When a young Steve Jobs applied for a job at Atari in 1973, the application asked if he had access to transportation. “Possible but not probable,” he wrote. Among his skills, he listed “Computers—yes.” Jobs’s employment at Atari was an inauspicious start to the tech career of a man who three years later cofounded Apple, the company that brought us Mac computers, iPads, and, of course, iPhones; a man who became a Silicon Valley legend; and a man who had a strained relationship with his daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs before he passed away in 2011.
In “Rebooting Steve Jobs,” published in the Spring 2019 issue of Alta, journalist Tom Zito examined the Apple cofounder’s life and legacy. Following the article’s publication, Alta managing editor Blaise Zerega moderated a deeply personal discussion about Jobs with Zito, early Apple employee Andy Hertzfeld, and former Atari chief engineer Al Alcorn. Here is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
BLAISE ZEREGA: Let’s get started by asking our distinguished panelists, Andy, Tom, and Al, to each introduce themselves and say a few words about how they knew Steve Jobs. First, Andy Hertzfeld.
ANDY HERTZFELD: Hi. I’m Andy Hertzfeld. I knew Steve from working very, very closely with him on the original Macintosh from 1981 to 1984. And then I stayed fairly close friends with him after that. I think partially because of our shared interests in music, Bob Dylan and the Beatles especially. And also our shared disdain for [former Apple CEO] John Scully, I think, helped us.
ZEREGA: Mr. Tom Zito.
TOM ZITO: Thank you. I met Steve in 1977. I was a reporter for the Washington Post, and I was doing a piece about the Apple II computer, which was just coming out. And like Andy, Steve and I discovered our mutual love of Bob Dylan, and that became something that sort of kept us friends for a long time.
ZEREGA: All right, and the honorable Al Alcorn.
AL ALCORN: I am not a judge. [Laughter.] I first met Steve in 1973 when our personnel director walked into my office at Atari, ’cause I was looking for a tech. I would hire almost anybody. I like colorful people. She said, “You know, you’ll like him. You got this weird one waiting for you.”
And they brought Steve in, and he’s telling me that he was a graduate of Reed College. I said, “Is that an engineering school?” He said, “No, that’s a literary school.” “OK, what’s my motivation here?” “Well, I have this buddy Woz [Steve Wozniak, who would become an Apple cofounder] who works on a calculator over at Hewlett-Packard.” I said, “Well, what good does that do me?”
But the kid was 18-year-old, 17-year-old kinda hippie. I figured, this is going to be cheap. And I needed a tech. And a tech just has to read a schematic, and I’m sure he could do that. And he had so much enthusiasm. That was the thing. This guy was focused. Never seen a tech that focused. So I hired him.
ZEREGA: And you have a prop?
ALCORN: Well, I was just making sure I got the date right. I have a copy of his original employment application at Atari. It says here, “Access to transportation: Possible but not probable.”
I don’t know why, this was our employment form. “Skills: Machines, key-punch, computer—yes, calculator—yes, other—no.”
ZEREGA: And so we’re gathered here tonight to talk about Steve. this story. Walking over here tonight, the panelists and I talked about Steve passing away October 5, 2011. Seven years have gone by, and how we feel like it is time to revisit his legacy, to look at the long shadow he’s cast on Silicon Valley and the impact he’s had.
Tom Zito pitched Alta a story of that sort, which was tied to the publication of Steve’s daughter Lisa’s book, Small Fry. And so to begin, I’d like to ask Tom the first question: Why did you want to write this story?
ZITO: There were a couple of reasons that I was interested in trying to write something like this. One was that I had seen that Lisa had written a book. And I had met Lisa when she was probably seven or eight years old. I was over at Steve’s house on Mountain Home Road in Woodside. It was probably 1986. And she was there. And he weirdly, to me, paid very, very little attention to her.
And I was curious to read a book written by somebody that I had met as a child, to see what their recollection of that childhood was like, having seen a little bit of it. And I was just bowled over by the book. Because it was probably the best thing I had ever read explaining how a kid’s mind works when it comes to thinking about their childhood.
