and has often negotiated intellectual property rights.

His style is open, engaging, chatty, and energetic like a friend addressing a small group of companions.

His openness extends to confession, almost to self-abnegation

"To the best of my knowledge everything I am about to relate here is true. I was, at times, inebriated. I did not live through my life with the idea of recording it. Keep that in mind as you are either being cruel fair or both."

The idea of heroism is important. He modestly describes himself as not a hero and explicitly seeks at times the reader's esteem. But he has lots of heroes, most of them managers of hardware or software development. The only other one you are likely to have heard of is Kurt Vonnegut. Of course, Steve jobs most of all.

He reports his negotiations with Jobs over intellectual property rights as someone might report negotiating the sale of baseball bats to Hank Aaron.

But Jobs is a controversial figure. Many admire him as a great CEO and technical innovator. Others, I among them, see him as some one who promoted an abusive and over-driven work environment, some one who improved the fortunes of Apple computer and affected the style of marketing and of industrial design of smart phones, but had no long-term technical or broad social effect. For example, you sometimes hear him credited with making the smart phone popular or even with inventing it, but we would be looking at smart phones if he had spent his energies in other fields. The first thing that could be called a smart phone was marketed by Bell South in 1994, and Ericsson and Palm marketed basic smart phones at the beginning of the century. The idea was on a role. The smart phone in our hand might look somewhat different, and Apple might have disappeared as a company if not for Jobs, but from my perspective that is not so consequential as to make him a heroic figure.

Bedard catches this difference of perspective neatly in an exchange with his wife:

"I remember telling Caroline that we had to get a front-loading washer, because Steve thought they were cool....As Caroline has pointed out for years since, what the hell does Steve Jobs know about washing clothes and clothes washers?"

The later part of the book provides advice about how to work as a sales rep in Silicon Valley and much of it thrusts toward being open and natural with your clients as he is with his reader in this book.