Women played a key role in helping create the Macintosh. Some of the women on the original Mac team share how Jobs pushed them to extraordinary levels of creativity.
The lore of Apple’s success goes something like this. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak start Apple in a Silicon Valley garage, with the crazy goal of building the first personal computer for regular people. Eight years later, Jobs introduces the Macintosh, shocking the world with its intuitive, iconic interface and creating a cult following. After his exile from Apple, Jobs returns to reinvent and popularize the digital music player, smartphone and tablet. Apple literally changes how we interact with the world.
But that story often leaves out all the others, including dozens of women, involved in Jobs’ first big bet, 1984’s Macintosh. Like everyone else on the original Mac team, these 20-somethings put in grueling hours to create a machine that could live up to the vision of Apple’s brilliant and volatile leader.
Graphic designer Susan Kare dreamed up the Mac’s icons and created some of its original typefaces, including the Chicago, Geneva and Monaco fonts. Joanna Hoffman focused on a “user experience” that made people feel as if they could, for the first time, make the computer do what they wanted. Other women oversaw manufacturing, finance, marketing and public relations.
“The bottom line is, Steve just cared if you were insanely great or not,” said Guy Kawasaki, who joined Apple in 1983 and was the Mac’s first chief evangelist. “He didn’t care about sex, color, creed — anything like that. You were either great or you’re not. You’re either great or you sucked. That’s it. That’s all he cared about.”
Apple didn’t provide a comment for this report.
The new movie “Steve Jobs” by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle hints at some of the contributions of the women of the Mac team, primarily through the character of Hoffman, who was Apple’s head of international marketing. Played by Kate Winslet, Hoffman was Jobs’ confidante and colleague, able to challenge him when no one else could.
“Joanna was the one who represented all of us in learning how to stand up to Steve,” said Debi Coleman, who joined Apple in 1981 as controller for Jobs’ Macintosh project. “That’s one of the reasons she’s a heroine to me.”
Hoffman declined to be interviewed, but three prominent women from the team agreed to talk about the movie, Jobs’ impact on their lives and what it was like working with Jobs, who died in 2011 at the age of 56. The trio are Coleman, who later became head of Macintosh manufacturing; Susan Barnes, controller of the Macintosh division; and Andrea “Andy” Cunningham who, as an account executive for the Regis McKenna public relations firm, planned what turned out to be the tech industry’s biggest PR campaign at the time.
On Monday, Cunningham hosted a panel in Palo Alto, California, where the three women talked about how Jobs challenged, infuriated and pushed them to achieve great things. They were joined by Hoffman and Barbara Koalkin Barza, a former product marketing manager for the Mac and later director of marketing at Pixar, the animation studio Jobs bought after being fired from Apple in 1985.
Jobs “made it possible for you to do anything you wanted,” Cunningham said. The women of the Mac team “had the freedom to do what we were good at doing.”
Hoffman, speaking during the panel Monday, said “what is true is that so often Steve was so enthusiastic and so brilliant and visionary and not necessary reasonable.” And Barza noted that “Steve had a laser focus on details,” which is a something she has taken to heart throughout her career.
Here are a few of their other stories.
“Billie Jean is not my lover/She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one/But the kid is not my son/She says I am the one/But the kid is not my son.” — lyrics to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
Introducing a major product is a lot like planning a crucial battle. Both can succeed or fail on the campaign’s logistics. For the January 24, 1984, introduction of the Mac, those logistics included the then-unheard-of idea of “multiple exclusives,” in which Apple served up different slices of information to leading US publications.
About two weeks before the Mac’s launch, Cunningham and Jobs flew to the tony Carlyle Hotel on New York’s Upper East Side. They had reserved a suite for several days’ of one-on-one interviews and photo shoots.
There was just one wrinkle: Jobs “absolutely hated” having his picture taken and would turn “surly and kinda nasty” with the photographer, recalled Cunningham.
The soothing sounds of music came to the rescue.
