What can a CIO learn from Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs might have been a product and marketing wonder kid but there are lots of lessons CIOs can learn from his method.

Steve Jobs' death on October 5 2011 was followed by a huge number of obituaries, tributes and reflections by those that knew him well and those who only knew him from a distance. However, there is much to learn about being a great leader from both his successes and failures.

Management controls matter

That might seem obvious to experienced CIOs but those moving into management roles for the first time might underestimate the importance of getting systems in place.

Jobs' success at Apple and Pixar happened despite his lack of control. He was not a rigourous manager of finances - at Pixar he spent over $50 million with very little planning other than a hope (some might say vision) that John Lasseter's animation projects would be a success.

Jobs' inability to kill off an unsuccessful project - the development of animation hardware systems for the mass market - almost cost him Pixar's future success.

At Apple and Pixar, he showed scant regard for the welfare of staff when layoffs were required. That's a process that good companies have controls around so that both the laid-off personnel and the company are protected.

Look for A-Team players

Recruitment is one of the hardest parts of the CIO's job. Hire the right people and it's possible to deliver great results. Hire below that threshold and expect less than great results. Jobs' focus was on what he called A Players - people that could be relied on to create excellent products. Job's was concerned that if others in the business started to hire B Players that pretty soon C Players would enter the company as standards were slowly lowered.

One of my mentors once said to me that you were better off not hiring someone rather than hiring the wrong person.

Don't hire "yes men" and clones

It's tempting to hire people who see the world in the same way as you do. For example, if you're a naturally extroverted person, hiring another extrovert might feel comfortable. However, that may not be what's best for the company.

Although Jobs often hired people that he saw as similarly creative to himself, he also hired great engineers that complemented his artistic and aesthetic vision. They were able to convert his vision into practical products.

Quality is important

Jobs was obsessed with making his products look good. Some say that this was a symptom of an obsession with form over function. But anyone that has worked in an IT department for any length of time knows that there's always a danger that technical capability will triumph over usability.

As an IT manager, I often focus (obsess?) over measuring the performance of my team. System utilisation, uptime, network performance, help desk statistics - all of these are things I take an active interest in monitoring. When a new system is deployed or an application is upgraded, often the focus is on improved reliability and performance.

Although Apple was well known for not using focus groups to test products, that didn't mean that they disregarded their costumers. On the contrary, and this may sound arrogant, they believed that they not only knew what customers wanted but they knew it before the customer themselves knew.

A good CIO will make a point of knowing what the customers want and deliver that plus what they will want before they realise that they want it. that means getting to know your customers as more than just users.


Creating a personnel based succession plan is relatively easy. Hire good people, manage their development, give them opportunities to price themselves and then make them deputies. Over time, one or two deputies will stand out and you'll have the makings of a management succession plan.

Jobs' view of succession was quite different. One of the last projects he worked on prior to his death was articulating the Apple design ethos and attitude. That was then used to create curriculum material so that the Apple ethos could be taught to employees so that it would continue after Jobs' death.

For a CIO, that means more than just putting together great applications and infrastructure - it means teaching your team what's important goes beyond bits and bytes. It's about excellence, flexibility and willingness to delver what the business needs even when it seems impossible.

Treat people well

We are left to ponder what further success Jobs might have ache vied if he'd treated staff better. He often mused that pushing people was a way of getting them to delver what they thought was unachievable. But his rants and abuse are the stuff of legend.

Good CIOs will find ways to drive excellence from their teams without resorting to public humiliation and abuse.


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