The Jerk

Like everyone else in the tech world, I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. Simultaneously, I’ve been reading the reactions to it. The one that seems to stand out above all others amounts to: “wow, Steve Jobs was a jerk”. Those who have followed Apple closely throughout the years have heard dozens if not hundreds of stories of Jobs berating employees. Isaacson’s book brings a handful of these stories to the masses, and it’s rubbing some people the wrong way.

Here’s the thing: the tech world could probably use more jerks.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading Robert Scoble’s post a couple days ago entitled “Why I’m treating startups more critically lately“. Depending on who you ask, Scoble is a lot of things. But I don’t think anyone would call Scoble a jerk. In fact, most would probably say he has the opposite problem. He tends to puff up startups into thinking they’re the best thing in the world. (A social network for your Roomba to take pictures of food? Brilliant! Game-changing!” — Okay, I exaggerate. Slightly.) That’s great. For five minutes. After that, reality often sets in.

That’s why Scoble’s post was important. Even he’s starting to realize that being a “yes” man really isn’t all that helpful. What startups and tech companies need are doses of reality.

The truth is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to be a “yes” man than to be a jerk. You’re the nice guy, you’re everybody’s friend, you say winning things, you make everyone feel great. Meanwhile, the jerk makes every situation awkward. Both sides feel bad. It sucks.

But I’d argue that the latter is actually much more helpful. It sounds like Scoble would argue that now as well. And I think Steve Jobs would argue that as well.

Obviously, Jobs is an extreme. Some contend that he would say extremely harsh things to people just because he could, or because it was therapeutic against his own personal demons in some way. Other descriptions seem to border on the definition of a sociopath. But I also think his abrasiveness, whether a conscious on his part or not, provided something of value, at least in the workplace.

By saying something is “shit”, no matter how good it actually is, you force people to reexamine their work. The end result is usually better.

There are also stories of Jobs telling people that an idea is “shit” — and then coming back a few days later with the same idea. It seems that his default was to call something “shit”, maybe without even really thinking about it.

Is that helpful? Not on the surface, but the truth is that nothing is perfect. Something can always be made better. And people wrapped up in their own idea or product often lose perspective. They may believe what they’ve done is perfect — or at the very least, the best they can do. But it’s often not. They can do better. It’s all about motivation.

A “yes” man provides zero motivation. “What do you think?” “That’s awesome.” Great, done.

Meanwhile, the jerk tackles the same question. “What do you think?” “It’s shit.” Really? Oh. Hm. What can I do better?

Oddly enough, this reminds me of my early days at TechCrunch. I’d publish something and Mike Arrington would come over and tell me how badly I screwed up the story. The truth, as I only later found out, was that he probably didn’t even read it. Maybe he didn’t see it on Techmeme. Or maybe someone tweeted something negative about it. Or maybe the problem was that no one said anything at all. It didn’t matter. It was all about motivating people to do better. It certainly made me better at my job. As a writer covering the tech space, you’re often surrounded by sycophants. What you need is often the opposite motivation.

The same is true for startups. Especially now in this age of plentiful funding, there are a ton of “yes” men out there. The space would benefit from a few more jerks. Ideally, honest jerks, but any type of jerk should do. Let the public be the “yes” men after jagged rocks have been turned into polished stones.

The same is also true in the broader tech space. Apple is an outlier in that they’ve benefitted the past several years despite gathering little or no outside perspective before a product launch. But they didn’t need to. They had Jobs. “It’s shit” — until it’s ready to launch. It will be interesting to see how they handle the post-Jobs era in that regard.

Hopefully not like Google, a company famous for “dogfooding” their own products before launch. It’s “yes” men re-enforcing “yes” men. Google Wave was an awesome product according to internal tests. Same with Google Buzz — hell, I think they still use it internally. What would those products have evolved into if someone was there telling them they were “shit” every step of the way? Something better, I imagine.

Google+ has been largely positive for the company. Part of it may be because they brought in outside tech luminaries to consult on the product and give honest feedback as they built it. No, I don’t believe Steve Jobs was one of those, but I was told some time ago that an initial version of Google+ was more or less called “shit” by someone who saw it. That feedback was taken into account and the product that launched was something completely different.

Thinking about all of this, I also (again, oddly) found myself think of Manny Pacquiao’s fight against Juan Manuel Marquez this past weekend. By most accounts, Marquez was winning the fight going into the final round. Apparently, his corner even told him as much. He went on to play it safe and lost the last round. As a result, he lost fight itself in a split decision (which was still controversial).

Imagine if Marquez’s corner hadn’t told him he was winning? What if they told him he was fighting like “shit”? They would have been lying, but that’s not the important thing. Motivation is the important thing. Again, you can always do better. In this case, “better” may have well resulted in him winning the WBO welterweight title.

Marquez needed a jerk in his corner.