Read Inside Steve's Brain Online

Authors: Leander Kahney

Inside Steve's Brain (12 page)

Pixar is headquartered in several smoked-glass-and-steel buildings on a leafy campus in Emeryville, a former port town across the bay from San Francisco. The campus has a relaxed, collegial atmosphere. It boasts all the perks of a high-tech, twenty-first-century workplace: swimming pools, movie theaters, and a cafeteria with a wood-burning stove. Everywhere there is whimsy: full-size statues of animated characters, doorways disguised as swinging bookshelves, a reception desk that sells toys. Instead of cubicles, the company’s animators work in their own private huts, literally garden huts assembled in a row, like a string of beach huts, each idiosyncratically decorated—a tiki hut, for example, could be next to a mini medieval castle with a mock moat.
Pixar is run by Ed Catmull, a friendly, soft-spoken pioneer of CGI, or computer-generated imagery, who invented some of the key technologies that make computer animation possible. Since the acquisition of Pixar by Disney in January 2006, Catmull has become president of the combined Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. The storytelling heart of the company is John Lasseter, Pixar’s Academy Award-winning creative genius. A big, avuncular man who normally dresses in colorful Hawaiian shirts, Lasseter has directed four Pixar blockbusters:
Toy Story 1
A Bug’s Life
, and
. Lasseter is now the chief creative officer at Disney, where he’s charged with spreading some of Pixar’s magic around the tarnished Disney animation division.
At Apple, Jobs is a hands-on micromanager. But at Pixar, Jobs pretty much stays away, leaving the day-to-day running in the capable hands of Catmull and Lasseter. For years, he was pretty much a benevolent benefactor who cut checks and negotiated deals. “If I knew in 1986 how much it was going to cost to keep Pixar going, I doubt if I would have bought the company,” Jobs complained to
in September 1995.
“I refer to those guys as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” jokes Brad Bird, director of Pixar’s
The Incredibles
. “Ed, who invented this cool medium and is the designer of the human machine that is Pixar, is the Father. John, its driving creating force, is the Son. And you-know-who is the Holy Ghost.”
According to authors Polly LaBarre and William C. Taylor, who profiled Pixar for their book
Mavericks at Work
, the culture of Pixar is the opposite of Hollywood, which is based on hiring moviemakers
under contract.
In Tinseltown, studios hire the talent they need to make a movie on a freelance basis. The producer, the director, the actors, and the crew all work under contract. Everyone is a free agent, and as soon as the movie is wrapped, they move on. “The problem with the Hollywood model is that it’s generally the day you wrap production that you realize you’ve finally figured out how to work together,” Randy S. Nelson, the dean of Pixar University,
told Taylor and LaBarre.
Pixar functions on the opposite model. At Pixar, the directors, scriptwriters, and crew are all salaried employees with big stock option grants. Pixar’s movies may have different directors, but the same core team of writers, directors, and animators work on them all as company employees.
In Hollywood, studios fund story ideas—the famous Hollywood pitch, the big concept. Instead of funding pitches and story ideas, Pixar funds the career development of its employees. As Nelson explains: “We’ve made the leap from an idea-centered business to a people-centered business. Instead of developing ideas, we develop people. Instead of investing in ideas, we invest in people.”
At the heart of the company’s “people investment” culture is Pixar University, an on-the-job training program that offers hundreds of courses in art, animation, and filmmaking. All of Pixar’s employees are encouraged to take classes in whatever they like, whether it’s relevant to their job or not. At other studios, there’s a clear distinction between the “creatives,” the “techies,” and the crew. But Pixar’s unique culture doesn’t distinguish between them—everyone who works on the movies is considered an artist. Everyone works together to tell stories, and as such, everyone is encouraged to devote at least four hours of the workweek to class. The classes are filled with people from all levels of the organization: janitors sit next to department heads. “We’re trying to create a culture of learning, filled with lifelong learners,” said Nelson.
At Pixar, they say “art is a team sport.” It’s a mantra, oft repeated. No one can make a movie alone, and a team of good storytellers can fix a bad story, but a poor team cannot. If a script isn’t working, the whole team works together to fix it. The writers, the animators, and the director all pitch in without regard to their official role or job title. “This model tackles one of the most enduring people problems in any industry: How do you not only attract wildly talented people to work in your company, but also get those wildly talented people to continuously produce great work together?” said LaBarre.
