It was a busy day in the neighborhood last week. A couple of Baby Boomers from opposite ends of the economic spectrum made last Wednesday more exciting than usual. Few if any news reports recognized the proximity of these two events, and certainly didn’t delve into other ways in which the protagonists were related.
From a global standpoint, the most high-profile of Wednesday’s two events was the passing of Apple Chairman Steve Jobs. From a local standpoint, Jobs’ passing was certainly high-profile, but so was the case of Shareef Allman, a 49-year-old truck driver who opened fire on his co-workers early Wednesday morning at a quarry not far from Apple headquarters. He killed three and wounded six, as well as shooting another woman whose car he tried to hijack at a gas station. He then fled into another nearby neighborhood, and was killed the following morning by police officers. All of these locations – the quarry, Apple headquarters, our house, the street where he died – all lie within an area of less than four square miles.
You might ask what these two people, Jobs and Allman, could possibly have in common, other than representing the poles of power and powerlessness that we seem to be creating in the 21st century. I’ll tell you: although there were a lot of people who thought highly of them, they just weren’t very nice people. I know it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, even murderers, but I find the contrasts and commonalities of these two men striking.
I also know I’m not going to win a popularity contest for vilifying Steve Jobs. No doubt he was a genius, and I love my iPod and my iTunes and I may even end up with an iPad before too long. But he wasn’t a nice guy, and I don’t say that just because he was only a month older than I was but much smarter and much richer.
He not only cheated his first partner, Steve Wozniak (see the biography, iWoz, as well as this description from the San Francisco Chronicle last week) but also without compunction, he wouldn’t think twice about cutting partners (cf. Adobe, by banning Flash from its iPhones) or developers (cf. iFlow, by jacking up its royalty rates for e-books) off at the knees. When he returned to the position of Apple CEO in 1997, he demanded increased revenues from the clone vendors, and when he didn’t get it, he refused to extend their licensing agreements, putting most of them out of business. He had a capacity for ruthlessness that put him in the league of industrial titans such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and John D. Rockefeller – none of whom were very nice people either.
Jobs’ treatment of employees is also legend, as this article from Fortune tells so well, and as Gawker highlights in contrast to the hagiomania that followed Jobs’ passing. For all their contrasts, Jobs and Allman had this in common: they were a danger to their co-workers.
As a truck driver, Allman’s annual income was a rounding error on Jobs’ financial statements. But his behavior on the job and behind the wheel began to worry his co-workers, and he was punished with moves to shifts he didn’t like (the meeting he shot up started at 4 a.m.). Allman was a powerless man who took it out on his co-workers. Jobs was a powerful man who also wielded that power against his co-workers. But one was a genius and the other only a truck driver.
In literature, there is a concept of the fatal flaw, a characteristic of protagonists that – as charming as they may be – dooms them in the end (think Jay Gatsby or Hamlet). What ties Jobs and Allman together, besides making the news on the same day in the same county, are their fatal flaws. Jobs started out with a ruthless reputation, but at the end was hailed as a hero, even by Wozniak. Allman was described as a religious, hard-working family man, but was vilified at the end. The final contrast: Jobs’ utter success and Allman’s utter failure to mask those flaws at the end of their lives.
Howard Baldwin has worked as a journalist since 1977, covering management, finance, technology, and health care. Since 2002, he has focused on corporate work, writing for American Express, Cadence Design Systems, Cisco Systems, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Research in Motion, and Symantec, among others. He lives in Silicon Valley with his wife, a physician, and their three cats.
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