A Couple Lessons from Mr Jobs for IT Service Providers

I did not plan to ride on the Steve Jobs bandwagon today (Rest in peace, Mr Jobs), but his ghost is hovering, and everyone I've talked to today has brought up his early passing. The more I've thought about it, I realize he leaves a couple lessons that can be put to good use in the IT sourcing business.

I met Mr Jobs once, back in the forgotten days when he was promoting the remarkable but sort-of-doomed Next machine. I worked for a computer magazine that had published the first cover story anywhere about the Macintosh, based on in-depth interviews with the Mac creation team and some play time with a pre-production Mac. (MacDraw on a tiny floppy disk!) We'd also done a favorable preview of the Next Cube, so maybe that's why Mr Jobs agreed to talk to me. I had heard lots of notorious stories about him berating employees and generally demanding perfection, so I expected a tense or awkward interview and was fully prepared to be called an idiot.

Instead, I met one of the most charming people I've ever met, one of maybe three times I've been in the presence of someone with true charisma. I was no one to him, just some magazine guy, but I was momentarily convinced that Steve Jobs actually liked talking to me, that my opinion about his new computer mattered. Well, of course neither was true, but in that meeting, I realized that charisma was part of the formula of his success.

Which brings me to the first point for IT providers: Cultivate your charm. Really. It will wow your customers. But even more essential: Cultivate the ability to make your employees, your product creators, think they are the most important people in the room. Listen to them. And if you are not able to listen, learn how to make people think you're listening. Every successful nearshore company I've been able to get to know a little bit thrives in an atmosphere in which the bosses listen. They listen to customers, they listen to staffers. The bosses ultimately make the decisions, like Mr Jobs did absolutely, but they appreciate the insights other people can offer.

Point two: Be a fierce user/client/customer advocate. There are many stories of Mr Jobs pushing back, refusing to sign off, cajoling, demanding that engineers and software developers make improvements that would benefit users, even in ways that would seem trivial or worthless to most corporate executives. A classic example involves machine boot-up time. He would tell the engineers to shave off another 10 seconds, and be relentless until they did. And of course the Mac user interface is known for being intuitive, or about as intuitive as a UI not designed personally by the user could be, and that would not have happened without one forceful representative of the customer community.

Point three: Don't be afraid to be different or strike out in new directions. When Mr Jobs and his team at Next introduced the elegant, black Cube computer, you could hear the chuckles and guffaws and head-scratching from coast to coast. A high-priced computer that doesn't even have a floppy drive? Forcing people to pay for a high-resolution screen? And a Unix operating system! Come on! Many people were sure the inventor of the Macintosh had fizzled out, that all his good ideas were left behind when he was pushed out of Apple.

The critics were apparently right about the Next Cube. The hardware never really took off, despite hard-core nerds loving it — Sir Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web software on a Next machine — but the software, well, that's a different story: The Next OS eventually became the soul of the Macintosh. Lesson: Sometimes it takes a while for a good idea to catch on.

I suspect that when the founders of Softtek started pioneering the idea of "near shore" IT services they met similar resistance from skeptics and doubters. Software development from Mexico? Compete with India? Get work from North American clients? Good luck with that!

Well, we know how that idea turned out. As Mr Jobs himself would say: Insanely great.