Nov 1, 2012

Scott Forstall

I once wrote, before Steve Jobs’ passing, that the only real person capable of running Apple was an asshole; not a person who rose from the ranks through compromise, but someone stubborn and steadfast who was unwilling to back down just to keep the peace. Well, Scott Forstall was a person like that, and that’s why many believed that he was the successor to the throne when Tim Cook would step down.

Obviously, with the news from last week, that possibility is now extremely remote. Even if Apple were to reverse their position, I doubt Forstall’s pride would allow him to slink back; that is, not without an extreme concession on their part.

But I want to revisit the idea of the asshole. There are a lot of books written on this topic: The No Asshole Rule immediately comes to mind. Part of me (the white liberal Democrat) wants to believe the best way to run things is through consensus and mutual respect; but I still have to appreciate the raw efficiency (and effectiveness) of the dictatorship.

As I have been hunting for a job, I have been attending a lot of interviews — more this time than before. One of the more recent interviews referenced my “appreciation of the craft,” and that immediately solved my conundrum: supreme executives are as much beholden to Larry Wall’s three virtues as their workers. For those not familiar with Larry Wall’s philosophy, his three virtues of a good programmer are laziness, impatience, and hubris. “Laziness” inspires the developer to automate repetitive, boring tasks (trading up-front time for time saved later); “impatience” requires the developer to hate inefficiency and anticipate user needs in his own code, and “hubris” keeps the developer honest about quality (so people don’t hate you).

In the context of being an asshole CEO:

From what I’ve read (and face it: no matter how popular your blog is, if you aren’t in the boardroom it’s all hearsay) Forstall’s sin was the last one: he absolutely refused to accept that two of his projects were ostensibly disasters. Not that I think Cook is without blame: his response to the map fiasco was extreme in the other direction, and made him appear spineless.

For those who would argue that Jobs had the same problem with pride, I would argue differently: Jobs was willing to accept his flaws; he simply corrected them but never apologized. The cube? Failed to sell, disappeared. MobileMe? Private berating, quiet remuneration. Refusing to even see the flaws is the true offense. Accept, correct, move on.

The key takeaway is: yes, I still believe the company has to be run by an asshole, but it has to be a competent asshole. Pride and honesty to oneself are key components of that competency.