What Can Architects Learn from Steve Jobs

I’ve just finished reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. In case there is anyone out there who doesn’t know it yet, this is the authorised biography that Jobs asked Isaacson to write which was completed a few weeks before Jobs untimely death aged 56 last month. Jobs insisted that Isaacson would have complete control over the contents of the book saying he would not even read it before it was published adding “I don’t have any skeletons in my closet that can’t be allowed out”.Jobs is clearly a very complex personality, on the one hand a creative genius whose zen like focus on simplicity and efficiency helped create some of the most beautiful and useful gadgets of our time (some of which we never even knew we needed) whilst on the other he was a bully and a tyrant who knew exactly how to “size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will”. One of jobs girl friends, who later went on to found a mental health resource network in California, even went so far to say that she thought Jobs suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in which the individual is described as being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity.

Whilst it is to be hoped that NPD is not a prerequisite for being a software architect Jobs did have vision and understanding of IT that we as architects can learn from. Six big ideas that stand out in this respect are:

  1. Engineering matters. When jobs met with President Obama in 2011 he implored the President to reform the US education system and to create more engineering students. Jobs said “if you could educate these engineers we could move more manufacturing plants here”. Whilst there was always an uneasy tension between engineering and design at Apple Jobs recognised and valued the importance of there being an engineering led rather than sales led team at the top of the company berating companies like Microsoft (under Balmer), IBM (under Akers) and HP (under their last several CEOs) for putting sales people in charge rather than engineers. For software architects, engineering clearly translates to being intimately knowledgeable with the technology you are using, knowing how to put the working parts together. The best architects I know are passionate about technology.
  2. Artistry and design matters just as much as engineering. This is a theme that Jobs emphasises over and over again. From when he dropped out of college and instead took a course on calligraphy to his sometimes maniacal focus on the smallest details of design to make the product as satisfying and aesthetically pleasing as possible. He even emphasized that circuit boards, which no one would ever see once the product was fully assembled, should be laid out in as clean and uncluttered was as possible. It is this aspect of design that most matters for architects. Provided that functionally a system does what it is meant to do within the required constraints and system qualities one could argue it does not matter how messily the software is assembled. Whose going to see it anyway? This misses the point though.Great design, as opposed to just good enough design, means the system will be easier to maintain, take less effort to learn and generally be more enjoyable for those that need to carry on working on it once the architects and developers have moved on.
  3. Simple is better than complex. Apple had a design mantra: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” or as Jobs said “very simple, and we’re really shooting for Museum of Modern Art quality”. Jobs felt that design simplicity should be linked to making products easy to use.So much of the software that we create today is far too complex and feature rich and as a result is very hard to use. People will often say that it has to be like that because just look at all the features you are getting. Unfortunately a lot of the time many of those features are not needed but add to the general bloat of the systems we build making them hard to use as well as difficult to maintain. Sadly building a complex system is often easier than building a simple one and it is not many architects that see value in stripping out functionality rather than adding it.
  4. An unremitting focus on detail is key to creating a great product. Jobs was unique in that he was able to hold both the big picture view as well as zooming in to fine details. He would often sweat over the smallest detail until he was satisfied it was just right. This could be anything from the colour of a screw on the back plate of the iPod to the angle of the bevel on the iPad to make someone want to pick it up. This capacity for holding both the big picture view whilst also being able to zoom right down and question low level details is probably one of the hardest things architects have to do but being able to do so gives a definite advantage and enables greater integrity as well as better execution of vision.
  5. Customers don’t always know what they want. In September 1982 when Jobs and his team were designing the original Macintosh he held a retreat for the Mac team near Monteray where he gave a presentation on his thoughts for the Mac. At the end someone asked whether or not they should do some market research to find out what customers wanted. “No”, replied Jobs, “because people don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them”. He then pulled out a device the size of a desk diary and flipped it open, it turned out to be a mock-up of a computer that could fit into your lap with a keyboard and screen hinged together like a notebook. “This is my dream of what we will be making in the mid- to late eighties”, Jobs said. Apple supposedly never did do any market research preferring to follow the Henry Ford approach who said he never asked what people wanted because they would have just asked for a better horseless carriage. Whilst it is probably the case that people can often see how to make incremental improvements to products they usually cannot see how to make disruptive changes that introduce a who new way of doing things, possibly making everything that went before it redundant. It is the job of the architect to show what is in the realms of the possible by creating new and innovative systems.
  6. Putting things together in new and creative ways is sometimes more important than inventing things. Jobs was not the first to market with an MP3 player, a mobile phone or a tablet computer. Others had already innovated and built these things. What Jobs and Apple did were to tweak things that already existed. As Isaacson says “he had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to”. Jobs applied his design skills to these and came up with a (far) better product and in fact a whole new platform as well (i.e. the computer as the digital hub. Architects to need to learn that its often putting together existing components in new and innovative ways that really counts and gives a competitive and business advantage.
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4 thoughts on “What Can Architects Learn from Steve Jobs

  1. Regarding “Customers don't always know what they want.”. If the Software Architect actual are working with architecture, then it could be an asset to talk about capabilities with the customers. But unfortunatly most people that call them selfs Software architects do not work with architecture, they work with technology. And putting technology in the hands of the business people without understanding the effects of it, is not a very good business strategy.

    You need to know the difference of the WHAT and the HOW. Mr Jobs are talking about the WHAT, which is an essential part of architecture. Technologies are HOW.

  2. Hi Pontus, Agree with your point, architecture should be business driven not technology driven. The trick is understanding how a particular technology (cloud for example) can be used to drive new, and possibly not yet recognised business value. That's where good architects add their value.

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