What Steve Jobs meant to me

Today, Apple employees are honouring their late co-founder. I’ve no idea what they’ll be doing and it’s not a public event but figured I too could be part of the celebrations by writing and posting my tribute to him.

Two weeks ago I turned on the television while having breakfast and decided to watch the news. It’s not something I do daily as I find it depressing to wake up to news – it’s always bad and there’s hardly anything that’s positive and inspiring. How true on that morning of 6 Oct. As I watched the coverage, I cried.

I cried for a man who didn’t know I existed, a man whom I’ve never even seen in person. I looked to the web for comfort, reading every article about Steve Jobs that I came across, and its ensuing comments. Oh I felt silly for all the emotions that I felt that day and the days that followed – I didn’t know the man, how ridiculous to be grieving. It was only with distance from the sadness and online chatter that I was able to understand why Steve Jobs’s passing affected me so.

It was 1996; the time when the Internet crept into the minds of ordinary citizens in SG – ISPs were aggressively signing customers up and exchanging e-mail addresses among friends was all the rage. Once online, I couldn’t get off; I was enthralled by this new world. Feeling that I had to be part of it, I sent my resume to my ISP provider, never mind that I was no programmer or computer engineer.

There was no job for me at my ISP but its parent company had several others Internet companies that were hiring. I joined a media company that was building several lifestyle portals – imagine that in 1996! On my first day, as my editor gave me a brief orientation, he asked, “Can you use a Mac?”

“No. But I can learn.” came my confident reply even though I wasn’t feeling too sure.

Turns out I had little to be unsure about. From the get go, everything was a breeze. It was easy to use, programmes and the Internet looked beautiful, it never crashed on me, and on top of that, I was able to customise anything that I wanted. My e-mail app was a sultry Marilyn Monroe called (fe)mail. With all my colleagues on Macs, I saw beautiful personalised desktops and witnessed the production of amazing work. Perhaps all of this was possible on a Windows run PC but I’d never seen it before and certainly wouldn’t have been able to work it out on my own.

When I left the job eventually, I promptly bought my own Mac. They weren’t pretty looking in those days – more like a super deep dish pizza box – but there was something about it that drew me in and I couldn’t go back to a PC.

As my love affair with the Mac grew, so too my love affair with the company, and along the way, Steve Jobs became my hero. His vision, his ideas, his public persona spoke to me. He didn’t know this but he mentored me from a zillion miles away. Every presentation he gave made me realise how every one I gave sucked and I can do better. Every product and service he introduced made me conscious of how design shapes the world we live in and why it’s singularly the most important aspect of business, even life. Yet so many companies fail to see this, thinking they’re only providing telco solutions, selling books, manufacturing, delivering goods, etc. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve written into companies offering my thoughts on how they should structure their bill, their website, their feedback process, and the like.

Then came the Stanford commencement address. If I knew nothing about Steve Jobs, that alone would have won me over. To know his achievements was to add a new dimension to this already great man. I admired him even more. In fact, I think ‘hero’ isn’t even fitting. How would you describe someone who shows you how life – professional and personal – should be lived? I don’t know the word but Steve Jobs demonstrated that life should be, no, needs to be filled with stubborn desire to do what you love and to fill it with a passionate drive to change the world. (OK, in my case, my community.) Traits which I grew up believing to be unattractive and have suppressed were traits Jobs possessed and used to maximum effect. If I had known and learnt earlier how to harness them, I think I’d be much further along in my personal development. Above all, he told me (OK not directly) to trust myself and listen to my own instincts because I know what is right; to not give in to peer pressure, popular sentiment or rules; that I should live the life I want ‘cos my time is limited. It was comforting. Deeply comforting.

Several articles that were published following his death lampooned the grief people displayed and to them I say: how dare you. Some people are fortunate to have a parent, a senior colleague or a family friend to guide them. Others don’t and look to public figures to fill in the gaps. Jobs filled in those gaps for me in areas no one around me has been able to fill. He epitomised the life I hope and want for myself at the highest level, and that is worth a lot to me.

Steve Jobs was one of a kind and I’ll miss his genius.