50 Years In Tech. Part 13: Firing Frankness

By Jean-Louis Gassée

by Jean-Louis Gassée

In a Palo Alto restaurant in January 1990, John Sculley and I have what turns out to be our last dinner together as fellow Apple employees…with the VP of HR in attendance. Over dessert, Sculley asks me what I think of his performance as Apple CEO, do I trust his decisions, think he’s leading the company in the right direction? Politely but frankly, I tell him.

I recall the moment’s emotion: I felt I was performing a good deed, being helpfully clear and honest, hoping to clear the executive suite’s unbreathable air. Indeed, before the dinner, HR VP Kevin Sullivan, affectionately nicknamed Kevin the Bold and Sullivan the Magnificent for his unassuming soft touch, had encouraged me to forgo the expected courtier’s dissembling and, instead, to “help” Sculley by speaking straight.

As we wait for our cars, Sullivan puts his arm around my shoulder: “Jean-Louis, I’m proud of you…” After half a decade in Cupertino, I know what this means: What I have done is irreparable.

Two days later, Kevin the Bold asks me to come to his office. With eyes welling in his tears, he breaks it to me gently: “I’ve been asked to separate you from Apple, effective immediately.”

I return to my office, assemble my team of direct reports and tell them the news myself — I don’t want anyone else to spin the story. As I take down pictures and assemble my personal objects, the news races through the engineering organization. Soon, engineers are marching outside with placards that read Jean-Louis Don’t Go.

The demonstration, small and brief as it is, changes the course of what should have been a typical, quick departure. Apple management is concerned that some engineers might elect to follow me, wherever I may land. My protest that I wouldn’t dream of such a thing is met with disbelief (perhaps I was a bit too sincere). As a result, the terms of my departure are altered: I’m asked to “stay around” until the end of the company’s fiscal year in September.

Thus begins a paradoxically pleasant eight months. As a minister without a portfolio, I’m occasionally called upon to offer clarification on unimportant issues, but otherwise I have little to do. Some HR staffers who had their own views of my firing are sympathetic; they ask me what the company can do to make my “stay” more comfortable. Perhaps I’d be interested in courses on Japanese calligraphy and conversation?

A few days later, Sculley enters my office and does a double take. Torn and stained newsprint clutters my desk, big brushes and a well of squid black ink, a tall Japanese woman speaking very slowly and clearly.… HR hadn’t told Sculley about my new pursuits. Showing off, I make a feeble attempt to write a big “ten” (heaven) that’s supposed to look something like the proper kanji:

I convince Sculley that I’m not going to utter a negative word about my firing, the company that I still love, or himself. In my book, that’s not done — and I’m genuinely sincere, this time. He had been my benefactor in the past, and he’s still the boss. When the general and his lieutenant disagree too much, the lieutenant must go. Sculley has made the right decision.

It had taken less than three years to go from the high of shipping the Mac II and the Mac SE to the fateful dinner.

Looking back, the slow dissolution began in the Spring of 1987 when my friend Steve Sakoman, who was in charge of Mac hardware development, tells me he’s leaving Apple.

Why? Politics.

Sakoman is troubled by the meddling of an expanding stable of upper-middle managers and executives, and doesn’t think it’s going to get any better as the company continues to grow. Having made his name by engineering a portable computer, the HP 110, at HP’s Corvallis division, Sakoman feels penned in and unused at Apple. He wants to form a new company that will develop a tablet featuring handwriting recognition. I should give him a pep talk, point out that Apple is in great shape with so many interesting projects ahead of us. Without thinking, I ask him if he needs a CEO.

After discussions with a potential sponsor, Sakoman decides to stay at Apple. We give him his own organization reporting to me, and a dedicated building on Cupertino’s Bubb Road. Thus, the Newton project is born.

My responsibilities are expanded, a fancy “Senior” is added to my title, and we proceed to develop the Macs IIcx/ci and the well-rounded Mac SE/30 with a much quieter fan and speedier 68030 processor.

Another project, the Mac Portable, isn’t as successful. Convinced it’s going to be too big and heavy, I want to bench the project lead and ask Sony to partner with us to develop a much smaller portable Mac. It seems like a perfect marriage: Sony is already a well-liked Apple partner, and their talent for miniaturization, aesthetics, and good manufacturing is indisputable. I get strong push back on the proposed moves, complete with accusations of being anti-American. I lose my nerve and capitulate.

In September 1989, I introduce the Mac Portable, building it on stage to friendly applause. It’s a fun moment but real-world customers don’t flock to the new machine. (I get the last laugh, however: In October, 1991, the PowerBook 100, the “tenth greatest PC of all time”, is released…designed and manufactured by Sony.)

All the while, the political turmoil continues. In 1988, HR tells me that if I want to move up, I have to leave my comfortable engineering building, cross De Anza Blvd, and join the other top execs in a suite of offices surrounding Sculley’s.

I still recall the dread I experienced: I have no delusions about my (lack of) courtier’s finesse, this is the beginning of the end of my Apple days.

But it would take a while. Just for crossing the street, I’m rewarded with an even fancier President (of Apple Products) title, and add Manufacturing and Product Marketing to my portfolio. The Manufacturing part is especially exciting: I can’t wait to head over to the factory to “work” on the production line…where I immediately embarrass myself by puncturing the loudspeaker while affixing a part to the Mac’s front bezel.

Compared to what I had seen in Japan and Europe, our factory is primitive and inefficient. And it’s dirty, as I find out when I sweep under a conveyor at the end of my shift. Some of the other execs question the value of working a few days on the line: How much can I really learn there? “Certainly more than if I hadn’t,” is my defiant answer.

During 1989, Apple revenue doesn’t grow as expected. My advice: Raise prices!, a piece of wisdom that does nothing for the company.

By this time I’m really on the ropes, politically. Proximity to the executives has proven to be the diplomatic disaster I had anticipated; my “raise prices” advice is openly scorned; my behavior is considered strange, almost embarrassing. So imagine my surprise when I get the highest exec bonus for the fiscal year ending in September. I feel vindicated, but the bonus is actually just a cadeau de rupture, a breakup gift. The next January, Sculley invites me to dinner in Palo Alto.

During my calligraphy hiatus, I briefly contemplate an offer to be moved back to France, perhaps as the head of Apple Europe, an arrangement that would appear less spectacular than being fired. But after a rainy Sunday afternoon spent reading Barbarians At The Gate, and an animated evening dinner with a group of French expats, including Philippe Kahn and Eric Benhamou, I realize: “This is where I want to be and what I want to do.” Two days later, I call Steve Sakoman.

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This is it for the Apple days, with much material on the cutting-room floor… and for the year. Happy Holidays to all!

— JLG@mondaynote.com