At one point in the book, Lisa talks about discovering that she has an aunt: Mona Simpson, who is Steve’s sister. She thinks, “Isn’t this sort of fated that my name and my aunt’s name together would create the Mona Lisa?” A wonderful expression of the way a kid’s mind works.
The other thing that made me want to write something about this was that when Steve was 30, he had a birthday party, to which I was invited, and at which Ella Fitzgerald performed. As a birthday gift, I gave him a pair of peafowl. I gave him a peacock and a peahen. He built this aviary for the peacock and the peahen, which was really, really nice.
And at one point, I was over at the house and the birds were gone. And I said to him, “What happened?” He said, “My neighbor came over. I’d never met this guy before. The neighbor was Larry Ellison [cofounder of Oracle]. At one point, the neighbor had come over with the shotgun.” And apparently peacocks are really noisy. And Larry Elllison said, “If you don’t get rid of these peacocks, I’m gonna get rid of them.”
And so the peacocks got—according to Steve, at least, they were given to a petting zoo somewhere. I have no idea what happened to the peacocks. But in the book, Lisa says that she had asked her dad at one point why had he built this aviary? And he said, “Well, I had a friend who gave me some peacocks, but they wandered off.”
I suspected that the peacocks had not wandered off. That was just a wonderful hook for writing a story.
ZEREGA: Perhaps they’d wandered off onto Larry Elllison’s property. [Laughter.]
REAL ARTISTS SHIP
ZITO: And the other thing that made me want to write this story, and Andy can speak much more to this than I can, but I really think that Steve cared about creating a company, creating great products. And what I have noticed in the time since he has died is that seems to be much less something that people care about anymore in the Valley. They care about getting rich. And they really have much less interest in creating great products.
And I think that his legacy may well be not just creating a great company but creating a company that, when he was there, really did create great products. You can speak more to that.
HERTZFELD: Yeah. I sorta disagree that that’s gone completely out of Silicon Valley. And I also think the money motivation was always there back in the early days.
But yeah, Steve really, really cared. I think that he would describe himself, and I think the best word for it is, he was an artist. He had artistic values. It wasn’t about making money, it wasn’t about beating the competition as much as it is doing the greatest thing possible or a little bit greater. I miss that.
ZEREGA: And Al, would the young Steve Jobs, did he display any of that?
ALCORN: He was too young to actually do product at that time other than Breakout. There’s a funny story about Breakout where Nolan [Bushnell, the founder of Atari] cut this deal with Steve Jobs because he was distracting engineering all the time. He didn’t know that Steve wasn’t an engineer. Steve acted like he was. Said he was, but he wasn’t.
Nolan gave him the job to design this game Breakout. And he couldn’t do it. But there was a $1,000 bonus for every chip less than 50. He told his buddy Woz, who came over and told him he had a $100 chip bonus, but that’s another story. In less than a week, Woz had designed a game. Normally it takes a few months to design a game with a team of people. And Woz did it in three or four days. And it was with, like, 20-something chips.
Which was crazy. I walk in the office late, as usual, and Jobs says, “Hey, look what I did.” And I looked at this thing, and my God, it wasn’t even on the schedule to be made. And there it was. He said he did it. And I said, “No, you didn’t. You couldn’t have done that.” It was Woz who was moonlighting, coming in at night, doing the job, in just three or four days.
But he was a bit of a schemer and a wheeler-dealer. And that was good. And then he went off to India to meet his guru. He told me he was going to go off to meet his guru in India. “Great,” I said, “but write if you get work.” About three months later, he shows up and wants his job back. I said, “Sure, why not?” It worked out fine.
And that’s when he and Woz had an idea for a home computer. I didn’t think I’d want one. Shit, you know? There’s no software or anything for it. He offered it to us; we passed. Woz offered it to HP; they passed. Turned him on to [venture capitalist] Don Valentine, and they got funded. And we helped them out.
I enjoyed Steve and Woz. They were amazingly young people to do something like this. And they pulled it off.
