What Would Steve Jobs Do in Mark Zuckerberg's Shoes?
Mark Zuckerberg recently sat in front of the Senate Judiciary as well as committees from the Departments of Commerce, Science, and Transportation and testified for over ten hours, answering questions from lawmakers about Facebook’s strategy to ensure users’ data security in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The 33-year-old Facebook CEO was lambasted just as much for what he said (including so many uses of a variation of the phrase “I’ll have someone on my team get back to you” that dozens of Twitter users suggested a drinking game) as for how he said it: perched in what appeared to be a booster seat, wearing an ill-fitting suit, awkwardly sipping water and stuttering in some responses, most notably when one lawmaker asked him pointedly if he would be comfortable sharing the name of the hotel in which he was staying during his time on Capitol Hill. (He was not.)
Watching Zuckerberg, I could not help but be reminded of another tech giant: Steve Jobs, who I came to know at a pivotal moment in his career as I arrived for my first day at Apple, and my first job in corporate America, on the very day that Steve dropped his “interim” CEO designation and came back to Apple full-time after his infamous ousting.
There are obvious similarities between the two legendary CEOs, from their uniforms (Steve’s iconic black mock-turtleneck versus Zuckerberg’s grey hoodie) to their statuses as college drop-outs who founded their companies at young ages (Steve at 21 and Zuckerberg at 19) to the fact that they both started companies with a mission (Apple to revolutionize the personal computer and Facebook to connect friends and family while conveniently providing shy nerds with an electronic way to flirt) that ultimately expanded exponentially to shape humanity itself. They now even share critical moments when their roles in their companies were imperiled: the bitter 1985 power struggle between Jobs and his then-chief executive John Sculley that resulted in Job’s ejection from Apple; and Zuckerberg’s present drama surrounding the Cambridge Analytica data breach.
But the similarities stop there, and the differences have never been more apparent than during Zuckerberg’s testimony. As Zuckerberg awkwardly sipped water under the heat of lawmakers’ grilling -- resulting in an onslaught of Zuck-as-broken-robot memes that flooded the internet -- one can only imagine how the charismatic Jobs would have handled the inquisition with more grace.
The time I spent as Steve’s executive assistant was like an MBA program on speed. I witnessed first-hand how Steve executed in his natural environment and, most importantly, how he thought. I watched as he pushed engineers and designers to go above and beyond what they thought was even possible. He was famous for insisting they make the iPod slimmer despite their protestations it was as thin as it could be. (Note: They made it slimmer.) I watched as he privileged user experience above all else. I was hardly surprised when he admitted had been wrong about his initial insistance that the iPhone ban third-party apps and use only Safari. When users were dissatisfied he reversed his stance. The App Store was born, thereby providing an opportunity for app developers to create, contribute and make money while giving iPhone users access to millions of apps to enhance their lives. He taught me to always think ahead, anticipating both his needs and the outcomes of every situation, including any curveballs that could be thrown at us.
I cannot help but wonder if a man I always knew to be three steps ahead would have anticipated a curveball like the one the Cambridge Analytica fallout has thrown at Mark Zuckerberg. Tellingly, when asked in a recent MSNBC town hall what he would do if he were in Mark Zuckerberg’s position, current Apple CEO Tim Cook replied flatly, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
I can picture Steve answering that same question verbatim. “The truth is,” Cook continued, “we could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer, if our customer was our product. We’ve elected not to do that. Privacy to us is a human right.”
Apple, in fact, guards customer privacy so intensely that it waged a months-long battle with the FBI over their refusal to unlock an iPhone belonging to the San Bernadino shooter who killed 14 people in December 2015. (The dispute ended only because the FBI was ultimately able find an outside contractor able to unlock the phone for them.)
The fact of the matter, though, is that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook do find themselves in this situation right now. And this is a make-or-break moment during which Zuckerberg will determine his own legacy. Perhaps this is where the parallel between Zuckerberg and Steve is the strongest, as it holds so many echoes of Steve’s ejection from Apple. In a moment of personal and professional peril, Steve refused to simply circle the wagons. Instead, he picked himself up and led by example, going on to found NeXT (and then, 12 years later, selling the computer software company back to Apple for $429 million) and funding animation studio Pixar, thereby revolutionizing a whole other industry. By the time Steve returned to Apple in 1997 as interim CEO, he was still the visionary he had always been, but he was even wiser and more seasoned. The moment of his homecoming was a critical moment for both the company and for Steve personally, as he located his original intention and purpose for Apple and then married those to his vision for its future. It was an approach that led to an explosion of ground-breaking innovation from the iMac to iTunes to the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.
The question Zuckerberg would perhaps be best served asking himself right now is: What would Steve Jobs do? Will Zuckerberg stay a 13-years-older version of that student who founded Facebook in his dorm room (an image he returned to repeatedly in his testimony) or will he rise to the occasion? Will he take responsibility for the failings of Facebook and his own leadership in order to truly figure out what happened during the 2016 election? Will he ensure that such foreign intervention and manipulation never happen again? One hopes he will choose the latter path, for if Steve Jobs had given up on Apple when it was not doing well, think of the innovation that would have been missed. Zuckerberg has the choice to not only make a bad situation better instead of worse; he has the opportunity to redefine Facebook’s future by re-connecting to its original mission and thinking about how that fits into a present he may not have anticipated. His decision in this moment will determine his place in history.