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Jobs, Well Done

What we can learn from Steve Jobs, in life and in death.

For anyone doubting the power of consumer IT, the reaction to the death of Steve Jobs should have served as a wake-up call. The worldwide outpouring of tributes, devotion--even grief--was remarkable, proving beyond any doubt that users' attitudes toward their tech devices have become, in many ways, intensely personal.

At the same time, I thought that the news coverage of his death completely missed the point. The media acted as if Jobs alone was responsible for the remarkable products that Apple has launched in its 35-year history. Certainly, there's no doubt that Jobs was a gifted visionary, who revolutionized--maybe even created--the consumer tech industry. But based on the media narrative, you would have thought that Apple's approximately 46,000 employees spent most of their time getting him coffee and doughnuts.

No, the true genius of Steve Jobs lay in his ability to create and lead a huge organization that could develop and sell these products. His core contributions were a non-negotiable demand for excellence and a crystal-clear vision. In an interview with NPR's Fresh Air, Jobs once said that he wanted to bring a liberal arts sensibility to a previously all-geek industry. That vision lay at the heart of every Apple product and what made the company such a massive success. Jobs humanized computing.

But he never claimed to have invented the mouse or any of the other cool Apple features. Those ideas came from elsewhere or from within the ranks of Apple employees. In the same interview with NPR, Jobs made his executive philosophy very clear: Whereas most companies hire people so that they can tell those people what to do, he said, Apple hires people so they can tell Apple what to do. A corporate hierarchy is necessary for all kinds of reasons, but Jobs realized that good ideas know no rank. They're simply good ideas. And by creating a corporate culture that allowed these ideas to bubble to the surface, he positioned Apple to succeed beyond its wildest dreams.

His approach can--and should--serve as an example to CIOs on campuses nationwide. As Jobs did, it is their responsibility to establish a strong, compelling vision, and to act as uncompromising guardians of that vision. And, like Jobs, they should demand nothing less than excellence--of themselves, their staff, and their vendors. Beyond that, though, their role is to cultivate a culture of creativity and freedom among their staff. It's an approach that's good for employees, good for IT, and, ultimately, it's good for the institution.

It will be very interesting to see how Apple fares in the wake of Jobs' death. A WWSD (What Would Steve Do) approach isn't going to cut it. Instead, the company has to trust in its vision, trust in its employees, and never lower the bar. Because that is Jobs' finest legacy.

About the Author

Andrew Barbour is the former executive editor of Campus Technology.

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