I gotta admire Steve for that. His ability to do that and attract good people. I felt he learned a lot from Nolan. Watching how Nolan wouldn’t take no for an answer from an engineer. Because he certainly didn’t take no for an answer from me. And it worked.
ZEREGA: Did you ever say no to Steve?
HERTZFELD: Steve really wouldn’t respect you unless you argued with him, stuck to your guns. And so all the time. He was full of ideas. Sometimes great, sometimes not so great. And you had to shoot straight, or otherwise he wouldn’t listen.
ZEREGA: And so Tom’s article mentions Steve’s love for Bob Dylan and music. Did you share that connection?
HERTZFELD: Oh, yeah. Very much. It was part of the basis of our relationship besides working on the Mac.
One funny story was at one point, I think about 1986, I got ahold of a Beatles bootleg. It’s before all the bootleg stuff came out. But it was “Strawberry Fields Forever” starting with an acoustic take. There were about 15 different takes of it. I knew Steve would love that, because “Strawberry Fields Forever” was his favorite Beatles song.
I gave it to him, and then Susan Kare [an early Apple employee], who’s in the audience here tonight, told me a couple weeks after I gave it to him, he played it for the marketing team at Next, but told them that he got the CD from Yoko Ono.
ZEREGA: One of the ideas that Tom explores in his article—and apologies if I’m putting words in your mouth—is this idea that Jobs is sort of responsible for the “lone gunslinger” myth of the solo entrepreneur and so on, which has propagated throughout the Valley.
HERTZFELD: I object …yeah, I really objected to that phrase, calling him ‘the epitome of the lone gunslinger.’ Steve always worked with teams. That was one of his biggest talents. Motivating other people to do what he couldn’t. Starting with Woz.
Back in the early days, Woz wrote the hardware and the software for the Apple II, and Steve contributed. He was anything but a lone gunslinger.
ZITO: I think you’re right, but I think there’s also the internal and the external view of Apple. When I said that, what I was referring to was how I always thought that Steve wanted to be the personification of Apple to the public.
HERTZFELD: Yeah, not exactly. I don’t think it was like he was seeking attention or he was a narcissist. It wasn’t out of his narcissism; it was more like he thought he could do the best job representing Apple to the public, certainly compared to—
ZEREGA: Certainly better than John Scully.
ALCORN: Poor John Scully. Better than [current Apple CEO] Tim Cook, too. It’s painful watching Tim Cook.
HERTZFELD: Steve was just brilliant at the introductions.
ALCORN: He was. Yeah, and I think it’s painful watching Tim Cook try to do that. Why don’t they just stop doing that?
HERTZFELD: I think Steve would be the first to tell you, he worked with great teams.
Al ALCORN: I agree.
THE APPLE WAY
ZEREGA: Where, then, does that myth fit in? I’m of a certain age, when the HP way was sort of the model for building a company: two guys starting up in a garage, and they go on to build this great corporation.
ALCORN: When Steve was at Atari, he saw the teams that we had and how it was sort of organized and stratified. And he got Ron Wayne, who was the third guy at the founding of Apple. And Ron was an older engineer that worked for us.
Steve put people together. And that was, I think, the way every company succeeds. By getting a great team and managing it. Saying that’s the thing. And if you’re really good, you can get them to do things that are better than any one of them could have done individually. Only because of that team. And that’s where the fun is for me, and I’m sure it was for Steve, too.
ZEREGA: But I think what Tom was getting at, though, is it does seem, at least to my mind, there is this sort of myth of the solo entrepreneur, and it is the entrepreneur who gets funded. Meanwhile, the importance of the team—and maybe the media’s responsible for this, by the way—doesn’t seem so front and center anymore in the pursuit of riches.
ALCORN: I disagree. I’ve seen some companies. Look at Nest, for example. Google paid how many billion for that company? And the main reason was because they had four guys that came out of Apple that were great. And Google wanted those people so badly because of their skills that they overpaid bazillion dollars for Nest. For a thermostat company, for Christ’s sake.
