Steve Jobs’ Passion for Diversity

Steve Jobs’ Passion for Diversity

CORE VISION: Steve Jobs understood that a true, passionate commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment does not diminish innovation -- it enhances it. (Photo by Dai Sugano/Newscom.)

Steve Jobs has long been celebrated as a hero for middle-class, geeky white guys. But he was also deeply concerned about bringing more minorities into engineering, and into his own company. I know, because he told me. Even better, he hired me to help him do it.

Little did I know, God would allow my life path to intersect with that of Steve Jobs, the late cofounder and CEO of Apple. I met Steve four years ago and continued to interact with him until this past spring.

Since 2004, I’ve taught computer science at Spelman College, the historically black school for women in Atlanta. In December 2007, I took the SpelBots, Spelman College’s all-women robotics team, to Stanford University to give a presentation at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, which included an open showcase to the community. The SpelBots represent undergraduate female student trailblazers and role models who are paving the way for younger female and African American students by competing internationally against graduate-level engineering universities in RoboCup humanoid robot soccer competitions. RoboCup represents the closest we have to an international “Olympics” of robotics and artificial intelligence research.

After the SpelBots’ visit to Stanford, we did a tour of Silicon Valley, stopping off at Google for breakfast and Apple for lunch so that our students could see these world-class technology companies firsthand. During our lunch at Apple, my friend Scott, who was an employee there, told me not to look over my shoulder. “Steve Jobs just walked in with Jonathan Ive,” he whispered. I immediately recognized Steve, but I had no idea who Jonathan Ive was until Scott explained that he was the chief industrial designer for Apple, the man who had designed such gadgets as the iPhone and the iMac.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that Steve was both revered and feared at Apple, and that it was not a good idea to go up to Steve and try to talk to him. So, I went over to Jonathan Ive instead. I introduced myself and told him how much I liked his designs. We were having a nice chat when, suddenly, Steve Jobs came over to us.

I introduced myself, innocently including a little backstory as well: “Hi, I’m Andrew Williams, from Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta, and Apple supports our robotics team.”

Steve quickly asked, “Do you have an engineering program?”

“We have a dual engineering program with universities such as Georgia Tech and Michigan,” I told him.

“Can you help us hire black engineers?” he said. “Do you know how many black engineers we have?”

Before I could say anything he shared a shockingly low number and confessed how poorly Apple was doing in finding black candidates. I’ll skip the full exchange, but suffice it to say, I got an intimate peek into Steve’s passion and energy. He was seriously upset at Apple’s efforts in that area. His last words to me that day were, “If you have any ideas on how we can hire more black engineers, send me an email.”

King of Silicon Valley

Having grown up in a small Kansas Army town, living in a two-bedroom trailer with my African American dad, Korean mom, and five siblings, my path to overcoming poverty and earning my Ph.D. in electrical engineering was not always clear. But there I stood that day, amazed at how God had given me the opportunity to meet the greatest innovator of my lifetime.

I recalled reading in the Book of Proverbs, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He shall stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men.” I had taken those words of wisdom to heart while pursuing my education, and now I was realizing them.

While working at GE Medical Systems in the early ’90s, during the first dot-com boom, I grieved the fact that there weren’t more African Americans going to Silicon Valley and making a difference in the new technological era. I understood that many underrepresented minorities lacked the connections and education to become computing entrepreneurs. But now, there I was being asked by, in my view, the ultimate computing entrepreneur for help in getting more African Americans to work for his world-renowned Silicon Valley company.

Wow.

Challenging Steve Jobs

In 1995, I earned my master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Marquette University while I was at GE. I then left GE to work on my Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Kansas. I received my doctorate in 1999. Ever since, my passion has been to help underrepresented students reach their full educational potential in computing, so that they can play a productive role in our world’s changing economy and perhaps aspire to become “the next Steve Jobs.”

After my encounter with Steve, I went home and thought and prayed about what ideas I would give him about recruiting more black engineers at Apple. Then I composed an email that would change my life.

I began by explaining why I did what I did, including how my wife, Anitra, and I decided after reading The Purpose-Driven Life that I would leave my tenure-track faculty position at the University of Iowa so that I could fulfill my purpose of helping underrepresented students. I even attached a picture of my wife Anitra and my children, John, Adrianna, and Rosa to the email.

I also told him about the positive things I observed Apple doing to encourage and expand diversity. Apple, at the time, was building relationships with Atlanta University Center schools. I told him about my wife’s experience with her retail position at the Apple Store in Atlanta and how I could see growing diversity there. I bragged about how my Apple friends Scott and Denise were doing great with improving Apple’s diversity in both its university relations and retail. Denise, by the way, is an African American woman who at the time was Apple’s director of human resources for global retail.

