Creative Selection: Behind the Genius of Steve Jobs and the Development of the iPhone

With introduction of the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs revolutionized the world, but he didn’t do it alone. In this episode of Mastering Innovation on Sirius XM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, Ken Kocienda, a former software engineer at Apple, discusses his new book Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs, Jobs’ unrelenting focus, harsh leadership strategies, and incredible decisiveness.

Steve Jobs’ legacy is hard to overstate. The smartphone has become one of the most impactful inventions of the twenty-first century and made Apple into the giant that it is today. Despite this, his interpersonal dynamics and style of criticism are often considered unorthodox at best. One of his employees, Ken Kocienda, a software engineer during the development of the iPhone, discusses the culture at Apple during this period and what it took to build the intricate devices that so many of us use today.

An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.


Ken Kocienda (Author of Creative Selection)

Harbir Singh: I’m thrilled to welcome to the show my first guest Ken Kocienda, a software engineer who worked at Apple for 15 years under the leadership of the legendary Steve Jobs. He worked on the first versions of the Safari web browser, the iPhone, the iPad, and the Apple Watch. He wrote about his experiences in his new book, “Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs.”

Ken, thank you for being on the show.

Ken Kocienda: It’s great to be here with you.

Singh: Your book is fascinating. It was something that really kept me engaged throughout, and most fascinating to me was the process of development. You have a scene in the book about pitching to Steve Jobs, so tell me what that experience was like, pitching your design to Steve Jobs.

Kocienda: Steve was so focused on making great products. That’s what he cared about. If I had one word to describe my experiences with Steve — both presenting work to him and working at the company that he founded and led throughout this wonderfully creative period — it would be focus. He cared about making great products, and he focused on that to an incredible degree. At the same time, that also meant that he cared less about social graces or some of the friendly interpersonal aspects of a pleasant working environment that a lot of us take for granted. It was that focus that was really paramount for him.

For example, when I brought him a proposal for a new piece of software, a feature for a new product, or an aspect of the iPhone like the software keyboard, if he didn’t like it, he would say so in no uncertain terms. He could be very intimidating with his feedback, but the point was that we were really interested in improving the product every step of the way. Having this feedback was such an important part of the process throughout the development, the long chain of iteration that we used to take our ideas and turn them into products. It was really important to make sure that this feedback came through loudly and clearly at each step, and that’s what Steve did.

From my standpoint as a programmer, Steve could present his harsh feedback and his intimidating manner because if I could get his approval, that meant my work would go out into the world into an Apple product. You had to be prepared for the roller coaster, for some very straightforward feedback.

“If I had one word to describe my experiences with Steve, it would be focus.” – Ken Kocienda

Singh: You talk about the demo and how there were two different versions of the virtual keyboard. After demonstrating that to Steve, he said, “We need only one of these, right?” and you said, “Yes, I guess so.” Then you say, “He sized me up and asked, ‘Which one do you think we should use?’ A simple question clearly directed at me and only me.” Tell me how you felt about that and how you handled that process.

Kocienda: I have two answers to that question — one in the moment and one longer-term after I reflected — but in the moment I gulped. It was always a high-pressure, high-stress prospect to show work to Steve. His word counted for so much when it came to the final approval on how the product would look, feel, and work for people out in the world. In the moment I fell back on the experience that led up to the demo, which was weeks, just day after day, hour after hour focusing on this demo that I was there to present to him. We presented two options to him and he demanded that I choose one, and I realized in the moment that I knew which one I liked better. So I told him that.

Kocienda’s new book, Creative Selection

Singh: You said, “He continued looking at me after asking the question as he thought about my answer. He never moved his eyes to anyone or anything else. He was completely present and then he said, ‘Okay, we’ll go with the bigger keys.’ and that was it. The oracle of Apple had spoken, the software design prophecy had been revealed, and that was that.” It was a dramatic moment and something that actually became part of every single piece of hardware that was sold for many years to come.

Kocienda: The decisiveness that Steve could demonstrate in these moments was remarkable. He was willing to go all in when he saw a piece of work presented by someone like me and trusted my opinion in that moment. I mentioned a two-part answer. As I reflect on that brief interaction with him, what is remarkable to me is that the legend of Steve Jobs is that he was the one making all the choices — that he was the genius who could see around corners that mere mortals couldn’t. What stands out in my memory is that he turned to me and asked my opinion and was guided in his final decision by his trust in me, an individual programmer. Through our creative and product development process, I was charged with the responsibility to come up with this software, and when the choice was there to be made he trusted in my opinion.

Singh: Which is quite amazing. It was very much a software engineering view and a piece of software that was part of a complex product. He got very deep into the details, but he also had the larger picture in mind. There’s a debate about design these days as to how much should be user-driven and how much is driven by the demo, the feedback, the revised demo, and the creative selection process. It seems to me that what you’re suggesting is that future user reviews are a driver of innovation as much as continuous product development. Can we talk a bit more about that?

“The legend of Steve Jobs is that he was the one making all the choices — that he was the genius who could see around corners that mere mortals couldn’t.” – Ken Kocienda

Kocienda: The approach that we had was based on living on the products as we made them. In other words, we tried to make demos and prototypes as opposed to writing design documents or drawing sketches on whiteboards as a comparison. Instead, we focused on making demos and products that we could try ourselves, as if these early-stage or mid-stage or even late-stage products were the actual products that people would eventually be picking up and trying and hopefully buying in the stores. Throughout the whole development process, we tried to mimic the eventual experience that people would have with these products in their lives.

About Our Guest

Ken Kocienda was a software engineer and designer at Apple for over fifteen years. After graduating from Yale, he fixed motorcycles, worked in the editorial library of a newspaper, taught English in Japan, and made fine art photographs. Eventually, he discovered the internet, taught himself computer programming, and made his way through a succession of dot-com-era startups, before landing at Apple in 2001, where he worked on the software teams that created the Safari web browser, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.

Mastering Innovation is live on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. ET. Listen to more episodes here.