HERTZFELD: Or look at Google itself. There were two equal partners. Almost all of the great Silicon Valley companies were the work of more than one person.
ZEREGA: Sure. But I think when the history gets written, it seems very often to focus on one individual.
ZITO: Sure. It’s easier. Certainly Nolan at Atari.
ALCORN: Yeah, but Nolan put some good teams together. Great teams.
ZEREGA: And so when we think about Apple, Tom was raising the point before, maybe Steve’s biggest legacy is the company that he created. He left behind a juggernaut.
HERTZFELD: I think that’s what he would say.
ZEREGA: And it’s not necessarily the iPhone that we all have, or the iPod that changed the way we listen to music.
HERTZFELD: Sure, any individual product’s going to be obsolete in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. Whereas the company can renew itself.
ZEREGA: What’s been the greatest product that Apple has created?
HERTZFELD: Although I’m a little biased towards the original Macintosh. And I see a lot of parallels. To me, at least, it’s incredible the many parallels between the original Macintosh and the iPhone. In some ways, Steve was doing the same thing, but with the world evolved 25, 30 years later.
And certainly, it accomplished our dream when we were working on the Macintosh. “We can make a computer for ordinary people. The man in the street.” Anyone could try to make a computer anyone could use.
These days, now we’re in a state where people are abusing the computers. They’re using them too much. But that dream was fulfilled by the iPhone. The Macintosh dream.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO STEVE
ZEREGA: But there’s also some elements of Steve that I believe Tom refers to as the “progenitor of the reality-distortion field.” You want to tell us a little bit about that?
ZITO: Well, I mean, look. I think part of it was good. Part of it was convincing people that they could do things that they didn’t really understand.
ZEREGA: Like convincing Al to hire him?
ZITO: But the other part of it was that he really thought that if he believed in something, it had to be real, whether or not it was.
HERTZFELD: That’s probably Steve’s greatest superpower, was the power of persuasion.
ZITO: True. And when it didn’t work, he was devastated. At the time, in the mid-’80s, I was married to a woman who had been a book editor. And she had worked on a book with Bo Derek. And one night, we were having dinner with Steve, and Steve heard that my former wife had worked with Bo Derek. And immediately he wanted an introduction to Bo Derek.
And two days later, he gets in his car with a Macintosh to drive down to Santa Barbara, thinking that Bo Derek is gonna fall in love with him. And he came back after being rejected that same night. He was despondent. He couldn’t believe that not only was Bo Derek not interested in him, but she preferred a PC to a Mac.
I think he really believed that he could convince anybody that what he was proposing was better.
ZEREGA: One of the trepidations that I have, particularly tonight, is talking about someone who’s not here to defend themselves, or react and so on. But it was interesting to overhear you tell Tom that when Walter Isaacson was writing the book [his biography of Jobs], Steve called you up.
HERTZFELD: Yeah. Just talk to Walter, he said. Tell him everything. No holds barred. He wanted to make sure that I wasn’t scared to mention stuff.
ZEREGA: And so is there anything in this, in Tom’s story, that you think that Steve might have reacted to strongly?
HERTZFELD: Not really. Let me think.
ZITO: I mean, look, you paid Lisa’s college tuition.
HERTZFELD: Walter made a mistake in his book saying that. But I did pay her graduate tuition at a writing program. I did do that. Steve paid me back when he found out about it right away.
I gotta say, when we’re talking about Lisa, I’m just a huge fan of Lisa. She’s a great person.
ZEREGA: Yeah, we invited her to be here tonight.
HERTZFELD: It’s just amazing that she could turn out so sane given the insanity of both her parents. And she’s just a tremendous writer. My heart goes out to her, for sure.
ZEREGA: I should point out that Chris Espinosa is here, in the audience, and he’s famously employee number eight at Apple.
ALCORN: And he’s still there. Still there.
CHRIS ESPINOSA: Forty-two years.
ALCORN: Think of the severance package.
ESPINOSA: They can’t afford it.
