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South China Morning Post
November 27, 1998


STEVE'S OTHER JOB: STEVEN JOBS AND PIXAR
By David Cohen
Steven Jobs is earning a reputation as a man with Midas touch. Long a Silicon Valley legend as one of 'the two Steves' who founded Apple Computer in a neighborhood garage, he has reclaimed the helm of struggling Apple and steered it back to financial health. He also made a cool US$1 Billion in one day when the stock of Pixar, his animation company, went public.

But in 1986, when Jobs spent US $50 million of his own money to buy Pixar, it was a huge gamble. The 'company' was little more than an ambitious idea and two brilliant but unproven men, computer graphics expert Ed Catmull and animator John Lasseter. Besides, the seller was George Lucas, who knew a lot more about making movies than Jobs. If Lucas did not want it, why buy it?

Somehow, though Jobs had seen the face of the future Ñ and it was rendered with 3-D computer software.

"When I saw some of the very early things that Ed Catmull showed me, it was just very clear." remembers Jobs. "As humans, we have evolved over the last million years to be very, very good at reading very subtle facial expressions on each other. When you draw something in hand-drawn animation, there's only so much you can draw. So the expressions tend to be a little cruder."

By contrast, 3-D computer animation offered the promise of animated faces with far more detail "The medium itself means that our storytellers can display much more subtle expressions on their characters and much more of the feelings of their characters. You just can't do that in traditional animation."

The technical successes of Toy Story and the newly-released A Bug's Life have proven him right, but Jobs needed a lot of patience along the way. Catmull and Lasseter had parted ways with George Lucas because they wanted to make animated films, not special effects. Yet for almost a decade, Pixar was a software company. Its only income came from sales of Renderman software, which was ironically was used by Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic for early computer-generated special effects.

Meanwhile, Jobs split his time first between Pixar and Next Computer then eventually between Pixar and Apple Computer, where he is now 'interim' CEO and Chairman. Though he has never been a full time CEO at Pixar, Jobs is "a very powerful and outgoing personality" according to Catmull, who is still Pixar's Chief Technical Officer.

"At Apple he is the person who drives everything. He's very deeply involved and he's probably the only person that could turn that company around and is doing that but at Pixar he's not the film-maker and he doesn't try to be. He doesn't come in and micromanage it because he recognizes that other people have a whole different set of skills that he doesn't have so he lets them do that."

Lasseter who directed Pixar's first two feature films, offers that "Steve makes you be better than you think you are. He always pushes people to really do your best. It's great. He's so inspiring and positive."

Jobs stays hands-off at Pixar in part because of a management philosophy built around recognizing other people's talents. "In life in general," he explains, "the best thing is usually not that much better than the average thing. Take tape recorders. The best tape recorder, you could say how much better is this than the average one. Well, maybe its 30% better, right? It's really rare in life to find something that's twice as good as the average."

"Well, what I observed a long time ago was when it comes to people creating things, whether it be a computer or a movie, the best people in the world are 50 times better than the average person, that the dynamic range is much bigger than most things in life. So I started to spend an enormous amount of my time to find those people that are 50 times better. Part of my job is to be a talent scout, if you will, you know, and that's and I try to find those people so that they go out and find other people and build up a small smaller teams of these incredibly talented people."
Pixar keeps those talented people with a unique three-pronged strategy. First, keep everyone feeling creatively satisfied by only doing movies that the whole company can be proud of. Second, pay everyone well but instead of Hollywood style contracts, offer Silicon Valley-style stock options, which Catmull cheerfully calls 'the perfect golden handcuffs.' And third, make sure everyone has fun at work.

"We built a culture where the creative and the technical side existed as peers," boasts Jobs. "If you go to Hollywood they have brilliant creative people but technical people are second-class citizens. If you go to Silicon Valley its the opposite. Pixar's the only place I know of where they really are peers; they really work together; they really understand each other. Its a pretty important thing, pretty hard to do."

Asked whether his heart belongs more to Apple, his first corporate love, or to Pixar, he just smiles. "You know, it's in both places. I'm 43. I get to do two things, you know. So that's what I do. I love Pixar. I love helping to run Pixar and I want to do that forever."