I told Steve how important it was for students to see other underrepresented and female role models at top positions at Apple including its board of directors. I suggested he needed to make efforts to recruit at non-traditional “Apple” elite schools, such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and women’s colleges. I told him that our current SpelBots captain would make a great intern at Apple. I mentioned that it’s important to consider the importance of family when dealing with African American students in making career and education decisions. I also let him know that I admired Apple and that it was one of the few companies for which I would consider leaving academia.

After I sent the email, I waited and didn’t hear anything for several days. I think my Apple friends were concerned because few people dared to confront Steve and tell him what he should do. Yet I saw him as a fellow human being who was concerned with helping underrepresented students make his company continue to be great. A week later, I received a phone call from Scott, and later a copy of an email Steve had sent internally about how he was “sooooooooooooo happy” about what I told him about Apple’s recent diversity efforts and that he wanted to hire me to help “hire black engineers.” He had read my email so thoroughly that he pointed out that I had hinted I would consider working at Apple.

I soon found myself taking a yearlong sabbatical from Spelman College to become a full-time Apple employee. I was named Apple’s first Senior Engineering Diversity Manager.

I won’t divulge all that I did and saw at Apple, but I did witness positive changes being made at levels that were way above me that could only have come from Steve. I was able to directly influence the hiring of more African Americans, women, and other minorities as interns and eventually full-time Apple engineers.

SPELBOTS COMETH: The 2011 SpelBots team (from left) Coach Andrew Williams, Christina Sparks, Amelia Henderson, Tyler Davis, Jonecia Keels, Jazmine Miller, Naquasia Jones, and program manager Angela Church. (Not pictured: Breoshshala Martin, Daria Jordan, Chanel Johnson.)

I was especially proud that I played a role in helping one of my students become the first Spelman grad to work as a full-time engineer at Apple, after she had obtained her initial internship through my contact with Steve. I’ve met African American engineers at Apple who helped design the iPad; one of my former female students from the University of Iowa works with Jon Ive’s group; there are African Americans intimately involved with the App store; and the list goes on. There are now literally dozens of engineers from underrepresented groups who are making a contribution to the development of Apple’s products.

Final Respects

I continued interacting with Steve in various ways after I ended my sabbatical at Apple. I gave him a copy of my autobiography, he received my family’s Christmas newsletter, and we periodically connected via email or indirect messages. One poignant note that I sent to him shared how with Apple’s new FaceTime feature I was able to “tuck in” my youngest daughter, Rosa, while I was away from home on business trips. Using FaceTime, I’d tell her a story and pray with her before she went to bed. Because of Apple’s technology, we didn’t have to sacrifice our bedtime routine — even when I was a thousand miles away.

My final interaction with Steve occurred this past spring. In a March 30th email, I told him I was praying for him and his family. I also let him know that one of our SpelBots students had won a national iPhone app competition and that she thought Apple should hire her as an intern. She had applied for summer internships at Apple over the last few years but could never break through. I didn’t hear back from Steve directly, but not long after that my student received a call from an Apple recruiter who said Steve had forwarded her résumé. Sure enough, this past summer our SpelBots student was hired as an Apple intern and soon will be offered a full-time position as an engineer.

A company such as Apple, which at the time of this writing has over $80 billion of cash on hand, can pick and choose whomever they want to hire. So, I’m always glad when they recognize the talent and potential of individuals from groups that are underrepresented in the engineering ranks.

My hope is that Steve’s vision for diversity at Apple will not die now that he’s gone. I also hope that other CEOs learn from him that a true, passionate commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment does not diminish but only enhances innovation.

Take it from Steve Jobs to understand diversity’s value and significance. He recognized that a diverse team of smart and creative people was essential to the success of his company, and to the future of our nation’s global competitiveness. Because of his sincere commitment to diversity, who knows? The next great American innovator could very well be an African American, a Latino, a woman. The iPad and the iPhone are wonderful, but for me that would be Steve’s most enduring legacy.

The Wisdom of Steve Jobs

The Wisdom of Steve Jobs

VISIONARY: Apple cofounder Steve Jobs recently stepped down from his revered role as CEO of the company. Photo: Beck Diefenbach/Newscom.

Despite being a member of the young creative class, I’ve never really been a Mac guy.