HERTZFELD: It wasn’t continuous. Chris, you quit Apple to go to UC Berkeley, no?
ESPINOSA: Part-time. Andy was my faculty adviser. And I almost got both of us kicked out of Berkeley for using his computer after-hours to do Apple work.
HERTZFELD: I had told Chris, “Don’t come in here nine to five.”
ESPINOSA: Eventually, five turns into nine.
HERTZFELD: It worked for months…but he had a deadline. And at the very end of the deadline, he was in there at nine in the morning. I get called into my adviser’s office.
ZEREGA: [Laughter.] It’s not about me tonight, but I’m going to share my own Steve Jobs story. Years ago, I edited a piece by Andy Grove. And Steve was teaching at Stanford in the graduate business school. And he [Andy] said, “Come to my class. I’m going to have a guest.” And I said, “No, no, thanks. I’m not going to drive all the way down there.” And he says, “No, no. Come. It’ll be worth your while.”
And I went into the class, and Steve Jobs was the guest. And the first thing that I was struck by was that there was Andy in a mock turtleneck and his jeans. And there was Steve Jobs in the mock turtleneck and the jeans. And I thought, “OK, this is weird. I never really thought about this before.” That’s where Steve got his fashion taste.
Steve lectured that night. And it was great. He was really, really open and kind and caring. Answered every question from the students respectfully. And he was nice to me. Which I was shocked by. Because I knew some journalists he wasn’t necessarily friendly to.
HERTZFELD: What year was that? What decade?
ZEREGA: Late 2009. I’m not sure—’07, ’08, maybe? Grove was alive and teaching. And so was Steve. But you know, Tom, I think that’s one of the things that I sensed that night, and it comes through in your article. Your admiration for the kind side of Steve. Because while he did have a mercurial side, he also clearly had this other side to him.
ZITO: I don’t remember exactly when it was, but my brother at one point in his career was the head of marketing for the New York Stock Exchange. And one of the things that they had identified as being really important was to try to get some tech companies that were listed on the NASDAQ to come over and be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
And he asked me if I could set up a meeting with Steve. So he could come in and pitch him on moving over to the NYSE. And I did that. And my brother came into town the day before. And he was going to go through his presentation with me. And this presentation was on a PC. And I said, “You can’t go into a meeting at Apple and present on a PC.” And he said, “Well, I have to. Because this is property of the New York Stock Exchange. It has to stay.” I said, “Man, I wouldn’t do that.”
He goes down to Apple the next morning. He waits for about a half an hour. Steve comes in, shakes his hand, picks up his PC, and he said, “You’re actually going to come in here and present to me on this piece of shit.” And he threw the laptop across the room. Destroyed the laptop and walked out of the room.
And I said to my brother, “You know, that’s exactly what I thought would happen.”
ZEREGA: So he didn’t go to the New York Stock Exchange.
ZITO: And that’s how he could be.
ZEREGA: Al or Andy, do you have any cognitive dissonance, or how do you reconcile the two sides? Or is there nothing to reconcile? It was just Steve.
HERTZFELD: Yeah, Steve was like a force of nature. We got used to it. And his greatness trumped his negative qualities. At least for me.
ALCORN: I would agree. He obviously was extremely successful at what he did. Had a good ego to do it. And he wanted to be the one. And he was. I admire him.
HERTZFELD: One of the best ways to describe it is he just thought the rules that applied to everyone else did not apply to him.
A IS FOR APPLE
ZEREGA: And if you have to fully consider his life and his legacy, what is his legacy? What are the lessons that younger people wanting to become entrepreneurs, or follow their dreams, what can someone learn from his life? What do you think his legacy is?
HERTZFELD: If you bring enough passion and try hard enough, you can make a difference. A real difference in the world.
ALCORN: Passion. Passion for being a tech got that job [at Atari]. Passion to get ahead. If a young person coming up wants to be in any field, they’ve got to have real passion for the product, and know the subject matter really well. And they might succeed. But if they don’t, they probably won’t succeed.
