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Women From Apple's Early Days Recall Working With Steve Jobs

While much was fiction in "Steve Jobs," one thing that is clearly dead-on in Aaron Sorkin's film: Kate Winslet's portrayal of Joanna Hoffman.

Ina Fried for Re/code

While many aspects of “Steve Jobs,” Aaron Sorkin’s movie about the late Apple co-founder, have come under fire, one thing is clearly accurate: Kate Winslet’s portrayal of early Mac team member Joanna Hoffman.

After hearing Hoffman herself speak on Monday evening at SAP Labs in Palo Alto, it was apparent that Winslet had captured her subject’s mannerisms and accent, as well as her passion and fire.

“I can’t complain that [Winslet] was the one who was playing me,” said Hoffman, while speaking on a panel of women who were part of Steve Jobs’s team during the early days of the Mac and at NeXT. The group addressed the Sorkin film, as well as what it was like to be a woman working for Jobs.

While former Apple marketing executive Hoffman was known for standing up to her mercurial and intimidating boss, she said she isn’t sure that she used the kind of direct words that Winslet uses in the film.

“So often Steve was so enthusiastic and so brilliant and visionary, and not necessarily reasonable,” Hoffman said. “I found myself being the party pooper.”

Monday’s event featured a number of women from Apple’s early days, several of whom didn’t appear in Sorkin’s final cut. Joining “Chief Stand-Up-to-Steve officer” Hoffman were Mac manufacturing team member Debi Coleman, Mac unit controller Susan Barnes, former Mac product marketing manager Barbara Kaolkin Barza, and PR consultant Andrea “Andy” Cunningham, who does appear in the movie.

Cunningham, who organized the panel, recalled the number of times she was fired by the late Apple chief.

“About four,” she said. “I may have the record.”

Asked by an audience member whether conflict was a necessary ingredient of building something new, Hoffman said that any real change is bound to ruffle a few feathers.

“It’s very important,” she said. “You have to always foster an environment where people can stand up against the orthodoxy, otherwise you will never create anything new.”

Barza noted that Jobs actually craved conflict. “I think it was something Steve looked for,” Barza said. “He didn’t want to be surrounded by ‘yes’ people, as much as he liked to be in control.”

Each person in the group recalled Jobs’s penchant for obsessing on detail, from things that were visible, such as icons on a screen, to those that customers would never see, like the staircase in the office at NeXT Computer, which Barza said Jobs ordered to be redesigned at least twice.

At the same time, the panel participants praised Jobs, particularly his knack for getting the best out of talented people. Coleman recalled how Jobs could convince people that they could change the world.

“People like Andy Hertzfeld did,” Coleman said.

Hertzfeld, a member of the original Macintosh computer development team, was among a number of other well-known figures from Apple’s past who were at the event. Hertzfeld also clarified one issue raised by the movie — whether Apple used a machine with more memory than the 128 kilobytes that shipped on the first Mac. “The intro demo did run on a 512K Mac that didn’t ship till September of following year,” he said. “But not because of the [text-to-speech] demo.”

Also at the Palo Alto event were Guy Kawasaki and Bud Tribble, an original Mac team member who returned to Apple in the second Steve Jobs era, and serves as a vice president in Apple’s software unit. (Tribble is married to Susan Barnes.)

While much of the talk focused on the past, the panel also addressed the current state of women in tech. It’s still tough, said Barnes, who is on the board of women’s college Bryn Mawr. “It’s hard to walk into a VC meeting and not see a woman partner,” she said.

Coleman agreed, challenging the men and women in the audience to support groups working to increase the number of women in the field.

“We have the power to change more things than user interfaces and grid computing,” Coleman said.

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