What did Steve Jobs do at Pixar
I had to pitch in front of Steve Jobs - I learned that in the hard process
Tim Milliron worked at Pixar for over 13 years and also with companies like Google, Twilio and now Podium.
According to him, Jobs has insisted that Pixar staff reveal the added value of every new project, down to the smallest detail.
Jobs urged her to keep asking the crucial "how" and "why" questions in order to create clarity.
At the beginning of my career, I worked at Pixar Animation Studios for over 13 years. I started out as technical director and most recently I was responsible for animation tools. I also held various key management positions in engineering and product development.
During my time at Pixar, Steve Jobs was a managing director and already a legend in Silicon Valley. I had a chance once to suggest a new technology for him, one that the studio still uses today - and the whole pitching process became sort of postgraduate. In doing so, I learned how an entrepreneur thinks about business, regardless of company, role or title.
In any other company, the project would simply have been approved - but not with Steve
Pixar was just experiencing one of the greatest streaks of success a film studio has ever seen
Our last productions were “Finding Nemo”, “The Incredibles” and “Cars”. But the technical challenges of these films made it clear that it was time to revamp our 20-year-old animation platform if we were to stay at the forefront of the industry. Together with four other executives, I therefore led a team that was supposed to develop a completely new animation platform.
In almost every other company, under almost every other boss, our project would have been approved without a fuss. We would have drawn up a detailed, formal proposal and a supervisor would have signed the dotted line. But not at Pixar - not with Steve at the helm.
I found him astute, clever, and appropriately skeptical
Under Steve, the process looked more like a VC pitch in the founding stage.
It took Steve several months to review the product, team, and plan, including "due diligence" trips to Apple technical experts for approval. In films and first-hand reports, Steve Jobs is often portrayed as a blank, or at least as tough and uncomfortable. Steve certainly didn't mince words during our conversations. But I found him astute, clever, and appropriately skeptical.
Steve had a way of asking questions that led us to break our suggestion down to the essentials: What was Pixar's "secret ingredient" in terms of software? How did the planned system manage to be ten times better than the old system? Why was this really important to Pixar's core business of making the best movies?
For us the answers were obvious. We wanted to give the animators the best possible tool to bring the director's ideas to life. We also wanted to codify the magic that our old system stumbled upon - while having hundreds of artists working on a film at the same time. We owe this clear description of the “why” to Steve. He got us to articulate this vision clearly and create a compelling pitch. Thanks to him, we were able to argue why our solution is the best way and why we are the best team for building this technology.
The intensity of this process initially surprised me, but I learned three important lessons over the course of the project:
1. Be humble and never take a company's resources for granted
Don't assume that your ideas will automatically get the green light, even if your project is of great value, your company can afford it, or your references are beyond reproach. Pixar certainly had a lot of resources and in many ways the value of the project was evident. In addition, each member of our development team had led highly successful teams on the studio's most profitable film projects. Even so, Steve insisted that we clearly explain the added value and correctness of our approach to the smallest detail.
It wasn't just about what we developed - it was also about how we developed it. An important part of the development process we introduced to Steve was working with leading Apple engineers whom he trusted. This was how we made sure the technology made sense. In later years I understood how Steve probably saw it: he sent us to a development team to do a due diligence, just like a VC would.
Great leaders repeatedly demand a deeper understanding of the “why” and the “how”, especially when they have more resources. Steve understood that we couldn't stop asking the difficult questions and insisting on clarity just because we were successful.
2. Corporate governance trumps lonely heroes
The management team for our project consisted of five people. We brought very different perspectives and sensitivities with us. Of course, one of us was “the boss” and “the decision” was with one of us on every topic. But we were all passionate about understanding each other's point of view and eventually coming to terms as a group.
This lively collaboration turned out to be one of our best assets. While it took a while for the best argument to prevail, once it did, we were all able to detail the arguments behind virtually every strategic decision in great detail. And that unity of thought proved invaluable when we faced Steve's difficult questions.
I maintained this principle throughout my post-Pixar career, where I held senior positions in product and engineering. We come to the best solutions when we build a strong joint commitment of product, design and technology. When things don't go exactly according to plan and the product needs to be adjusted, everyone involved can make better decisions because they understand the strategy and the considerations behind it.
3. The medium is not the decisive factor, but it sure helps
Pixar executives were filmmakers. When our job shifted from pitching in front of Steve to involving the entire studio, our team decided to create animation-style storyboards. In this way we wanted to make the project understandable for everyone: How would an animator use the tool? How would other artists work on a recording at the same time? What would a day in the life of a Pixar employee be like using our new system?
It was a format I wouldn't have dared dream of in most VC-like presentations. It was a perfect hit with the Pixar leadership team. The extra time we took to understand how our leaders would best receive and absorb the information we wanted to share made all the difference. Outside of Pixar, I've also taken this lesson to heart: get audiences where they are, in the format they can best respond to. In this way you can ensure that your ideas are received and that you receive the best possible "appropriately skeptical" feedback.
Business best practices can help companies of all sizes add value to the work they produce. It would have been very easy for Steve - or anyone else on the executive team - to just wave our project through and allocate the budget. However, by taking a path that was not just an internal green light, but rather a VC pitch - including strict problem definition and technical due diligence - Steve ensured that the foundation was solid.
This article was translated from English and edited by Ilona Tomić. You can read the original here.
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