What to wear, what to wear? For 30 years, the answer had been obvious: put on your suit and go to work. Even with the advent of casual Fridays and, worse yet, casual summers, I stuck to my work-a-day uniform: suit, tie, and well-shined shoes. But one morning, in the fall of 2002, as I packed to fly out to San Francisco and meet with Steve Jobs at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, the sartorial answer wasn’t self-evident.
By Peter Jovanovich
What to wear, what to wear?
For 30 years, the answer had been obvious: put on your suit and go to work. Even with the advent of casual Fridays and, worse yet, casual summers, I stuck to my work-a-day uniform: suit, tie, and well-shined shoes. But one morning, in the fall of 2002, as I packed to fly out to San Francisco and meet with Steve Jobs at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, the sartorial answer wasn’t self-evident.
This wasn’t my first visit to Silicon Valley. As chairman of Pearson Education, the world’s largest educational publisher, I had met with many tech company CEO’s during the dot.com era, even adopting the Silicon Valley dress code. (Lord, forgive me, I once wore chinos to a meeting.)
In one memorable encounter, an unshaven genius (double Stanford: M.S. and M.B.A.) informed me that his new portal would dominate all educational content. Pearson would have to license its $4 billion in annual sales to his company — and for a pittance.
“By the way,” I asked, “Pearson has over 1,000 salespeople to cover the 13,000 U.S. school districts. How many do you employ?”
“Two,” he replied insouciantly.
I couldn’t resist asking: “So, do you spread them out, one on each side of the Mississippi, or do you bunch them up to double their impact?” Soon after his company went bust.
But, of course, Steve Jobs was different — a true American genius. Apple was back on the rise in 2002, having released the iPod a year earlier, and Macs were resurgent. A colleague of mine, Doug Kubach, had arranged for software designers from our school group and me to meet Jobs and Tim Cook, then head of sales for Apple. We had just launched iTexts, and were trying to put together a partnership between Apple and Pearson.
The meeting started badly and went downhill from there. Before our software designer could get though a few PowerPoint slides, Jobs barked in disgust: “When are we going to see some ******* software?” Because our browser-based software was designed for lowest common denominator in school technology, it was clunky and slow. Jobs groaned audibly through the demonstration, saying, “This is **** software.” We quickly ended the demo.
Turning to me, Jobs said searingly, “Who needs you? We can hire authors to write our own textbooks. In fact, why have textbooks at all? There are fantastic ways to teach science or social studies using video and sound that would make your business obsolete.”
“Well, you may be right about what the future lies,” I demurred. “But as long as the College Board and the SAT and ACT tests require students to prove they can comprehend a sustained narrative, there are going to be textbooks.”
“What’s a sustained narrative?” Jobs asked. Didn’t he really know? Was he just continuing to prod me? I think the latter.
“You know, it’s a chapter in a textbook, or a short story, or an essay or legal brief. The states require students to be able to analyze and write a sustained narrative,” I replied.
Jobs asked more about the school curriculum market. As I started to explain that one couldn’t sell the same text in Indiana as in Texas, I could see the shutters in his mind’s eye begin to close. After all, Apple’s business was based on selling the same iPod or iMac everywhere around the world. From his point-of-view, it would be ludicrous for Apple to get in a business, which required different products for 50 states. Steve Jobs wasn’t going to bother to destroy our company. Our industry was too small — incommensurate with his ambitions.
The meeting ended in a moment of revelation. Jobs had an assistant roll out a demo machine. He invited us to gather around him while he moved his hands, expressively touching the screen, showing the next release of iLife and iPhoto. In animated fashion he explained, “You want to hide the complexity and create a simple user interface.” I watched his hands. They were like a conductor’s. Seeing them, I realized what Jobs had divined. The core of the digital revolution isn’t zero’s and one’s, it’s about digits — your fingers — empowered by technology to do magical things.
As we stood together — he dressed in black mock turtleneck and jeans, and I (you guessed it) in a gray suit — I looked down for moment. There was a perfect tear across the right knee of his jeans. And I smiled.
Coda: With the passing of Steve Jobs, Tim Cook became CEO of Apple. Doug Kubach became President of Pearson Assessment, the world’s largest test publisher. And Apple, to date, has yet to enter the school curriculum business.