Steve Jobs on Programming Greatness

August 13, 2012

A few months back Fast Company ran an in-depth feature story on Steve Jobs. The material came from a previously lost interview conducted by tech journalist and former Apple employee Robert Cringely. The interview took place in 1995 when Steve Jobs was CEO of NeXt computer and Pixar. The unedited interview was released on iTunes in a documentary titled Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview.  It’s captivating, and as Washington Post reporter Michael O’Sullivan commented, “the most fascinating aspect of listening to him talk comes not from what he says about what he did, but how he talks about it.”

The big “a-ha” for me was in how Mr. Jobs described the payoff of a great programmer. Now this is probably obvious for programmers and those who work most closely with them, but for me it helped to clarify why for-profits are important in education technology. 

Here is the excerpt from June 1995:

In most businesses, the difference between average and good is at best 2 to 1, right? Like, if you go to New York and you get the best cab driver in the city, you might get there 30% faster than with an average taxicab driver. A 2 to 1 gain would be pretty big.

The difference between the best worker on computer hardware and the average may be 2 to 1, if you’re lucky. With automobiles, maybe 2 to 1. But in software, it’s at least 25 to 1. The difference between the average programmer and a great one is at least that.

The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world. And when you’re in a field where the dynamic range is 25 to 1, boy, does it pay off.

Our students, teachers and school leaders deserve technology that is on-par with the best consumer technologies and to deliver on that, we need to attract the best software engineers in the world and right now, by and large, those top programmers have so many choices of where to work it’s easy to see why if they are passionate about education they’d be drawn to a for-profit targeting the space.

There are exceptions of course, Khan Academy, MIND Research and CFY are examples of transformative nonprofit education technology companies. 

I’ve heard rumbling lately decrying the entry of for-profit tech companies into the education place. I feel the opposite, I’m encouraged and hopeful. I implore educators to evaluate products based on their quality and the value they bring to the K-12 world for the cost they charge, not based on their corporate filing status. We’ll all be much better off if that happens.