Thursday, October 17, 2013

Tech’s Holy Grail: Finding the next Steve Jobs

NEW YORK — When Steve Jobs succumbed to his long fight with cancer two years ago, the technology industry and the wider business world first memorialized him and then, almost immediately, began the great quest for his successor as tech world avatar.

Jobs' highest profile contemporaries — Bill Gates and Larry Ellison — were still around, but with Gates in managerial retirement and Ellison most interested in playing with wildly expensive boats, neither was in a position to claim the mantle.

Not that either was ever a particularly good candidate to do so — only Jobs, and Jobs alone, had managed since the early days of his career to give the work of the Valley that sheen of cool and sexy which had once been the sole province of Hollywood. (It was no accident that Jobs became Hollywood's biggest partner in the Valley, through not one but two companies: Pixar and Apple.) So the search quickly dispensed with them and began hunting for better candidates.

Two years later, however, the quest remains unfulfilled. The anniversary of Jobs' death brought another round of headlines attempting to identify candidates. One of Jobs' first bosses, the Atari and Chuck E. Cheese founder Nolan Bushnell — whose book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs, was published this spring — made multiple media appearances to mark the anniversary and sell a few more copies (the paperback appears soon) in which he blamed in part the adoption of a consensus-driven management style in the Valley for stifling the emergence of a successor.

"You've probably already got the next Steve Jobs working for you and all the brilliance is ending up on the cutting-room floor," he said more than once.

Other observers have tried to nominate both first- and second-generation Web entrepreneurs for the role: CEO Jeff Bezos among the former, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone among the latter. But like Gates and Ellison, each has their own drawbacks.

Bezos certain! ly shares with Jobs an obsession for secrecy and, by some accounts, an ability to emotionally devastate underlings who present him with what he deems to be inferior work. But no one would ever accuse Bezos of conveying sex appeal.

Zuckerberg, on the other hand, gained a degree of Hollywood polish by proxy, thanks to David Fincher's movie, The Social Network. But the sexy character in that movie wasn't Jesse Eisenberg's Zuck but Justin Timberlake's version of Sean Parker — and the real Zuckerberg's lack of Jobsian charisma becomes more apparent every time he appears at a company event or industry conference.

Williams and Stone, for their part, project nothing more than thoughtfulness — and of course, it's hard for either to carve out a role as leader of the industry pack when they're not even leading Twitter as it prepares for its IPO.

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Apple CEO Tim Cook ... could there be a more enervating list? Not a Jobsian iconoclast among them, let alone a charismatic one.

Maybe this is because the kinds of companies they run (Cook excepted) aren't creating products to sell to consumers—their product is consumers. Consumers who need to be drawn in ever larger numbers to each company's platform, where they can be assembled and sorted and categorized, then pitched actual products made (mostly) by other industries. At Amazon, singularly, that pitch is made via direct sales of everything from books to shoes to televisions to groceries; at every other Internet company those consumers are pitched via advertising.

The signature touch of the Jobsian CEO may be a factor in things like the interface design during the early adopter phase of these platforms, but once a critical mass of customers is reached, the personality needs to go away. Even Apple is becoming ever more reliant on being an efficient purveyor of other's digital wares via its platform, which plays to Cook's strengths, althou! gh it rem! ains to be seen whether the CEO can continue to survive by outsourcing the sexy on the still-important hardware side of its business to design chief Jony Ive (Wall Street certainly seems to have its doubts).

There's also a generational element to the lack of a Jobs which may explain the adoption of the consensus management approach of the Valley Bushnell identifies as a problem. Put simply, Millennials don't want to work for a jerk—and of course most of the workforce at places like Facebook and Twitter and Google are Millennials.

At this spring's South by Southwest conference, one of the most popular and talked about panel discussions was labeled "Millennials Speak Out: How to Manage the Gen X Boss," which revealed that, among other things, Millennials don't think their bosses "involve them in decisions which impact their work." These workers might have put up with the aging Boomer Jobs who already had the Macintosh, iPod, iPad and iPhone on his list of accomplishments. But the insulting, mercurial Jobs of the early Apple years who hadn't been acclaimed for producing those products? Not a chance.

In the legends, King Arthur's knights never found the Holy Grail. It's looking more and more like Steve Jobs may be the tech sector's Grail.

Chip Bayers is a N.Y.-based journalist covering technology and business. He has been an editor at Adweek, Newser and Wired Digital, and was previously a staff writer for Wired Magazine.

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