Being a Windows computer and Android phone user, I’ve often poked fun at the cult of Mac, a common term for the religious fervor surrounding every new hardware or software release by Apple. When Apple launched the iconic “I’m-a-Mac” commercials, I was consistently entertained, though annoyed at the characterization of PCs as old and stodgy. And I was stoked when Microsoft fought back with their “laptop hunters” ad series, because for a lot of people picking a computer most often comes down to price. My refusal to drink the “iKoolAid” has been a stance of righteous indignation.

But let me be real: for many in my generation, Apple has always been the gold standard for professional grade technology with user-friendly interface. And there are many reasons why the company has remained the #1 purveyor of all things creative and digital. Most of these can be traced to Apple’s iconic (and at times, iconoclast) founder Steve Jobs, who last week announced his resignation as CEO of Apple. Under Jobs’ direction, Apple has become an innovative juggernaut, particularly in its influence in popular culture.

And if there is any class of people who should be interested in creating and influencing culture, it should be pastors. After all, Macs and iPhones are just as embedded into the stereotypes of emerging church planters as skinny jeans, coffee shops, and thick-rimmed glasses.

So in begrudging honor of the cult of Mac (and the hopeful advent of the iPhone 5 with Sprint), here are five lessons, with direct applications to church leadership, that pastors can take from Apple’s Steve Jobs:

Lesson #1: Form and function maximize each other.

The thing that usually sets Apple products apart from the competition is the combination of high-quality components and attractive design. Long before HP launched its campaign proclaiming “the computer is personal again,” Apple had already cornered the market on personalized computers. Remember all of those cute little iMacs that came in different colors? People loved those things because they worked well and they looked fabulous.

Pastoral Application:  You must have both form and function to compete. All pastors who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ are on the same team. So remember, as a pastor you’re not competing with other churches. You’re competing with sports leagues and video games and book clubs and live performance art and all manner of forms of entertainment and leisure that people spend their time doing when they’re not in church.

Therefore, it’s not enough to have EITHER a distinctive style of presentation OR effective programs with solid theology. If the service is all sizzle and no steak, people might be amused or entertained, but not necessarily transformed by the renewing of the mind. On the other hand, how will people come to know the truth about Jesus if there is nothing interesting or attractive to bring them in? Form maximizes function, and vice versa.

Lesson #2: Being first is overrated.

Apple did do many things first, but it did many more things better.

For example, I get irritated every time I see or hear people refer to the iPhone as “the first touch screen phone.” Maybe it was their first touch screen phone, but the HTC Touch Pro had a touch-responsive interface well before the iPhone came out. What Apple had was the first touch-screen phone that was a bona fide hit with consumers. And in the end, that’s what most people will remember, in the same way that only a select few remember the fact that GoBots preceded Transformers on the small screen and in the toy stores. (Yep, I’m a nerd.)

Pastoral application: What matters more is making a connection with people. Being a pastor is fraught with temptations, and one of them is the temptation to join the technology arms race. How many pastors wanted to be the first church in their neighborhood to have a digital projector? Or their own mobile-optimized website? Or iPhone app? Or the first to use a hit TV show as a theme for a sermon series?

What matters more is how well you are connecting with people. Folks won’t give two whits about whether or not you were the first on the scene with the latest gadget or trendy sermon illustration if it doesn’t help them grow closer to God. But when God is moving in their lives and the local neighborhood church is the place where it happens, they might not know if that church has the latest and greatest growth techniques, but they’ll know that God changed their life there.

Lesson #3: Better culture beats better numbers.

One of the things that used to crack me up about Mac users was the claim that their operating systems were inherently safer or more secure because they never had to worry about viruses. This is a classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, as avid West Wing fans should remember. The people who write malicious code tend to target Windows machines not because Windows operating systems are less secure, but because there are many more Windows machines in operation. This has, more or less, always been the case. Digital criminals go where there is the most amount of money to be taken.

But this Mac-is-safer spin is a great example of how Apple used the power of marketing to change its biggest weakness (less market share) into its biggest strength (dedicated fandom). Part of being cool is the novelty of being apart and distinct from the mainstream, and nobody does cool better than Apple. Starting with the “Think Different” campaign and continuing with the Mac-versus-PC television ads, Apple leveraged its underdog status into a cultural phenomenon that transformed Apple products from mere electronic devices into elite, stylish status symbols. And in so doing, it further dominated the market share of higher-end computers.

Pastoral application: Create a culture, numbers will follow. Church leader and vision strategist Andy Stanley once said something brilliant that I’m choosing to slightly modify. When it comes to churches, I believe that the culture in the hall trumps the mission on the wall. Therefore, it’s not enough to just have good programs or a radical vision.