ZEREGA: And Tom, has there been anybody’s reaction to the story that surprised you?
ZITO: I’ve had pretty much positive reaction to the story. Though Andy has some good points.
HERTZFELD: Like he misplaced the name of Walter’s book in the article. I didn’t think that’s a good look for the magazine.
ZITO: Shame. Shame.
HERTZFELD: Didn’t really misspell. Misrecalled.
ZITO: I thought it was Jobs. And it’s—according to Andy, I don’t remember this. It’s Steve Jobs.
ZEREGA: Well, we’re in a bookstore. So someone could go reference that.
HERTZFELD: The title of the book is Steve Jobs.
ZITO: I believe you, and it’s a really good book! This was a very, to me, funny thing. Steve used to have these meetings of the entire Macintosh development team. And I don’t know if you [Hertzfeld] were here on this particular occasion, but I was there one day.
HERTZFELD: The retreats, we called them.
ZITO: OK. And Steve was up in front of the group, and he said, “A players hire B players, and B players hire”—no. “A players hire A players, and B players hire C players.” And a hand went up in the back of the room. And Steve called on the guy. And somebody said, “Well, how do you get more B players in the company?” The point being he didn’t want B players. He only wanted A players.
ZEREGA: And both Andy and Al are in a book called Valley of Genius. All over it, as well. Lot of great quotes and interviews and so on. And curiously enough, it’s a book that begins and ends with Steve Jobs. The very first quote is from him. It’s an oral history of Silicon Valley. And then it ends with his funeral.
And I asked Adam Fisher, the author, about that. He said it was intentional, because he felt that Steve Jobs’s career traced the arc of Silicon Valley during that period of time. And he had the biggest impact and really changed the Valley in many ways.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: I was curious what everybody’s doing now.
ZITO: What are we doing now?
HERTZFELD: I’m retired. Grandfather.
ZEREGA: Are you going to go to the Bob Dylan music archives in Oklahoma?
ALCORN: I have been working on starting a new company to aggregate streaming content. What I jokingly talk about as cable 2.0.
HERTZFELD: I should have said one thing. The reason I’m here, really, is that I’m writing an article for Alta about my other hero, Steve Wozniak.
ALCORN: I’m also retired pretty much, with grandkids. And life is good. But I also like startups. They’re sort of like puppies. They’re cute when they’re young. It’s when they get big and all smelly I don’t like them.
ZITO: Al and I started a company together about 10 years ago now. It was called IMMI—Integrated Media Measurement Inc. And it used cell phones to track people’s media exposure.
ALCORN: Worked great.
ZITO: And it was ultimately acquired by Nielsen.
ALCORN: Worked great. Which was the problem. Because we found out the hard way that the big networks really don’t want the truth. They like the lies as long as it favors them, right?
ZEREGA: Any other audience questions?
ESPINOSA: I’m gonna throw out the first one. I read Chrisann’s book [The Bite in the Apple, by Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’s first wife], and I read Lisa’s book. And Lisa’s book is tremendous. She’s a tremendous writer. And then I read Bad Blood. And reading the three of those back-to-back really kind of shocked me, because how Elizabeth Holmes [former CEO of Theranos] took what she thought was Steve’s legacy, or what you called the lone-entrepreneur myth. But there’s also a storyteller mythos. And what divides Steve Jobs from Elizabeth Holmes?
ZITO: Well, he wasn’t a fraud.
ESPINOSA: Really? Convince me.
ZITO: That Steve was not a fraud?
ALCORN: He was able to put a team together that did what he said. Whereas Elizabeth put a team together that did not do it.
HERTZFELD: And always on fairly solid ground with what was possible.
ZITO: And he shipped products.
ZEREGA: Speaking of shipping, I’d like to thank our panelists for coming tonight and edifying us. And thank you, everyone, for joining us.
Alta’s “Rebooting Steve Jobs” event was held at Books Inc. Opera Plaza in San Francisco on March 19, 2019. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Continue reading from another Alta event: Busted: Brash Stories from Texas and New Mexico.