The answer is that Pixar has created a nurturing, fun place to work. In Hollywood, filmmakers spend a lot of time jockeying for advantage, stabbing collaborators in the back to gain advantage, and constantly worrying whether they are in or out. It’s hypercompetitive, insecure, and burns people out. At Pixar, the process is all about collaboration, teamwork, and learning. There’s pressure, of course, especially when movies approach deadlines, but the workplace is generally nurturing and supportive. The opportunity to learn, to create, and, most of all, to work with other talented people is the reward. Plus the generous stock options, of course. At Pixar, the animators are getting rich and having fun, too. As the Latin inscription on the Pixar University crest says
Alienus Non Diutius
, Alone No Longer.
As a result, Pixar has poached some of the best animation talent in Hollywood. Other top Pixar animators include Andrew Stanton (
Finding Nemo
), Brad Bird (
The Incredibles
), and Pete Docter (
Monsters Inc.
) who have all been aggressively headhunted by competitors. For many years Lasseter had a standing offer from Disney to jump ship, which he resisted because of the unique creative work environment at Pixar. None of the other studios could compete, not even Disney. As Jobs boasted: “Pixar’s got by far and away the best computer graphics talent in the entire world, and it now has the best animation and artistic talent in the whole world to do these kinds of film. There’s really no one else in the world who could do this stuff. It’s really phenomenal. We’re probably close to ten years ahead of anybody else.”
The Original Mac Team
At Apple, Jobs takes a similar view: the talent on staff is a competitive advantage that puts the company ahead of its rivals. Jobs tries to find the best people in a given field and put them on the payroll. When Jobs was conducting his product review after returning to the company, he “steved” most of Apple’s products, but he made sure to keep the best talent on staff, among them designer Jonathan Ive. When Jobs wanted to open a chain of Apple retail stores in 2001, the first thing he did,
the very first thing,
was find the best person in retail to advise him. Jobs was afraid of getting burned, and so went looking for an expert. ”We looked at it and said, ‘You know, this is probably really hard, and really easy for us to get our head handed to us,’ ” Jobs told
magazine. “So we did a few things. No. 1, I started asking who was the best retail executive at the time. Everybody said [Millard] Mickey Drexler, who was running the Gap.” Jobs recruited Drexler to sit on Apple’s board and advise the company as it got Apple’s retail chain off the ground (more on the stores later).
Jobs’s first A team—Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld, Burrell Smith, et al.—was assembled in 1980 to build the original Mac and they worked under a pirate flag at Apple HQ.
The core of the Mac team was assembled by Jef Raskin, the original Mac team leader, but Jobs did a lot of the recruiting himself. He pulled in talent from all over Apple and Silicon Valley, without regard to job title or experience. If he judged someone fit to contribute, he did everything he could to recruit them. Bruce Horn, for example, a programmer who created the Mac’s Finder—the heart of the Mac’s operating system—didn’t initially want to work at Apple, until he was seduced by Jobs. Horn had just taken a job with another company, VTI, which promised him a $15,000 signing bonus, a large sum of money at the time. Then Jobs called.
Horn recalled:
On Friday evening, I got a phone call. “Bruce, it’s Steve. What do you think about Apple?” It was Steve Jobs. “Well, Steve, Apple’s cool, but I accepted a job at VTI.”
“You did what? Forget that, you get down here tomorrow morning, we have a lot more things to show you. Be at Apple at 9 a.m.” Steve was adamant. I thought I’d go down, go through the motions, and then tell him that I’d made up my mind and was going to VTI.
Steve switched on the Reality Distortion Field full-force. I met with seemingly everyone on the Mac team, from Andy to Rod Holt to Jerry Manock to the other software engineers, and back to Steve. Two full days of demos, drawings of the various designs, marketing presentations—I was overwhelmed.
On Monday I called Doug Fairbairn at VTI and told him I had changed my mind.
