That time Steve Jobs hired a career juggler to teach programming to developers


  • Part 1: Steve loved performers, so he invited The Flying Karamazov Brothers to perform at Apple in 1985. He paid them via barter: they each got a Macintosh. They saw the grand piano in the lobby and met Susan Kare, the first artist hired in the computer industry and a legend. She works at Pinterest today.

    Randy Nelson loved computers and was swept away by the visit, but he had been performing with the troupe for 9 years as Alyosha. The troupe started in Santa Cruz performing on the street for gratuities. They eventually made it to Broadway stages and The Lincoln Center. Randy could never imagine where the performance at Apple would lead.

He has the blond braids in this photo:

  • Part 2: When Steve started NeXT, he began an annual tradition of a family picnic at the park. Since he loved circuses and performers, he made sure there was a stage and a group to perform. The first year I joined NeXT, we had the Pickle Family Circus there and our kids loved them. We could tell Steve did too. They had been an influence on Cirque du Soleil, whom Steve knew and admired.

    Steve had asked The Flying Karamazov Brothers to perform before I joined NeXT. The story goes that they ended their performance by juggling flaming torches and Steve was so impressed he jumped up on the stage to tell them what a great performance it was. Randy responded by describing his idea of a great performance, and pulled his Macintosh out of its case, the one Steve had given him when they performed at Apple. He explained that the Mac with the signatures of the team inside was a great performance. Randy explained that he programmed it obsessively at night in hotels as they traveled.

    Steve was famous for hiring people with mastery of a field who also had broad interests, and that's what he saw in Randy. When I joined NeXT, Randy was teaching object-oriented programming in Objective C to some of the best developers in the world, getting sky-high ratings for his classes. These were people like the Adobe Photoshop team, who were creating a version of Photoshop for NeXT machines.I was Director of Developer Relations, so the classes our instructors taught were in my group. I once asked Randy, “Why don’t you juggle in class? It would thrill and shock the class to find out their instructor was a world-class stage performer.”I will never forget his answer. He looked at me seriously and said, “Be careful what you ask an artist. It would take me two weeks of preparation.” Whoa. Nevermind, Randy.

    Here’s a variation of their flaming torch routine. Randy is on the left with the long blond hair:

  • Part 3: NeXT and Pixar went through some rough years and I thought neither company would make it. All eight of the original team at NeXT aside from Steve, including Randy’s heroine Susan Kare, had left. We had been driven out of hardware, so Steve’s dream of running a computer company was over forever, or so we thought. Pixar had also been driven out of hardware, had dabbled in selling 3D rendering software through CompUSA, had dabbled in processing medical and satellite images, and had spent 10 years living payroll-to-payroll hoping Steve would continue to fund it from his own money.Steve sent me to Pixar one day to talk to Ed Catmull, its long-time president. It was a day Steve had instructed Ed to lay off half the company and if I remember, headcount had gone from something like 72 to 36. But Steve wanted to hold onto John Lassiter’s creative team.I remember how agonizing Ed’s sorrow was. The good news is Steve had committed another $10 million to keep Pixar alive, despite telling his accountant to stop him from pouring more money into it. Ed asked me if I thought this might be the last Steve would ever invest. I didn’t know.Sometimes I wonder if I dreamed the next part. I have vivid dreams like this. My memory says Ed asked if Steve was pitching a movie to Disney. I said I thought he was. Jeff Katzenberg had been there. Ed said I should tell him they can’t make a full-length movie, it’s too much. He wanted me to tell Steve they could do an episode for Disney TV, but not a movie. I told Ed you know how it is with Steve, and he nodded.

    Steve got his contract from Disney and as we know from the books, it was a struggle for years to make Toy Story. Randy left NeXT for a stint at Kaleida labs as developer trainer, but when Apple bought NeXT, they hired Randy. It was rough there too, but I’m told Randy stayed a beacon of positive energy. There must be a lesson in that, because this happened after Randy had been at Apple two years:

  • Last part: After 12 years of running Pixar University, in a company whose rise is so incredible no one could have dreamt it, and a 2-year stop at DreamWorks as head of their university, he landed back at Apple. 

    It’s astonishing what faculty Apple has hired to teach leadership and culture there — former professors at Harvard, Yale and Stanford business schools among them — who make as much as $1.7 million a year

    Here’s the thing: I would rather listen to Randy about hiring and culture than any of them. See for yourself in one of his few public appearances, below. Here’s the summary:

    1. You want to find people with mastery, true depth.


    2. The problem is, that isn’t enough. You need people who had failed and recovered. The core skill of innovators is error recovery, not failure avoidance.
    3. Breadth, meaning curiosity about things beyond what you’re deep in. 
    4. Collaboration. Not a synonym for cooperation, but the ability to magnify others. 

    Hearing it from the master is 1000x better:

  • @Chris thank you for sharing this amazing story!