David Heinemeier Hansson

November 5, 2022

Apple fired 4,100 when Steve Jobs returned in 1997

In 1997, Apple was in dire straits. The stock was trading at a 12-year low, they were losing gobs of money, and Michael Dell famously called for Apple to shut down and return its money to shareholders. Things were bad. It was at this bottom Steve Jobs returned.

In February of that year, Apple bought NeXT Software, Jobs' company-in-exile. Jobs immediately joined the executive committee as an "advisor" to Apple's then CEO Gil Amelio. The following month, Apple axed 4,100 employees while scuttling software and hardware projects en masse. Shortly after, Amelio was out as CEO, in recognition that Jobs' was already defacto running the place.

It was in this context Steve Jobs did his infamous townhall at WWDC. Where someone stood up and accused him of not knowing what he was talking about. To which Jobs calmly responded that letting engineers and operators run the company was a bad idea. That you needed someone with a product vision of what the customer wanted to have a shot at recovery. But it's the following quote from that response that really nailed it: 

Some mistakes will be made. That's good. Because at least some decisions will be made too. We'll fix them... But I think it's so much better than where things were not very long ago.

Does this situation remind you of anything topical? I'm not saying that Elon Musk is Steve Jobs. I'm not saying Twitter is about to post an Apple-like turn-around bull run. But I am saying that the call to urgency, the focus on the customer, and the willingness to start making decisions knowing some of them will be wrong is uncannily similar.

So too is the response from the press. While everyone seems to be collectively losing their shit right now over Elon's staff cuts, it's worth hearing the echo from Jobs' return back then. Here's ZDNet begrudgingly recognizing the early results of the dramatic cuts that Jobs' had instituted with a dire warning about the future:

First, Apple has lost a lot of sterling engineering talent that will be hard to replace. Second, Apple has lost a lot of sterling sales and marketing talent (don't laugh) that will be hard to replace. And the company still lacks a marketing chief. Third, Apple has lost a lot of sterling operations talent that will be hard to replace... Net-net on the lost staffing issue, then, Apple has some seriously shaky time ahead of it.

Yes, times were shaky, because Apple needed to be woken up. It needed a fundamental reboot, and Steve Jobs delivered just that. It required some savage cuts to the payroll, to the project portfolio, and to the pride of the company. But the alternative was more of the same, and the same clearly wasn't working.

Again, Twitter ain't Apple, Musk ain't Jobs, but maybe before you declare the bird house dead, you ought to let your humility reflect history.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.