Once he’d assembled his team, Jobs gave them the freedom to be creative and shielded them from the growing bureaucracy at Apple, which tried several times to shut down the Mac project because they viewed it as an unimportant distraction. “The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh. My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay,”
Jobs wrote in a 1984 essay that was printed in the inaugural issue of
magazine. Hertzfeld put it more bluntly: “The most important thing Steve did was erect a giant shit-deflecting umbrella that protected the project from the evil suits across the street.”
As well as recruiting the best talent, Jobs is quick to get rid of those who don’t measure up. Hiring only insanely great employees and firing the bozos has been one of Jobs’s longest held managerial principles. “It’s painful when you have some people who are not the best people in the world and you have to get rid of them; but I found that my job has sometimes exactly been that—to get rid of some people who didn’t measure up and I’ve always tried to do it in a humane way. But nonetheless it has to be done and it is never fun,” Jobs said in a 1995 interview.
Small Is Beautiful
Jobs likes to work in small teams. He didn’t want the original Mac team to exceed one hundred members, lest it became unfocused and unmanageable. Jobs firmly believes that small teams of talented employees run circles around larger groups. At Pixar, Jobs tried to ensure that the company never grew to more than a few hundred people. When asked to compare Apple and Pixar, Jobs attributed much of its success to its small size. “Apple has some pretty amazing people, but the collection of people at Pixar is the highest concentration of remarkable people that I have ever witnessed,” Jobs told
in 1998. “There’s a person who’s got a Ph.D. in computer-generated plants—3-D grass and trees and flowers. There’s another who is the best in the world at putting imagery on film. Also, Pixar is more multidisciplinary than Apple ever will be. But the key thing is that it is much smaller. Pixar’s got 450 people. You could never have the collection of people that Pixar has now if you went to two thousand people.”
Jobs’s philosophy harks back to the old days when he, Wozniak, and a few teenage friends assembled computers by hand in a garage. To some extent, Jobs’s preference for small development teams at Apple today is the same thing: a simulation of a garage startup inside a big company with more than 21,000 employees.
On returning to Apple in 1997, Jobs set about assembling an A team to resurrect the company. Several of the top executives he appointed had worked with him before at NeXT, including Jon Rubinstein, who he put in charge of hardware; Avie Tevanian, who headed up software; and David Manovich, who was put in charge of sales. Jobs has a reputation as a micromanager, but at NeXT he had learned to trust these lieutenants. He no longer oversees every decision the way he used to. At Pixar, Jobs delegated almost everything to Catmull and Lasseter. At Apple, Jobs cedes much of the day-to-day management to Tim Cook, the chief operating officer, a master at operations and logistics who is widely considered the number two at Apple. When Jobs took six weeks’ sick leave in 2005 after his cancer operation, Cook took over as acting CEO. Ron Johnson, head of retail, manages almost everything to do with Apple’s chain of retail stores; while chief financial officer Peter Oppenheimer handles finances and deals with Wall Street. Delegation at Apple frees up Jobs to do what he loves best—develop new products.
Jobs’s Job
Working with partners like Jonathan Ive and Jon Rubinstein, Jobs plays a unique role. He doesn’t design circuit boards or write code, but Jobs puts his stamp firmly on his teams’ work. He’s the leader who provides the vision, guides the development, and makes many of the key decisions. “He didn’t create anything really, but he created everything,” wrote former CEO John Sculley on Jobs’s contribution to the original Mac. According to Sculley, Jobs once said to him: “The Macintosh is inside of me, and I’ve got to get it out and turn it into a product.”
Jobs acts as the team director, the arbiter who rejects or accepts the work of his creative partners, guiding them as they work toward a solution. One source told me that Ive once confided that he wouldn’t be able to do the work he does without Jobs’s input. Ive may be a creative genius, but he needs Jobs’s guiding hand.
Jobs is the “product picker,” in the parlance of Silicon Valley. A product picker is a term used by Silicon Valley venture capitalists to identify the key product person at startup companies. By definition, a startup must succeed on its first product. If it doesn’t, it goes under. But not all startups start with a product. Some startups are a group of engineers who have a lot of talent and ideas, but haven’t yet figured out what product they want to develop. This happens all the time in the Valley, but to ensure the success of a startup like this, there has to be an individual who’s got a nose for what that product should be. It’s not always the CEO or a top executive, and they may not have expertise in management or marketing: their skill is picking out the key product from a torrent of ideas.

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