Steve Jobs interview: One-on-one in 1995

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In April 1995, Steve Jobs, then head of NeXT Computer, was interviewed by the Computerworld Information Technology Awards Foundation, producers of the Computerworld Honors Awards Program, as part of an Oral History project. The wide-ranging interview was conducted by Daniel Morrow, executive director of the awards program.

From his early years -- when he says except for a few key adults 'I would absolutely have ended up in jail' -- to how he felt about Apple in the mid-'90s -- 'The Macintosh will die in another few years [under John Sculley]' -- to his predictions about how the Internet would change the world, this is a rare look at Jobs after his first string of innovations but before he returned to Apple.

Steve, I'd like to begin with some biographical information. Tell us about yourself. Steve Jobs (SJ): I was born in San Francisco, California, USA, planet Earth, February 24, 1955. I can go into a lot of details about my youth, but I don't know that anybody would really care about that too much.

Well they might in three hundred years because all this print is going to disintegrate. Tell me a little bit about your parents, your family; what are the earliest things you remember? In 1955, Eisenhower was still President. I don't remember him but I do remember growing up in the late 50's and early 60's. It was a very interesting time in the United States. America was sort of at its pinnacle of post World War II prosperity and everything had been fairly straight and narrow from haircuts to culture in every way, and it was just starting to broaden into the 60's where things were going to start expanding out in new directions. Everything was still very successful. Very young. America seemed young and naive in many ways to me, from my memories at that time.

So you would have been about five or six years old when John Kennedy was assassinated? I remember John Kennedy being assassinated. I remember the exact moment that I heard he had been shot.

Where were you at the time? I was walking across the grass at my schoolyard going home at about three in the afternoon when somebody yelled that the President had been shot and killed. I must have been about seven or eight years old, I guess, and I knew exactly what it meant. I also remember very much the Cuban Missile Crisis. I probably didn't sleep for three or four nights because I was afraid that if I went to sleep I wouldn't wake up. I guess I was seven years old at the time and I understood exactly what was going on. I think everybody did. It was really a terror that I will never forget, and it probably never really left. I think that everyone felt it at that time.

New possibilities

It sounds really exciting. The question I was going to ask -- and you've partially answered it -- was about start-up companies. As I look around the facility here and your literature, there are alliances written all over the walls literally. You're aligned with Hewlett-Packard, Sun, Oracle and Digital and all the systems integrators. Communications companies and information technology companies are merging. And becoming one. Do you think it will ever be possible for a new major start-up company to develop if they're going to focus on major applications or software? Will there ever be another?

I think yes. One might sometimes say in despair no, but I think yes. And the reason is because human minds settle into fixed ways of looking at the world and that's always been true and it's probably always going to be true.

I've always felt that death is the greatest invention of life. I'm sure that life evolved without death at first and found that without death, life didn't work very well because it didn't make room for the young. It didn't know how the world was fifty years ago. It didn't know how the world was twenty years ago. It saw it as it is today, without any preconceptions, and dreamed how it could be based on that. We're not satisfied based on the accomplishment of the last thirty years. We're dissatisfied because the current state didn't live up to their ideals. Without death there would be very little progress.

One of the things that happens in organizations as well as with people is that they settle into ways of looking at the world and become satisfied with things and the world changes and keeps evolving and new potential arises but these people who are settled in don't see it. That's what gives start-up companies their greatest advantage. The sedentary point of view is that of most large companies.

In addition to that, large companies do not usually have efficient communication paths from the people closest to some of these changes at the bottom of the company to the top of the company which are the people making the big decisions. There may be people at lower levels of the company that see these changes coming but by the time the word ripples up to the highest levels where they can do something about it, it sometimes takes ten years. Even in the case where part of the company does the right thing at the lower levels, usually the upper levels screw it up somehow. I mean IBM and the personal computer business is a good example of that.

I think as long as humans don't solve this human nature trait of sort of settling into a world view after a while, there will always be opportunity for young companies, young people to innovate. As it should be.

Advice for future entrepreneurs

And that was going to be my closing question before I gave you chance to sort of free associate on your own. That is to talk to young people who sort of look to you as a role model. Opportunities for innovation you think they're still possible. What are the factors of success for young people today? What should they avoid? I get asked this a lot and I have a pretty standard answer which is, a lot of people come to me and say "I want to be an entrepreneur." And I go "Oh that's great, what's your idea?"And they say "I don't have one yet." And I say "I think you should go get a job as a busboy or something until you find something you're really passionate about because it's a lot of work."

