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Memories from a Santa Cruz Engineer: Don't Get in the Elevator with Steve Jobs

Tom Padula, who now makes electronic fireflies, worked on the iPad and movie sound during a decade at Apple.

During Santa Cruz engineer Tom Padula's decade at Apple his team had one rule when they were working on a top-secret project: don't ever get on the elevator.

They were on the third floor of the building at One Infinite Loop. Steve Jobs was on the fourth floor.

"If you got on the elevator with him, he would always ask 'What do you do here?'" said Padula, who worked on an audio program called SoundTrack and on the iPad. "He really wanted to know. He was interested in the people who worked for him.

"But I dreaded showing him anything. Not because he would tear us apart or anything, but he had something in his head that said, 'I think you should do x, y, z, p and q,' and we've got six weeks to go, and we're like, 'Yes, sir.'

"So for the secret project that had not yet been released, we said, let's just get it to the point where we actually ship this thing before it gets too much attention from Steve."

Jobs' slavish focus detail was a blessing and a curse for the engineers under him, said Padula, who joined other local tech entrepreneurs at Clouds downtown for a drink in honor of the Apple boss after a New Tech meetup at the Cruzio building.

"People who left iPad said they were happy to drop back to working only seven days a week."

But, said Padula, the products were worth the efforts Jobs inspired and demanded.

"His genius was in being able to put himself in the shoes of the end user, his ability to cut through the crap and focus on what the user wants. They want a DVD of their daughter's wedding. They don't want to know anything about compression. They don't want to know anything about HD64 or any of that crap. They want their camera to work so they can push a button and take out a DVD.

"Steve made everything just a little bit easier to deal with."

To illustrate, Padula, a proud self-described geek, pulls out a phone from each pocket. One is an old flip top; the other, the iPhone.

"I've always said, I've got this ancient cell phone, and then, I have these things, which came along and walked all over the market. Too bad Apple wasn't around when we needed decent interfaces on things like VCRs and microwave ovens."

Padula left Apple a year and a half ago to start a company called Humble Earth, which makes electric fireflies for gardens or offices. The light-up twinkling ornaments particularly appeal to people from the East Coast and Midwest, who miss the flying nightlight insects.

How does he think Apple will fare now?

"There are 20,000 people at Apple. Steve doesn't write the code. He doesn't solder together the iPhones. But I believe his philosophy is well-prepared to continue into the future of the company."

zing October 11, 2011 at 02:37 AM
"hey want their camera to work so they can push a button and take out a DVD." And it takes a genius for this? Big whoop. They should have hired me. Oh wait, I'm actually a programmer and electronics engineer who gets those things. What jobs "genius" is, is brain washing to make people think he's a genius. He's basically a guy who has control of billions and points to the real engineers and says, "make it happen". When something looks a little hard to use, he then wants to change it even if it's really difficult to change. And then it's those tech people who have to do that. But there's tons of people who could direct like that. The sad part is that SJ brainwashed people into thinking he's this and that with emotional speeches. Then uses hypnosis to link those feelings to the apple logo. oh well......
Brad Kava October 11, 2011 at 03:37 PM
Zing: I've had microsoft, HP and Canon products that were so flawed that you have to wonder how they got out. My current Canon camera won't work with the flash it came with. The lens obscures the flash...you need to buy a bigger one for $400...What genius thought that one up?
Phil Cooper October 11, 2011 at 04:12 PM
Just more of the Steve Jobs and Cult of Apple mythos. There have been plenty of intuitive, elegant consumer products from companies other than Apple over the decades, designed by — you guessed it — ENGINEERS. Perhaps Jobs' attention to detail was the most important ingredient. I've seen many product failures due to lack of attention to detail.
Marion Montalbano October 12, 2011 at 05:40 AM
Have you never heard" it`s all in the details"?
Nick Apuzzo November 17, 2011 at 06:09 AM
Years ago, just after Apple opened up iTunes, I had the chance to ask a guy at one of the huge music conglomerates about their willingness to sell single songs for 99 cents. The record companies had always resisted making songs available by choice, you had to buy the entire album. So I asked how it happened, the guy said "I was in the room when he (Jobs) convinced them. The guy would not be dissuaded, he was like a typhoon and he wasn't going to take no for an answer." One of the great things about Steve Jobs is that he was fearless in that way. Of course, as has been pointed out, there are a LOT of very hard working people at Apple (I used to sell to them, so I know), and they play a HUGE part in these things coming to fruition. I remember calls at midnight about some emergency or other...these are generally speaking, very dedicated folks. In the end, I feel comfortable respecting contributions he made, but I never look to glorify (or make god-like) someone who's as human and flawed as the rest of us...just don't have the emotional need to do that. When you frame the context of the conversation in terms of someone being 'great', you're simply asking for trouble. It's like asking a political candidate about her/his religion...get ready to be taken for a ride...and you'll deserve it too because you're eye is not on the ball.

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