Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Big Asshole Theory

This has troubled me all day. I just have to talk to somebody about it before I simply burst. I guess that's what I get for reading four pages of hogwash from a dip wad.

First a little background. I started my career in my industry during the Georgia Peanut Farmer administration. During the thirty-one years I've been doing what I do I've worked at nuclear power plants on both coasts and a number of points in between. I've worked for good bosses and bad bosses. More of the latter than the former, thank you very much. It's weird, but the bosses I remember as being the best to work for were the ones who were considered assholes.

Of course, I have a weird take on things that differentiates me from the average union-wage-earning drudge. I could very seldom see all the way through to the labor side of the labor-management debate. On the labor side of the debate there always seem to be people who bitch about the company during the hours the company pays them the wage they agreed to work for, instead of working. I always thought that the wage I agreed to obligated me to do my best work for all the hours the company paid me for. Weird huh?

Asshole bosses also thought that, so we agreed. Naturally, I was labeled a suck-up by many of my peers. It was pretty easy to use that as a metric for which of my peers to respect, and which to reject.

Most of the bosses that people thought were assholes committed no greater sin than expecting peoples' best work. And they expected people to get up off their asses and DO the jobs for which they were being paid. I never saw a problem with that, which put me solidly in the minority.

That isn't to say there weren't bosses who earned their puckered sphincter merit badges for being lying, conniving, low-life, flaming bags of shit. But on balance, I remember them being the exception rather than the rule.

All that brings me to the big question: Is Steve Jobs the big asshole he gets blamed for being? Or does he just insist that his employees earn their pay?

Apple keeps pushing the bleeding edge of what technology can do. Right now the Macintosh is miles ahead of any other personal computer in terms of elegance and user experience. The Apple iTunes/iPod/iPhone ecosystem is without peer. Nothing is even close. You never even hear anyone mention a Windows/Zune/WinMobile ecosystem. The closest you can get is the Blackberry and its days are numbered. (If you disagree and would like to be ridiculed in the comments, please feel free.)

How does that happen? Somebody has to take charge of the team; somebody has to have the central vision that drives the team; somebody has to be able to stand up and be the one to accept the credit and the blame. Somebody has to insist that the team gives its best effort. At Apple, that's Steve Jobs, at least from what we can see from the outside.

It is quite impossible to get a good team effort if there isn't someone in charge. A quote I heard many years ago – from Hyman G. Rickover, if memory serves – "If you can't put your hand on the shoulder of the responsible person, nobody is responsible." Steve Jobs is responsible for Apple. I think he understands that responsibility and respects the huge implications. For him to properly dispatch that responsibility, the company must continually move forward.

Apple must be ahead of the curve. The further the better. I'll bet you the rest of my yogurt and blueberries Apple has technology in the experimental stages that makes the stuff we're using now look silly. That cannot happen in a place with a laid back, mellow boss who's willing to accept "a good try." You have to have a boss that pushes or at least refuses to give or accept excuses.

A story I heard about Major League Baseball manager Lou Piniella is a nice analogy. He walked out to the mound where his pitcher was struggling. As he called in relief he told his pitcher, "I know you're trying your hardest, but I can get a truck driver to come in here and try his hardest. I need to win the game."

If that's what an asshole is, well, Master Jobst Fimil may qualify.

Oh gracious. I'm just babbling on and on. Thanks for giving me a chance to talk that out.

Now I think I'll be irresponsible and belligerent some more. It's much more fun.