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The Artist and The Engineer

2011 November 6

Plato and Aristotle.  Caesar and Pompey.  Jefferson and Hamilton.  Einstein and Bohr.  History has, in large part, been formed through the tension between rivalled doppelgangers.

Such is the case with the information age.  From the beginning, the computer industry has been driven by two towering figures:  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Since their “boy wonder” days, they have toppled industry giants, changed the world and made billions for themselves.  They were more than pioneers, but archetypes who competed. not just for market share, but for the zeitgeist itself.  Although both have left the scene, their story will continue to play out. To see what’s ahead, it helps to look back.

Dropping Out

Like all stories, it’s best to start at the beginning.

It is a strange commentary on our times, not to mention on ever-increasing tuition rates, that the two beacons of the digital age both began as college dropouts:  Gates from Harvard and Jobs from Reed College.  However, the similarity ends there.

Gates, much like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, left Harvard to start a business.  Already an accomplished software engineer who scored 1590 out of 1600 on his SAT’s, his departure was driven by his desire to start a company.  True to form, he got his solidly middle class parents’ permission first.

Jobs, on the other hand, abandoned his education to drop acid, hang out at a commune and eventually travel to India to study under a guru.  He was and remained, a product of the counterculture.  He saw himself as a rebel, as did most who knew him.

The Jedi and The Death Star

Those personalities formed the narrative for their careers.  Jobs was always a revolutionary, entering established business categories as an underdog and then upending them.  He was also spiritual, a lifelong vegan, who lived in largely unfurnished houses and travelled without a security detail.

He was also, much like the young Luke Skywalker, petulant and mercurial.  Abandoned and raised by parents of meager means, he was constantly looking for a father figure and often felt betrayed by the surrogates he chose.  One of them, John Sculley, eventually led to his firing from Apple in 1986.

Gates, on the other hand, was always in control: of himself, his company and his industry. He seemed to be perpetually scheming, sought to dominate through choke points and eventually ran a modern cartel.  Fully 95% of the world’s computers ran his software.  Perhaps not surprisingly, he became the subject of a government antitrust suit.

Their public personas reflected this dichotomy.  Jobs, despite his personality flaws and hard-nosed business practices, inspired a cult-like following.  Gates, however, was reviled in the developer community, despite the fact that he was very much a developer himself, while Jobs was, at best, a mediocre engineer who depended on others to build his products.

The Products

Their personalities were reflected in the products they made.  Gates’ Microsoft only built part of the product: the software; and gained maximum leverage.  Their development schedule stemmed from their business strategy, rather than from their passions, adding features to meet demands.

Jobs, however, wanted full control of the experience, from hardware to software. His visions sprang whole from his conception of what the next stage of computing should be. He was, in the final analysis, an artist deeply influenced by the Bauhaus movement and was convinced that he knew what consumers wanted before they did.

Their divergent approaches are probably best shown in this hilarious, but very telling video:

The Business Model

Management guru Clayton Christensen describes two ways a business can organized:  integrated and modular.  Apple is unabashedly the former.  As Jobs once said, “Our method was to develop integrated products and that meant our process had to be integrated and collaborative.”

His approach is much more than a business principle, but a personal aesthetic.  As he once said:

Every once in a while, I find myself in the presence of purity – purity of spirit and love – and I always cry.  It always just reaches in and grabs me.

Gates, on the other hand, sought not to create an entire experience, but to control an essential part of it.  He had longstanding partnerships with Intel and hardware manufacturers and was happy to outsource programming to various development centers around the world.  He thought Jobs’ compulsion to make unique products was childish.

As he said dismissively of Jobs’ NeXT computer:

It doesn’t run on any existing software.  It’s a super-nice computer.  I don’t think if I went out to design an incompatible computer I would have done as well as he did.”

Jobs, the artist, thought in terms of holistic experiences.  Gates, the engineer, wanted to make things work, add features and increase productivity. This, in its essence, drove the divergent decisions that both companies made, as Jobs himself noted in a joint interview:

You know, because Woz and I started the company based on doing the whole banana, we weren’t so good at partnering with people. And, you know, actually, the funny thing is, Microsoft’s one of the few companies we were able to partner with that actually worked for both companies. And we weren’t so good at that, where Bill and Microsoft were really good at it because they didn’t make the whole thing in the early days and they learned how to partner with people really well.

And I think if Apple could have had a little more of that in its DNA, it would have served it extremely well. And I don’t think Apple learned that until, you know, a few decades later.



Both men are and will remain, icons.  It’s hard to imagine the information age without them.  Perhaps more significantly, their approaches will remain the yin and yang of technological progress.  Although Gates and Jobs have left they scene, the dichotomies of the artist and the engineer, integrated and modular organization, will continue to play out.

Steve Jobs did not create technology, he created experiences.  Apple’s blockbuster products, the i-Pod, the i-Phone and the i-Pad were not technological breakthroughs, but transformed the way we used existing technologies.  Gates, an accomplished engineer who wrote code that shipped as late as 1989, created just one part of the final product.

Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, there has been an underlying tension between unified vision and pragmatism, one feeding off of the other and it has echoed into our modern times:  Bohr and Einstein. Wittgenstein and Popper.  Jobs and Gates.

As technology cycles wax and wane, this duality will continue.  New categories will be dominated by integrated players, who benefit from end-to-end control.  Once the experience becomes good enough to gain wide adoption, however, modular players will be able to optimize disparate parts of the process and the next cycle will begin.

Einstein liked to say, “God does not play dice with the universe.”  Bohr retorted, “stop telling God what to do.”  The debate will surely go on.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. wehrlybird00 permalink
    November 10, 2011

    I enjoyed your compare/contrast essay. You have some interesting observations. One thing, though: Correct grammar: his visions SPRANG, not sprung (used in had sprung, etc.)

  2. November 10, 2011

    True. Thanks for the heads up. I’ve corrected it.


  3. February 5, 2012

    love the dualities.

  4. February 5, 2012

    It is interesting, isn’t it.

    – Greg

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