“I discovered he loved Michael Jackson and the song ‘Billie Jean,'” she said. “And I discovered that when I played it on a cassette player, he became really docile and friendly and smiled for the cameraman. As soon as the song was over, he would go back to his snarling self.”
The cassette player got plenty of exercise. (His musical choice is ironic given that he was in a paternity battle with the mother of his eldest daughter, Lisa, before the Mac was unveiled.)
“While we were doing the shoot, I was constantly rewinding, rewinding, rewinding,” Cunningham said. “It calmed the waters.”
The waters had been seething since 10 p.m. the night before, when Jobs, Cunningham and Cunningham’s colleague, Jane Anderson, arrived at the hotel. For Jobs, the suite didn’t have the right vibe for the interviews.
So Cunningham and Anderson rearranged the furniture to Jobs’ liking, even pushing the suite’s baby grand piano to where he said it needed to be to create the best atmosphere for the meetings.
“Finally, at 2 a.m. he says to me, ‘I want a vase of those flowers that have the green stems, and they’re really long and at the top they’re kind of white and are very simple and flare out like this,'” Cunningham recalled. “I’d say, ‘Oh, OK, you want Calla lilies.’ And he’s like, ‘No! That’s not what I want.’ And he goes on to describe them again.”
Cunningham did find the Calla lilies that early January morning in New York.
Silicon Valley joke circa 1981: “What’s the difference between Apple Computer and the Boy Scouts? The Boy Scouts have adult supervision.”
Coleman likes to recall that joke when describing her early years at Apple.
Jobs was a “tall, thin, unkempt, Jesus-freak looking guy” when she was introduced to him. The setting was The Good Earth, then one of Silicon Valley’s most popular restaurants. It’s where Coleman ran into Jobs and Trip Hawkins, an Apple employee who had been her college classmate and would later found video game maker Electronic Arts.
“Trip introduced me and told him, ‘She’s not your usual bean counter.’ With those words, Steve chased me for six months to join his team, which I did not realize was an unsanctioned project.”
It didn’t take long, though, for Coleman to discover that Apple didn’t share the famously genteel corporate culture at Hewlett-Packard, where she had previously worked.
“[Steve] would come marching down the hall or skipping down the hall, calling…’What an idiot. I can’t believe you did this stupid thing.'”
Coleman said it took her a year to learn how to confront Jobs. She credits Hoffman for serving as her teacher. “Joanna said, ‘Look him in the eye. You’ve got to stand up.’ From that point on — I’m not saying he wasn’t tough, totally demanding and totally critical — but he was totally wonderful to me.”
In some ways, that ability to stand up to Jobs was as critical for him as it was for the person confronting his verbal abuse.
“You had to stand up to him,” Barnes said. “He knew he was forming ideals and gelling them, and you had to be able to be his sounding board.”
Despite the insults, those who learned to interact with Jobs describe the experience as intellectually stimulating, compelling and fun.
“His real skill was knowing which buttons to push,” said Barnes. “The thing that kept me going with him was the intellectual spark. He could get so much out of you. He drove a high standard.”
“You weren’t judged as a woman,” she added. “You didn’t have to worry about what you wore and how you wore it. It was about your intellect, your brain and your contributions.”
Jobs put Coleman in charge of Mac manufacturing in 1984, making her one of the highest-ranking women in the computer industry. She later became chief financial officer of all of Apple in 1987, after Jobs had left the company. Coleman most recently served as co-founder and co-managing partner at venture capital firm SmartForest Ventures from 2000 to June 2015.
Barnes co-founded NeXT Computer with Jobs and became its chief financial officer. She went into investment banking after leaving NeXT and later served as financial chief at Intuitive Surgical. Barnes currently holds that same title at Pacific Biosciences, a DNA sequencing company. Cunningham left Regis McKenna to form her own PR firm and helped Jobs launch Pixar. She currently runs Cunningham Collective, a consulting firm.
“When you’re in an environment where you’re respected for what you do and not…your gender or age, it’s really refreshing,” Cunningham said. “That’s what Steve offered back then.”
For more on the team behind the Mac, check out CNET’s Macintosh 30th anniversary package from January 2014.