Design Courage

A lot of reporting uses a backhanded compliment to explain Apple’s success under Steve Jobs. They say he was so great that he, and he alone, happened to be right a lot and that’s why Apple lucked out. Bill Gates in particular is a big proponent of this theory – he believes Apple’s success isn’t repeatable.

But let’s be clear: Bill Gates may be a saint, and smart, and a once-in-a-lifetime businessman, but he’s awful at product design. He doesn’t grasp product design, and it showed in Microsoft’s culture when he was at the helm, both as CEO and as Chief Software Architect.

The difference between Apple and many other companies comes down to one word: courage. Everyone thinks they have great ideas. Everyone thinks they’re smart. Everyone thinks they have great designers and engineers. So why is there so much difference between the best and the average? Courage. Not lip service courage, actual courage. It’s rare in software.

When you care more about releasing before the holiday season than the quality of your product, that’s a lack of courage. When you push out a low quality release just because it’s gut-wrenching to throw away a year of bad code, that’s a lack of courage. When you don’t have a head of design with just as much veto power as a head of engineering, that’s a lack of courage.

That doesn’t mean your design team is always right, or deserves unchecked power. A company needs balance across all disciplines. But the reality of software development today is we put design on a pedestal right up until the moment it threatens to affect our deadline. Then design turns into an unaffordable and unreasonable luxury, the word “MVP” starts getting used a lot, and product+engineering hustles a half-baked product out the door and high fives themselves for shipping.

We put design on a pedestal right up until the
moment it threatens to affect our deadline.

That’s why Apple is special. It’s not Jobs, it’s their institutional courage. At Apple (and Pixar) they routinely found the courage to miss dates and kill sub-par products until they were proud of them. Does your company do that? Is it as successful as Apple? Probably not.

Find courage, don’t settle, and in the (very) long run your reputation will improve. But if you think an Apple-like level of success is a fluke, and beyond what your company can do, you’ll keep finding ways to make it true.