updated 03:11 am EDT, Wed May 30, 2012
Shares insights and lessons of Apple co-founder
As would be expected at only his second major interview following the death of former CEO Steve Jobs, current Apple boss Tim Cook was asked about the larger-than-life leader and referred back to Jobs several times during his hour-long talk at today's All Things D conference. He repeated some previously-mentioned lessons Jobs had taught the executive team, but made clear that he thought of Jobs as unique and would not try to emulate him.
Cook called Jobs' death last October, which came just a day after the rollout of the latest iPhone, "absolutely the saddest day of my life." He added that he has replaced the sadness with a desire to do great things. Jobs had taught him to do a few things well, and cast everything else aside. He said that while he will of course change some things at Apple during his tenure, he would be careful not to disturb the "culture of excellence" at Apple, something Cook said he is very inspired by.
Jobs, Cook said, passed on wisdom such as "the joy is in the journey" -- a Buddhist sentiment that has been echoed by Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple's lead designer, in expressing how the entire process of nurturing ideas is itself part of what makes the idea connect emotionally with the customer when it arrives. He said that Jobs had also taught them that tomorrow isn't guaranteed, so you have to give your all to today.
On Jobs himself, Cook called him a "genius and a visionary" who was "irreplacable ... [but] I've never felt the weight of trying to be Steve," he said. "It's not who I am and it's not my goal in life." He repeated a story he's told before about Jobs appointing him CEO and reminding Cook of what happened at Disney for some considerable time following the death of that company's iconic founder. Jobs did not want Apple to turn into "committees of people asking" what Jobs would have done in a given situation.
Asked about Jobs' occasional change in direction, Cook characterized it as a point of character rather than a flaw: "a gift" to be able to change one's mind when presented with compelling evidence, and admit one was wrong. He mentioned in passing that Jobs was aware of one of Cook's first significant changes, the institution of a charitable-giving matching program. Jobs supported the idea, Cook said, even though he had not been known for his own charitable giving.
During his life, Jobs quietly supported some programs and causes, and approved the Product (RED) campaign which has donated significantly to fighting AIDS worldwide. Cook said the matching gift program "allows us to do things without a lot of bureaucracy of group decisions on what charities to support."
Jobs came up in conversation again, in a discussion about Apple's relationship with content providers. Cook characterized the relationships as strong, but added that Jobs had "gotten us closer" to content producers through his ownership of Pixar and subsequent role on the board of Disney, which owns its own media empire.
When asked if he saw himself as a visionary "like Steve," Cook rebuffed the question, saying "I am who I am" and said he was focused on being a great CEO of Apple. He added that it was "incredible" to work with "the smartest, most innovative people on Earth" and that "I love every minute of it. It's my oxygen."
Cook was asked who the "curator" or final arbiter on products was at Apple now, and gently deflected by saying the role of "curator" has moved around as it always has. He mentioned that he had been working with most of the executive team for "double digit' years, agreeing with Mossberg that it was a "myth" that Jobs had always been the final say.
Jobs, Cook said, "brought in great people to the company and set a standard for who gets brought in." His legacy, Cook said, will be that.
Later on, during the Q-and-A portion of the interview, Fortune's Adam Lashinsky posited that Jobs had been focused on product design and marketing rather than operations (which had been Cook's purview before becoming CEO). He dispelled the premise and said that both Jobs and himself focused on "a lot of things" across the various parts of the company.
Another question about Cook's initial interview with Apple got him to recount what attracted him to Apple originally, back when it was not in great shape and Cook was secure in an operations job at Compaq. He said that Jobs had "painted a picture" of Apple's coming push deep into the consumer field whereas (at the time) most of its competitors were courting enterprise.
He was also impressed by Jobs' habit of not letting money affect his judgment, and by the loyalty of the Apple customer base. Cook said he looked at the balance sheet of Apple, "saw something I could add" and returned home to resign from Compaq the next day.
When asked what the biggest challenge was without Jobs at Apple, Cook pointed out his long experience at the company prior to Jobs' departure. He knew all the same people, he said, and had been running the company during Jobs' many medical leaves of absence. One thing that was "shocking," he said, was how truly affected he was by the e-mails that poured in from customers following Jobs' death. "They were talking to you like you were sitting in their living room," he said.