Mar 17

The frustrated Steve Jobs

Like many, I have a habit of idealizing the “good old days” with Steve Jobs.

Keep in mind that I’m an ad guy. It’s incredibly rare that people like me get to work directly with the CEO, and even more rare that the CEO is so passionate about doing great work.

So when I look back, I tend to romanticize even the difficult times, even though I know darn well that the tense moments were … well, tense. Especially with Steve.

Need an example?

Return with me now to the thrilling days of yesteryear, as the color iMacs were about to be unveiled.

On this particular day, Steve had apparently been on a call with a guy named Wayne (I have no memory of him), and Wayne was having a problem finalizing photography to be used in Steve’s upcoming Macworld presentation.

Since I was responsible for the creative work at the ad agency, Steve tried to solve this problem in real-time by adding me to the call — but got my answering machine instead. No doubt this ticked him off even more.

When I got home that day, I got a classic Steve message. What I love about it is that it started so calmly, then steadily escalated into a fury. I didn’t save the recording, but at least I had the foresight to transcribe it.

It all builds to Steve’s magnificent ending shot, punctuated by a sweet little “bye-bye.”

Phone Message: December 29, 1998


Hi Ken, This is Steve calling, and I’ve got Wayne on the phone. I’m kind of upset about something.

I had asked pictures of iMac to be taken in colors, because you guys didn’t take any side shots or side-front shots, and we wanted to use the same person to color-correct them as you guys used down there.

(Louder) And you guys wouldn’t release the god-damned person for some reason at this outside graphics firm…. and this is bullshit.

(Louder) And I’ve got photos back now but the colors are wrong.

(Louder) And I’m on this deadline to get this god-damned Macworld presentation done and I need all the help I can get.

(Much louder) You guys aren’t helping and it’s just not acceptable. What the fuck is going on?!!?!

(Ratcheting down) So would you please give Wayne a call and apologize to him, and jump through hoops to help him do this, because we shouldn’t have to be worried about all of this. Wayne, what’s your number?


XXX-XXX-XXXX [redacted]


Would you please find out who refused to release them and fire them please because I don’t think we should be paying this person to hinder us. Thank you. Bye-bye.

The happy ending is that the photos were ultimately fixed, Steve had a fantastic Macworld presentation, the color iMacs were a huge success, and best of all … I never fired anyone.


  • HammerOfTruth

    That, to me, sounds like a good CEO. He didn’t just have Wayne call you, he got involved. I’m sure you have worked with other companies and had to work with their assistants and not someone like Steve before.
    I’ve had my ass chewed by business owners before by voicemail and they sounded worse than this. I hope you kept the voicemail. It’s a rare gem now that he’s gone.

  • The message was on my home answering machine. I transcribed it because I had no quick way to transfer it. My machine was so advanced, it didn’t use tape — but it also had no permanent storage. Sure enough, all of my messages got zapped in a power outage.

  • I was privy to one of these outbursts many years ago when I was in the room as Jobs called a well-known tech columnist and chewed his ass off for a good five minutes. It was a magnificent example of barely controlled fury, peppered with some remarkable curse words.

  • HammerOfTruth

    I’m sorry to hear that.

  • Frank Malloy

    Sorry, this does not sound like a “good CEO”. Sounds like a spoiled, entitled A-hole. I don’t care how “brilliant” or what an “icon” he was, as a human being he was just a jerk. Pushing people around to satisfy his own ego.

    But hey, he was the Tech God Steve Jobs, so he’s allowed to get away with it.

  • Gary Deezy

    There is no one single measure of what makes a great CEO.

    Shareholders look for a return on their investment.
    Direct reports want to know that their voices are heard, and their work is appreciated.
    Indirect reports just want to know their work matters and that they are fairly compensated, and are being led by someone who sees the grand vision.
    Customers want great products at fair prices.
    Suppliers just want to do business in a manner that has equity for both parties.
    Resellers just want to make a fair profit selling your product, and to feel like you won’t push them down the stairs if the going gets tough.

    Did *any* Apple CEO ever hit every one of those marks? I think not. But as of today, if you ask most knowledgeable folks which CEO had the most net-positive influence on the company, they would name Steve Jobs.

