What does it mean to be a human in a world of computing?

NeXT co-founder Dan’l Lewin, president and CEO of the Computer History Museum, explains why people matter to IT.

Apple, NeXT, Microsoft, enterprise, Mac, technology, Dan'l Lewin
Martyn Williams/IDGNS

If you’re interested in learning about the history of the computer industry or if you just want to figure out how to lead an enterprise technology company, then you should take a look at the Computer History Museum.

I expect millions of computer users will have heard of the museum, a world-class institution in Mountain View, Calif. It’s a place where you can learn everything about the history of the technologies that continue to transform the way humans interact with each other and with the world.

Being human in a computer world

“What does it mean to be a human in a world of computing?” Dan’l Lewin, president and CEO of the Computer History Museum asks in the latest StoriesHere podcast.

Lewin worked with Steve Jobs at Apple after spending time running Sony’s Silicon Valley distribution; became a NeXT co-founder; joined upper management at Microsoft and more. Now, he’s working to make the museum a more interactive experience, “a programmable institution,” as he puts it.

Jobs was motivated to use the 3.5-in. floppy disk having seen it at Sony, at which point Lewin was part of Apple’s 10-strong workforce. Later, Jobs asked him to help launch NeXT. “I spent a day with him and then quit my job the following week,” he said.

“At Apple, I got to work with the engineers who invented everything that we live with today.”

3 Silicon Valley tips for enterprise leaders

I’ve listened to the podcast to pull out just a handful of ideas that should interest Apple and other technology users and anyone involved in management or enterprise IT.

You can (and should) listen to the entire 45-minute episode. It's available here.

Tip #1: Find the story

A senior Silicon Valley executive, Lewin led numerous negotiations as the tech industry grew. (He even managed to beat Jobs in at least one deal.)

He tells a story in which he claims one of the reasons Jobs eventually got fired was because he wanted to "blow up" the distribution deals (typically 15/85% in favor of the distributor) that existed at the time.

Jobs still felt the same at NeXT, where Lewin had to figure out how to make a mutually good deal that gave Jobs the 50% revenue share he wanted without bankrupting Heidi Roizen, who was to be the distributor.

He looked at the royalties and how the revenue actually worked to find that in terms of profit after costs both parties could end up with a 50% share. He suggests that in this business deal, as in others, a little negotiation was all it took – once the costs were properly analyzed.

Sometimes both sides can win.

Tip #2: People matter most

There’s a tendency to see business as dependent on systems, distribution, management hierarchies and connections, but this doesn’t reflect the big picture. And the big picture is the little picture. Even in the tech industry, business is about people, Lewin stressed.

“When I was in college, I had a professor who focused on the topic as relationships between people. I never lost touch with the fact that business is made up of people, it’s about the person in the moment and what you need to do to make that work,” he said.

Another tendency is for organizations to become relatively flat. Diversity makes businesses thrive, but many managers find it hard to look for people who are different than they are.

Lewin has a unique advantage here.

His father was a Marine with three Purple Hearts. This led Lewin’s father to become a professional wrestler at the beginning of broadcast TV. Lewin would go to work with his dad, which meant he became used to incredible diversity, and was able to engage with people at lots of different levels.

Diversity, and being familiar with it, helps businesses thrive – at least, if Lewin’s success is your guide.

Tip #3: Peace is good for business

After NeXT, Lewin ran a series of start-ups (some failed, some didn’t), and wound up working at Microsoft, where his challenge was to create peace with others in the industry after the famed anti-trust case against the company.

The sense of how the people in the groups worked with others in Silicon Valley was part of this. The links between Microsoft and the rest of the industry run deep.

“The PowerPoint team was an acquisition right at the beginning of Microsoft and were a bunch of ex-Apple staff,” Lewin says.

Much of the business of making peace with the industry rvolved around (once again) politics, which means people.

Competition can be collegiate, and that focus means Microsoft is now seen as a good company to do business with, explains Lewin. It means a company can seek new business opportunities and continue to hire good people.

Where are we going in computing?

In a sense, Lewin’s future plans for the Computer History Museum may reflect what he sees as the future of the tech industry.

“We're moving into a digital world where computing is ambient and life as we know it doesn't exist without computing,” he explains.

Yet the museum has decades of history packed inside it, including extensive oral history recordings from some of the great and the good in the industry. “The museum presents an interesting opportunity to unleash the historical artifacts of the past to present-day technologies,” he explains.

“These cycles tend to take about 50 years. If you go back to the beginning of the microprocessor, or if you look at other cycles like the one from railroads to aerospace … we're basically entering the next phase, from 1970 to 2020."

Where we are today, tech is everywhere, but people are now and always have been at the center of that.

But technology was never principally about hardware. It was about information technology, which is about communication. “Media and art are fundamental,” he says. “They matter from a cultural perspective.”

You can get some sense of how the history of computing will impact the future by visiting the Computer History Museum, which seems (just like Jobs once said) to be deeply coalesced around the crossroads that exists between technology and the liberal arts.

The computer world is a people’s world, after all.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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