Sunday, October 17, 2010

John Sculley, a refreshingly honest screwup

The blog Cult of Mac has an interview with former Pepsi salesman John Sculley in which he admits he was in over his head during his decade as Apple CEO of Apple Computer (1983-1993), as part of a larger interview praising the genius of Steve Jobs.

When I was writing the final draft of my dissertation almost exactly a decade ago, I credited Sculley with almost single-handedly destroying Apple. He lacked the technical skills and management abilities to make the operational decisions necessary to run the company, and then he doubled down when he named himself CTO in March 1990. As I wrote back in the summer of 2000:

Sculley was right in judging that this job was crucial to Apple’s innovation strategies. But he apparently did not consider how engineers would react to being led by a Wharton MBA whose previous job had been marketing soft drinks — let alone the possibility that he was technically over his head. As late as July 1992, when asked what he would have done differently, Sculley’s first response was that he would have become CTO even earlier:
I would have taken on the job of chief technology officer years ago. I wish I’d done that, and not waited so long. I should have done that probably when Steve Jobs left [in 1985]. The problem is, I didn’t know enough about the computer industry then, I’d only been in it a few years, and I’m not sure I could have succeeded at it then. But I waited too long on that one, and it should have been at least two years earlier (Yoffie 1992).
Sculley’s tenure as chief technical officer brought disaster, not only with the money wasted on unused technologies, but also the opportunity cost of technologies not developed and the hemorrhaging of invaluable software engineers.
Perhaps the biggest mistake was as CTO he encouraged most of the best software engineers to go to the “pink” team and then on to Taligent — while others left for General Magic — working on products that never shipped and with most never returning to Apple.

High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner's Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet WarsIn his 1999 book, former Apple consultant (later FrontPage entrepreneur) Charles Ferguson wrote:
I had seen John Sculley up close as he wrecked Apple. Sculley was a reasonably smart, charming man. But he had an enormous ego, he knew virtually nothing about technology, and he was competing against Bill Gates, who was obviously much smarter, tougher, and more committed. Watching Sculley go up against Gates was rather like watching a rich playboy who was ordering his yacht to attack a carrier battle group.
In the recent Cult of Mac interview, Sculley makes it clear that he didn’t know how much he didn’t know:
I didn’t know really anything about computers nor did any other people in the world at that time. This was at the beginning of the personal computer revolution, but we both believed in beautiful design and Steve in particular felt that you had to begin design from the vantage point of the experience of the user.
Yes, few outside Xerox or SRI understood the implications of a GUI-based personal computer — or the idea that a computer would be primarily used for information processing rather than calculating — but there were plenty of people who knew a lot about computers. In 1983, Apple was six years old, the PC was 8 years old, and larger computers had been around for decades. (At that point, I’d been programming computers for over a decade.)

Jobs’ first choice for CEO was Don Estridge, creator of the IBM PC, who was posthumously named person of the decade in 1991 by PC Magazine. Estridge would have been a brilliant choice, but he decided to stay at IBM, and then was among 135 people killed two years later when a Delta L-1011 crashed at DFW.

Instead, Apple chose Sculley, who then forced out Jobs and remained CEO until sacked himself in 1993. He never ran another tech company again, although he served as a consultant, investor and board member for various startups.

Even if in 1983 Sculley didn’t know what he didn’t know, at age 71 he’s now following Harry Callahan’s maxim:
Looking back, it was a big mistake that I was ever hired as CEO. I was not the first choice that Steve wanted to be the CEO. He was the first choice, but the board wasn’t prepared to make him CEO when he was 25, 26 years old.

They exhausted all of the obvious high-tech candidates to be CEO… Ultimately, David Rockefeller, who was a shareholder in Apple, said let’s try a different industry and let’s go to the top head hunter in the United States who isn’t in high tech: Jerry Roach.

They went and recruited me. I came in not knowing anything about computers. The idea was that Steve and I were going to work as partners. He would be the technical person and I would be the marketing person.

The reason why I said it was a mistake to have hired me as CEO was Steve always wanted to be CEO. It would have been much more honest if the board had said, “Let’s figure out a way for him to be CEO. You could focus on the stuff that you bring and he focuses on the stuff he brings.”

Remember, he was the chairman of the board, the largest shareholder and he ran the Macintosh division, so he was above me and below me. It was a little bit of a fa├žade and my guess is that we never would have had the breakup if the board had done a better job of thinking through not just how do we get a CEO to come and join the company that Steve will approve of, but how do we make sure that we create a situation where this thing is going to be successful over time?

My sense is that when Steve left (in 1986, after the board rejected his bid to replace Sculley as CEO) I still didn’t know very much about computers.
Even if Sculley has no career to protect, such a personal sense of accountability is refreshingly candid. In religion, philosophy and literature, both enlightenment and redemption come to those who fully repent of their mistakes.

Now if we could only get failed politicians (and past presidents) to do the same

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