  • So a customer shouldn’t be upset at the service they’re receiving from an expensive ad agency? Interesting opinion.

    You sound jealous.

  • Frank Malloy

    Of course you rectify when you get bad service. But yelling and using foul language like that? Unprofessional from an executive. Unproductive.

    SJ was known to rule thru fear, firing good people on the spot, and basically being an overall bully, especially to underlings. And I don’t believe in forgiving all that because of the products that came out of Apple, and all his fame. I’m great at my job too, but I don’t use that as an excuse to act this way.

    Sorry, won’t call that a great CEO.

  • CapnVan

    I have to say, it doesn’t sound too salty for what I’ve heard over the years.

    There were 2 swears in there.

    Moreover, this is Steve Jobs 1998. He’d just been hired back to Apple. He wasn’t exactly seen as a “Tech God” at the time.

    And yes, to echo mdelvecchio beneath: If I had what I expected to be a multi-billion dollar product rollout coming out, and the ad agency hadn’t gotten it *perfect*?

    I’d be a little salty, too.

  • Frank Malloy

    Sure, we all have our own opinions and insight. Me, I admire someone from the executive standpoint who can solve issues and problems and get things done without resorting to being salty. Anyone can raise their voice and curse and threaten.

  • DanielSw

    So what have you whiny PC people accomplished that’s anywhere near what Steve did? You have to be willing to use force at the appropriate times to get the job done, otherwise, you’re just a worthless, snivvelly dilettante.

  • DanielSw

    Horse puckey.

  • CapnVan

    You have a fair point — I would prefer to work for someone who never lost their temper. Never resorted to foul language. Never lost their cool.

    But those “never”s are *hard*.

    The iMac rollout was about as close as you can get to a “It’s a hit” vs. “Company’s bankrupt.”

    It’s difficult to blame someone being somewhat salty when, literally, billions of dollars are on the line. And your vendor isn’t coming through.

  • Jared

    CEO’s do not get to the top by tip toeing to and fro.

  • Frank Malloy

    Right – only arrogant, egotistical, self-centered jerks used to getting their way get to – and deserve to -be at the top.

    See, if you’re a Steve Jobs or an Eric Schmidt or a Mark Zuckerberg, it’s ok because you’re a famous, well-loved big-shot disrupter of technology.

    For the rest of us peons, we all need to play nice.

    Funny – the CEO of Costco managed to be civil and a real human being and still run a darned successful and much-admired company.

  • Maybe if he hadn’t been like that, there’d be no Apple today.

  • Frank Malloy

    Right on! All budding CEOs should use the Steve Jobs model of intimidation and arrogance, and maybe you too can run the most successful company in history!

    Should be taught in Harvard and Wharton Business schools!

  • Jared

    I guess only the CEOs you hear about in the mainstream media are the ones who are arrogant, egotistical, self-centered jerks lol

  • SaintVitusCrush

    Confidence is only called arrogance by those who suffer from self-esteem issues. The guy was brilliant, and his work rebuilding and growing Apple bears that out. I wouldn’t take any of the bollocking personally myself, although I’ve seen others in my profession do so and not stick around long. I don’t see it as personal, but rather, a very minor part of an end-game that reaps big rewards. It’s called weeding out the weak, and it’s the modus operandi in some professions (such as mine). Some cannot take it, so they go. Those that stay and learn reap the rewards.

    Your peons comment gives a clue to your self-esteem. Opinions from others about what someone does for a living and how they are seen in the eyes of others are all in the eye of the beholder. These people and their opinions mean absolutely jack shit as long as you’re happy and confident.

  • Pingback: Steve Jobs: Erinnerungen an ein ganz besonderes Telefonat | iTopnews()

  • Geoff Otterman

    “When you get really good people, they know they’re really good, and you don’t have to baby people’s egos so much. And what really matters is the work, and everybody knows that. So, people are being counted on to do specific pieces of the puzzle. And the most important thing you can do for someone who’s really good and really being counted on is to point out to them when their work isn’t good enough.” – Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview

  • Frank Malloy

    Anybody pointed out to Steve when HIS work wasn’t good enough?
    The Lisa. The G4 Cube. The round mouse…

    Nope. You did that, and you were out on your ear.