There must be a culture that embodies your God-given unique vision breathing in every part of your church. It should be something that one can see and feel and notice by spending time with people in the church community. If you can create a culture that does this, you won’t need to worry about chasing the latest fad or trying to intentionally do things to create numeric growth. Chasing after numbers is a lot like chasing after wind. But if you effectively create culture, then you won’t have to spend tons of money on marketing. A compelling Christ-following community sells itself.

Lesson #4: Don’t apologize for excellence.

In the smartphone arena, most of the competition lately has been between iPhones and Android phones, which ideologically means the difference between open standards versus closed standards. Many people prefer Android over the iOS, because Android offers more flexibility and more of an open atmosphere.

Google’s Android platform gained a lot of market share in smartphone sales in the last few years, but Apple had so much market share in the first place because it prioritized a good user experience over customization and openness. There are certainly users who complain about the closed aspect of the iPhone experience, but most of the people who flocked to the iPhone didn’t care about what it couldn’t do, because they were too busy being impressed by what it could do really well.

And the credit for this goes to Steve Jobs, who once said the following:

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

The subtext is clear — y’all better get used to it, because I’m not changing. Where others saw arrogance, Jobs saw a commitment to a vision. Steve Jobs was a leader who expected excellence of himself and the people around him, and did not apologize for having high standards, even when he took criticism for it.

Because let’s face it, as much as Apple has been an overall success story, there have been plenty of times where Apple products were heavily criticized for things they didn’t have — that is, features that people expected but were left out. Like the lack of floppy drive in the iMac G3. Or no copy-and-paste on the iPhone 3G. Or no Flash support or 4G network access for the iPad 2.

Did Steve Jobs ever apologize for any of these perceived shortcomings? Of course not. Because they were still game-changing products that sold like hotcakes.

Pastoral Application: Be Unapologetically You. The point is not to be arrogant or to never listen to criticism. That would be foolish. The point is to know who God called you to be as a leader, and refuse to be anything or anyone else.

People will always find things to complain about, and will always find a way to compare your ministry to the ministry down the street or the up-and-coming ministry that’s always in the news. And some of your lay leaders might want to know, Why aren’t we active in these areas? Why aren’t we doing some of these ministry events?

You need to have answers to these questions, answers that are grounded in prayer and conviction. You need to be secure enough in your vision to be willing to be confident in your role in the kingdom of God, and to let other churches and other leaders fill their roles.

If it’s true that we’re all one body, then not everyone needs to be a foot or a nose or an elbow.

Be you, let them be them, and everybody wins.

Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid to change.

Compared to most of its product launches, one of the most important defining moments in Apple’s rise to dominance was met with a collective yawn. But when Apple Computer became Apple, Inc., it was more than just empty symbolism. It was an outward sign of the shift that had already taken place from being a company that focused exclusively on a computers to a company that sought to rule many aspects of consumer electronics — phones, televisions, software, and downloaded media in the form of music, TV shows, and movies.

In other words, it was the final marker that Apple, under Steve Jobs, had fundamentally altered its own business model.

It’s not a surprise, then, to read one of Jobs’ most famous quotes about customer service: 

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

Steve Jobs was not content to simply stay on top of the present market conditions. He was bent on finding out where the market was heading and positioning his company in the best possible way to serve and expand his customer base in light of that coming reality. It’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition. And except for a few missteps along the way, Jobs and Apple generally succeeded in anticipating the future and changing accordingly.

Pastoral application: Allow God to change His church for the better. This is one of the hardest things for successful pastors to understand, that what worked in the past is not necessarily a predictor of what will work in the future. Too many successful ministries become victims of their own success, whereby they get stuck in whatever mode or brand or style of ministry they started with, and they spend the rest of their existence trying in vain to replicate their initial wave of success.

In Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase, this is how John 3:7-8 is rendered:

So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.

This is Jesus talking to a confused religious leader about what it means to truly be born of the Spirit. And I think that sometimes when Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, tries to get us church leaders to move in a new direction, we give Him the same response Nicodemus gave, which was essentially … “Wait, what? How?”

According to Dr. Reggie McNeal in The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, churches are no longer viable organizations when they exist to operate solely as vendors of religious goods and services. We must ask God where and how He is moving, we must listen for where He is calling us to go, and then we must be courageous enough to move ourselves and our organizations into that space.

We’ve got to be willing to change.

And maybe if we do, our churches can do a better job of telling people the truth. And instead of giving people a gospel of hope based on technology, we can give them a gospel of hope based on the person and work of Jesus.

This article was originally posted on August 29, 2011.