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Lou Jesse HallBy Lou Washington

We took in the movie “Jobs” this afternoon, the bio of Apple founder and industry visionary Steve Jobs. Despite the crummy reviews and relatively low-level of hype surrounding the movie, Barb and I decided that it beat the uninspired collection of cinematic dross playing on the other 15 screens.

Before I get into a review of the movie, let me just say I never knew Steve Jobs personally nor have I read any of the biographies about him. I will say that Barb and I lived for a couple of years in Cupertino and we both worked in Palo Alto so I had some early experience with Apple as a company.

We lived and worked in the Valley during the mid to late ’80s. I had occasion to know some folks who worked for Apple during those years and I was indeed struck by the passion they felt for the company and its products. They were almost religious in their devotion.

During those years it was not uncommon the have people working beside you that were just putting some bread in the fridge while they looked for a real job. The company I worked for had numerous refugees from Atari who had recently laid off a huge number of folks. It wasn’t unusual to have several HP folks show up, maybe some IBMers or Sun employees hitting your HR office as a group following a round of downsizing or reorganization or de-funding of some project or another.

I don’t ever remember working with someone who used to work for Apple. I don’t know if they didn’t have lay offs or if people just stop working after leaving Apple.

The movie does not paint Steve Jobs as a very likable fellow. I can’t really venture an opinion about Jobs in terms of his personal warmth or fuzziness rating. It does give him passion, creativity, vision and drive. I have to assume he possessed these traits because they would be necessary to accomplish what he did.

For me, the best aspect of this movie was the realistic portrayal of the ongoing tension that exists between Finance, Marketing and Engineering. In that regard, I think this movie did a superb job of showing just exactly how difficult it is to convert a dream into a product concept and then turn that concept into a market changing (I will not use the word disruptive) product and then selling that product as a profitable business.

During my career, I have had the privilege of working in marketing with some very smart folks, I’ve also worked with some superb financial guys and I would have to say the engineers I’ve been around were some of the best in the business. Getting these three elements in sync and making a buck at the same time is supremely difficult.

So, in that regard, if Steve Jobs lost his temper, lashed out at someone or fired people, I’d have to say so what? Those things happen all the time. Business requires us to occasionally be overt, curt and a bit dispassionate.

During the movie, Jobs mentions the concept of making the PC work like an appliance. He talks about removing it from the box, plugging it in and then, “it just works” was how he put it. That kind of simplicity is almost always impossible to attain.  Almost anything you buy requires tweaking, set up or at least a protracted amount of time reading a manual.

About three years ago, I decided to do something radical. My home PC died. We took it down into the basement where we have a family crypt for our deceased PCs. After placing my PC in its niche of eternal rest, I headed out to Best Buy to replace it.

For some reason or another, I decided that this time I was going to go with a Mac. I picked out the model I wanted and waited for the stock person to bring all the boxes and stuff up to the cash register for me.

They rang up my purchase and then handed me a single brief case sized box with a suitcase type handle. I laughed and told them that I had purchased a desk top machine, not a laptop. They assured me that my entire Mac was indeed in the box.

Once I was home, I opened the box and found the monitor and integrated CPU, the keyboard, a mouse, the stand and a power cord. There was also one very slender, very small booklet.

I put the monitor on the stand and plugged the thing in. A message popped up telling me that a wi-fi signal was detected and it asked if I wanted to connect. I tried the mouse and clicked on the “yes” icon. That was it. My Mac was up and running.

No cables, no manuals, no software loads, no CD-ROM, no download this or that, no learning curve. Nothing. It just worked.

So, thank you Mr. Jobs for understanding the beauty of simplicity but also understanding that the best simplicity allows us to exploit astounding complexity.

Go see the movie.

By Lou Washington

We were discussing this concept today in a marketing context, a colleague of mine put it this way; it’s like the man behind the curtain, Oz is not real, the action and reality are behind the curtain.

We like to talk about simplifying the complex, but is that really what we mean?

Many years ago when I was seriously studying piano I attended a recital featuring pieces from the romantic era including some of the works of Franz Liszt. If you are not familiar with Liszt, he was a performing pianist of astounding technical ability.

In the late 1800s, the piano and the artists who played the piano were roughly the equivalent of today’s preeminent rock stars. From the standpoint of dazzling ability, Liszt stood head and shoulders above most of the artists active in that time. He was good looking and he knew what his audience wanted. He was essentially a phenom, a rock star.

Franz Liszt also composed for piano and he left us with a substantial body of work. Many of these pieces were specifically designed to be “show off” pieces for pianists. One of his more challenging works was a transcription of a series of violin pieces composed by the equally dazzling Italian violinist, Paganini.

It was one of these pieces that grabbed my attention that evening during the recital. The piece is nicknamed La Campanella. The piece opens with a straight forward recitation of a simple melody line. Then, over the course of the next four minutes or so, this theme is repeated again and again with increasing complexity. For the pianist, each repetition brings increasing technical demands that are displayed for the listener in the most astounding ways.

During my next session with my piano teacher I related how this piece had blown me away and how incredible it was that the artist could accomplish all these amazing physical feats. She, of course, was familiar with the piece but she was not as caught up by my excitement as I had expected. She was almost dismissive of it.

I finally had to ask why she was not as taken with it as I was. Her response was one of those lessons you remember because it really transcended music and reached into the whole of life.

She ask me to recall many years prior when I first began studying with her. She had introduced me to the works of J.S. Bach, in particular the series of 48 Preludes and Fugues known as the Well Tempered Clavier. She asked me to recall her introducing me to the very first piece in this series, the Prelude in C Major.

When you listen to this Bach Prelude the effect is altogether different from the other piece. Is is almost entirely devoid of the pianistic gymnastics evidenced in the Liszt piece. But, it is certainly every bit as captivating. The Bach pulls at your emotions, your senses and your spirit. The Liszt doesn’t really pull at anything other than perhaps your sense of amazement.

How is it that the simple, single melodic line of J.S. Bach moves your heart and senses so dramatically while the complex, intricate and rambunctious “La Campanella” leaves you feeling just a bit winded?

How does simplicity essentially blow complexity out of the water? The answer is; it doesn’t.

The Bach piece is far from simple. The Liszt piece is undoubtably complex sounding, but does that complexity result in great music or just a great demonstration of skill? What’s beneath the surface?

The Bach prelude is a long, slow development of a musical idea into a final shining resolution of musical tension that only flirts with flourish and ornamentation in the final couple of measures.

The simplicity sucks you in and then Bach gets your heart.

The life lesson in this is that simplicity is not simple at all. It matters not if you’re talking music or manufacturing. Simplicity is the effect, beneath it, hidden away from view, you will frequently find enormous complexity.

Systems that strive to simplify cannot be confused with simple systems. It you are talking software, it means an easy to use, uncluttered user experience. It means the ability to handle a complicated processes is delivered to the user in a way that saves them time and effort and increases the accuracy of their work.

Simplicity is an effect, an image or a veneer. It covers incredible complexity.

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