  • tenminutetokyo .

    I had a similar story in 1999 although not as harsh. I was tech lead on a major disk utility and as a pre-release of OS X came out, it was clear Apple was going to do away with the disk volume icons on the desktop in Finder. I emailed Jobs and told him this was a big mistake, users would be really upset. He simply shot back: “Boy, are you wrong”. Apple did end up leaving desktop volume icons in OS X but it was a characteristically terse and confident reply. And it was pretty funny,

  • tenminutetokyo .

    Almost all big great companies had CEOs like this as founders. Apple, McDonald’s, Disney, all were visionary, all created something great and drove everyone mercilessly to achieve it. Fact is, only that drive can produce real success. As Ray Kroc once said “Sometimes you gotta be an SOB if you want to make a dream reality”.

  • tenminutetokyo .

    A spoiled, entitled A-hole who built a $200 billion tech company and the envy of the world. A reasonable tradeoff.

  • Frank Malloy

    I know an electrician who worked on Jobs’ kitchen remodel. He demanded the electrical work be done with the power ON so as to not disturb his family.

    Abandoned his daughter.

    He also bought a house in another state so he could get a liver transplant there – stealing it away from a non-famous and clearly “less important” person. He went right to the top of the transplant list. Also heard he donated money to the hospital – to get the liver. Hasn’t done jack for any cause but his own.

    Rich people, famous people, sports people. The oh-so-better-than-you types. The ones that get to skirt all the rules and all the criticism.

    Reasonable tradeoff for you, not for me. I have a lot more respect for the guys that actually designed and built the coveted little devices. Any jerk can say “Make the device thinner”. “Make it run smoother”.

    The guy was a supreme A-hole of a human being.

  • tenminutetokyo .

    Well he may not have actually done the hands on work, but he ran the company in a way no one else could – having a 6th sense about making decisions and what to do and what not to do. That was his talent. Programmers and designers are a dime a dozen. How many people can create a company like Apple? If it were that easy, everyone would be creating an Apple. But Apple is one-of-a-kind. Personality-wise? Yes, he was a jerk. Was it worth it to endure his personality so the world could enjoy Apple and its products. Probably,

  • tenminutetokyo .

    Bingo. Someone once criticized him for “being too hard on people”. He replied “It’s my job to be hard on people”. In many cases if you don’t drop the hammer people simply don’t get it and never will. Too bad it’s that way, but it’s that way. If the average person was more serious and committed to their job, people like Steve wouldn’t needed to have gotten so upset.

  • G.

    Well the iMacs had spectacular colors in print and in person. Your answering machine as a presentation was nearing I’m sure felt like a great motive to unload more ammo and get the message through loud and clear.

  • HammerOfTruth

    Just you try to roll out a major ad in a story and see how mad you get when your product looks like crap in your opinion.
    I’m sure when you had your yearbook picture taken and it didn’t look good, you were fine with it right?

  • Frank Malloy

    And when my iPhone 6 shuts off at 30% battery, yet isn’t eligible for the defective battery replacement, can I call up Tim Cook and yell and shout profanities?

    And when my photo stream, contacts, and calendars fail to sync thru iCloud, can I call up Tim Cook and yell?

    And when my Mighty Mouse AA batteries last only a month, could I call up the VP of hardware engineering and scream like a banshee?

    And when my wired headphones no longer work with the iPhone 7 because they removed the jack, can I ring up Jony Ive and b*itch and moan?

  • HammerOfTruth

    You can if you have his number, you probably do not.

    The point I was making is that usually when companies that spend a lot in advertising, deal with their agencies, they use a dedicated person to speak to them. It can be frustrating because that person can not relay the proper message the CEO wants to convey. In this instance, Steve Jobs was frustrated that his article that was going into Macworld had pictures that weren’t very good. He personally called Ken because he was told he couldn’t get the pictures he wanted.
    Normally, a CEO would not bother speaking directly, but use a subordinate to convey the message.

    Btw, there have been cases of unhappy customers getting to talk to Tim, just like there was unhappy customers that got to talk to Steve.

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