I'm convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance. It is so hard. You put so much of your life into this thing. There are such rough moments in time that I think most people give up. I don't blame them. It's really tough and it consumes your life. If you've got a family and you're in the early days of a company, I can't imagine how one could do it. I'm sure it's been done but it's rough. It's pretty much an eighteen hour day job, seven days a week for awhile. Unless you have a lot of passion about this, you're not going to survive. You're going to give it up. So you've got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you're passionate about, otherwise you're not going to have the perseverance to stick it through. I think that's half the battle right there.

Responsibilities of power

Your talking made me think of the other side of that. You talk about the passion side. What would you say, there's passion and then there's power. What you would say about the responsibilities of power, once you've achieved a certain level of success? Power? What is that?

You need passion to build a company like Apple or IBM or any other major company. Once you've taken the passion to that level and built a company and are in the position like a Bill Gates at Microsoft or anybody else, yourself, what are the responsibilities of those who have succeeded and have economic power, social power? I mean, you've changed the world. What are your responsibilities within that? That question can be taken on many levels. Obviously if you're running a company you have responsibilities but as an individual I don't think you have responsibilities. I think the work speaks for itself. I don't think that people have special responsibilities just because they've done something that other people like or don't like. I think the work speaks for itself.

I think people could choose to do things if they want to but we're all going to be dead soon, that's my point of view. Somebody once told me, they said "Live each day as if it would be your last and one day you'll certainly be right." I do that. You never know when you're going to go but you are going to go pretty soon. If you're going to leave anything behind it's going to be your kids, a few friends and your work. So that's what I tend to worry about. I don't tend to think about responsibility. A matter of fact I tend to like to on occasion pretend I don't have any responsibilities. I try to remember the last day when I didn't have anything to do and didn't have anything to do the following day that I had to do and I had no responsibilities. It was decades ago. I pretend when I want to feel that way. I don't think in those terms. I think you have a responsibility to do really good stuff and get it out there for people to use and let them build on the shoulders of it and keep making better stuff.

So the responsibility is to yourself and your own standards. In our business, one person can't do anything anymore. You create a team of people around you. You have a responsibility of integrity of work to that team. Everybody does try to turn out the best work that they can.

Any final comments or thoughts either for the record or off the record? No. Not really. Timeframe's an interesting thing when you think about people looking back. I do think when people look back on this in a hundred years, they're going to see this as a remarkable time in history. And especially this area believe it or not. When you think of the innovation that's come out of this area, Silicon Valley and the whole San Francisco Berkeley Bay area, you've got the invention of the integrated circuit, the invention of the microprocessor, the invention of semiconductor memory, the invention of the modern hard disk drive, the invention of the modern floppy disk drive, the invention of the personal computer, invention of genetic engineering, the invention of object-oriented technology, the invention of graphical user interfaces at PARC, followed by Apple, the invention of networking. All that happened in this Bay area. It's incredible.

Why do you think it happened? Why here? Two or three reasons. You have to go back a little [in] history. I mean this is where the beatnik happened in San Francisco. It's a pretty interesting thing. This is where the hippy movement happened. This is the only place in America where Rock 'n Roll really happened. Right? Most of the bands in this country, Bob Dylan in the 60's, I mean they all came out of here. I think of Joan Baez to Jefferson Airplane to the Grateful Dead. Everything came out of here, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, everybody. Why is that?

You've also had Stanford and Berkeley, two awesome universities drawing smart people from all over the world and depositing them in this clean, sunny, nice place where there's a whole bunch of other smart people and pretty good food. And at times a lot of drugs and all of that. So they stayed. There's a lot of human capital pouring in. Really smart people. People seem pretty bright here relative to the rest of the country. People seem pretty open-minded here relative to the rest of the country. I think it's just a very unique place and its got a track record to prove it and that tends to attract more people. I give a lot of credit to the universities, probably the most credit of anything to Stanford and Berkeley, UC California.

Well, I cannot tell you how much we appreciate this. Sure, I hope its helpful.

See more coverage of Steve Jobs and what he's meant to the technology industry -- and people around the world.

This story, "Steve Jobs interview: One-on-one in 1995" was originally published by Computerworld.

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