How To Talk To Detractors In Technology

I read with great morbid curiosity the open letter to RIM from a RIM employee. In the letter, the anonymous author mentions the video below of Steve Jobs from a WWDC developers conference in 1997. It’s a fascinating video, and as the author says really does speak to RIM today as it did Apple and developers in 1997.

In this video, I watched perhaps one of the best ways for someone to deal with what I would call “The Righteous Pedant”.  In IT, we’ve all probably dealt with this personality type, especially those of us that do public speaking or teaching.

At this point in 1997, and Steve Jobs had not yet taken over Apple, but he had come back into the fold after Apple had bought NeXT, one of the two companies that Jobs started after he left Apple (the other being Pixar). He did something that you don’t see a lot, in that he sat down and took frank and sometimes confrontational questions from the audience at WWDC. The entire video is a great example of a how to talk to detractors, and how to explain a controversial strategy. He’s thoughtful, respectful, and rather than counter-attack he made his case and acknowledged his fallibility.

Apple made a lot of tough decisions in those years, including killing a platform called OpenDoc. OpenDoc had the same of the same goals as Java, but Steve was involved in (his own words) putting a bullet in the head of OpenDoc. A very controversial decision at the time.

And so, during this WWDC talk, at 50:22 in the video, a very angry developer takes the mic and asks Steve this question. His tone was dripping with contempt, anger, and righteousness.

Mr Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man… it’s sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed that you don’t know what you’re talking about. I would like, for example, for you to express in clear terms how say Java in any of its incarnations addresses the ideas embodied in OpenDoc. And when you’re finished with that, perhaps you could tell us what you’ve been personally been doing for the past seven years.”

His answer was a brilliant, frank, and honest way to answer the question. It wasn’t the executive dodge, it made his case, and he took ownership of the decision. That’s not something you see a lot of, and it’s a great example of how to not only talk to a detractor, but do it in an honest and effective way.

One Response to How To Talk To Detractors In Technology

  1. Leon says:

    I just saw this video over at Garr Reynolds blog and was amazed by it. Like you said, the way Jobs handled such a pit-of-the-stomach-upsetting personal insult (and that in front of hundreds of IT experts), and especially how he refused to take it personally, was brilliant.

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