Archive for September 2011


Grokking Jobs on Campus

September 1st, 2011 — 2:01pm

I’ve been Executive in Residence at Babson College since January. As Fall creeps up on New England (You’re beautiful, but can you please stay away for a little longer?) and students return, my thoughts are a continent away, at two other campuses: The California Institute of Technology and the Apple campus in Cupertino.

This summer, I learnt of a Caltech lore: When Apple visits Caltech to recruit undergraduates in computer science, it brings an open checkbook. Even unreasonable salary expectations don’t preclude the hiring of those whom it likes. Initially, the story seemed inconsequential.

Then, a few days ago, Steve Jobs resigned his position as Apple’s CEO. Apple’s iconic co-founder has reportedly lived a decidedly iconoclastic life, at least in comparison with those of the CEOs of most global companies. He dropped out of college, but living on friends’ sofas, continued to attend classes he liked. So exposed to calligraphy, he incorporated a range of fonts, not just Pica and Elite, on the original Macs. He then dropped out altogether went to an ashram in India, from where he returned a Buddhist. He embraced counter-culture and reportedly regards his doing so a critical formative experience. In short, as a young man, he was the complete antithesis of the people that Apple is seemingly hiring at Caltech.

I am not begrudging the Caltech seniors, particularly those who have worked diligently, their high-paying jobs! Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of these events raised in my mind a critical question for Apple and a more general one for businesses and academia. The roots of these questions lie in an amazing interview Jobs gave to Wired magazine in 1996, before he returned to Apple. In part, he said:

“Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.

(Jobs probably used the word grok very deliberately; if you don’t grok it, read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.)

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

I wonder if those responsible for on-campus hiring at Apple have grokked this interview. People have long debated Apple’s ability to create lifestyle-altering experiences in a post-Jobs era. A die-hard Apple fan, I had no doubts it could – if it institutionalized Jobs’ perspective on design. (I call this making of the “private knowledge of an individual the public knowledge of many” organizational learning.) However, if Caltech’s lore is true (and broadly representative), Jobs’ insights haven’t become organizational. This won’t be a problem tomorrow, but will be when the individuals so hired rise to managerial positions. Will they prize staff who lack deep knowledge but who, by virtue of their life experiences and broad knowledge, can connect seemingly unconnectable dots?

More broadly, in a world that prizes “deep, micro-knowledge” more than “broad, macro-knowledge,” how do we produce great designers, managers, and indeed, leaders? How do we ensure people are, in Jobs’ words, “able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

I am not arrogant enough to believe I have the answer, but will leave you with a proposal. For college students, I’d make a “semester abroad” a requirement, not an option. And an American going to Western Europe (or vice versa) wouldn’t count.

What do you think?

Comment » | Corporate Culture, Design, Education, Leadership

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