Is Tim Better Than Steve?

A recent Forbes article asks an interesting question: is Tim Cook a better CEO than Steve Jobs was? The article (rightly) focuses on longer-term and overall corporate performance, and not just product design. I agree with the author’s premise, and I think that the comparison bears further examination. What Tim does and what Steve did are two different things.

Steve Was About Ideas

Steve Jobs was interested in ideas and vision. He would look at some market segment, situation or problem, and sometimes he could conceive of a way to make it “better”. He wasn’t always right. He made mistakes. But he had more successes than failures, which is to be expected if you are any good at anything.

But what Steve wasn’t about was the nitty-gritty of execution. Could he get the job done? Sure he could. Whether you like his motivational methods, he got results. But his approach was often expensive and impractical. He not only obsessed over product details like design, he maintained those obsessions in places where it didn’t belong.

Take the original factory for building the original Macintosh. He put as much effort into the look and feel of the factory as he did in the design of the Macintosh itself. This included an enormous amount of time on the colour of the paint on the walls, the look of the robots and workstations, and the overall aesthetics. It didn’t result in a great factory that built machines efficiently and reliably. It was a work of art that didn’t need to be a work of art. It was horribly expensive, and didn’t make the Macintosh a better computer.

Steve learned a lot of lessons in his time in the wilderness away from Apple, including making more mistakes at NeXT. What he learned, though, was that he needed someone who would obsess over the right things on the manufacturing and distribution side the same way he obsessed over product design and function. Steve was never going to do that himself. The things that matter in that world didn’t matter to him. The bits that mattered to him were unimportant in that part of the business. Enter Tim Cook.

Tim Is About Overall Execution

Steve returned to an Apple Computer in 1997 that was a mess. Product design was largely absent. There was no vision. It was a company running on the last fumes of momentum from the Macintosh. The Newton was a failure, and Apple’s feeble attempts at expanding their footprint (authorizing Macintosh clones, adding in things like portable CD players, cameras and set-top boxes) did nothing but cheapen the brand.

It took a year or so to sort through that wreckage, and to begin the salvaging of the company. In 1998, Tim Cook joined Apple to take over the manufacturing and distribution side. Steve was able to get the product side back on its feet, but without a solid foundation to build and distribute product, it wouldn’t matter.

Tim’s art is being able to make great product for the right cost (note, not necessarily “low cost”) and get it in the hands of customers rapidly and predictably. Gone was the massive inventory of machines people “might” buy, the dreaded “pipeline stuffing”. Instead, he built a system that was sort-of-just-in-time (there is still some inventory of some products). The details of how Tim makes that work are actually a bit of a secret. Jony Ive’s special design lab isn’t the only thing Apple keeps under wraps.

How do we know this? Simple: just look at the numbers Apple reports when it comes to product volume. Apple is the only one in the market I know of that reports sales, but not shipments. Since Tim took over, Apple has never spoken about how many of any product they’ve shipped. They don’t let us see into the pipeline on their side. Apple is happy to tell you about sales. Those are real sales: product in the hands of a paying customer. But Apple doesn’t let us know how much is in transit, or even how many units they can make on any given day.

Who Carries The Vision Now?

Does Tim Cook have a product vision? I don’t know. I can’t tell you. Tim doesn’t talk about that directly. I don’t know what his thoughts are on product design or aesthetic. But that isn’t why he is at Apple. The job of visionary has been moved from one person to a team. When it comes to what products get built, and what they will do, those are decisions made by Jony Ive, Craig Federighi, Phil Schiller and Eddy Cue. Tim has a vote, obviously, but his input appears to be downstream, after the ideas are born, not during.

Blaming Tim for bad product ideas is, unfortunately, part of the job, even if it isn’t entirely fair. His role isn’t to provide the vision, he job is to take that vision and turn it into products in stores and in customer’s hands. But as the captain of the ship, he wears the blame for the mistakes. He will portion out the blame, publicly if necessary, without absolving himself of it. As the boss, you get to be held responsible for what your team does. Its a fact of life.

Steve was a great product visionary, but not necessarily a great CEO. Tim Cook may or may not be a product visionary, but we know that as a CEO, he is more skilled. Tim has done a better job of managing activist shareholders (you can’t ignore them like Steve did), and he has done a better job managing Apple as it went from underdog to industry leader. It took Steve’s vision and ideas to get Apple into the position they are in. Tim couldn’t have done that himself. But without Tim there beside him, it may not have mattered.