Steve Jobs’ Real-World Leading Ladies Gather

Era portrayed in the Steve Jobs movie was a good time for women in tech

5 min read
Photo: Tekla Perry
Five of the leading ladies of Steve Jobs' real work life gathered in a discussion moderated by journalist Katie Hafner, far left. Next to Hafner, left to right, are Joanna Hoffman, Debi Coleman, Susan Barnes, Barbara Koalkin Barza, and Andy Cunningham
Photo: Tekla Perry

In an event that was as much reunion as it was panel discussion, five of the leading ladies in Steve Jobs’ work world gathered Monday evening at SAP Labs in Palo Alto to talk about the Steve Jobsmovie, their real-life experiences working with the tech legend, and the state of women in technology, then and now.

On the panel, moderated by journalist Katie Hafner, were:

  • Joanna Hoffman, the fifth person on the Mac team, who also worked for Jobs at NeXT. Hafner introduced Hoffman as Chief Stand-Up-to-Steve Officer
  • Debi Coleman, a member of the Macintosh team who ended up running Mac manufacturing and became Vice President of Operations at Apple
  • Susan Barnes, controller of the Macintosh division and Chief Financial Officer for NeXT
  • Barbara Koalkin Barza, a computer science graduate who ran the product marketing team at Apple and became marketing manager at Pixar
  • Andy Cunningham, who became project lead for the Macintosh launch right after she joined public relations firm Regis-McKenna, and later, while running her own PR firm, Cunningham Communications, worked with Jobs at NeXT and Pixar

A wistfulness emerged from the anecdotes about working with Jobs, meeting with Hollywood stars, and watching something that’s supposed to be your life on the big screen. That was true not only with respect to those exciting times of being 20-something and part of a group working to change the world under a passionate leader, but also about for what, in hindsight, was a golden age for women in technology.

All the women recalled that Jobs, no matter his faults, never treated women differently than he treated men.

Said Barnes: “We traveled with Steve, we spent a lot of hours with him, we never felt he treated women differently. When you are in a startup, there is so much work to be done, you are quickly looking at a meritocracy.”

She recalled representing Apple in negotiations over disk drive purchases in Japan, at a time in which women did not play big roles at Japanese corporations. “The chairman and president of the company told me, ‘Miss Barnes, we have an assistant to take you pearl shopping while we do the negotiations.’ Then a fax came from Steve that said ‘Miss Barnes makes the decision on these negotiations,’ and the reaction was fascinating.”

Another time, she recalled, “Debi [Coleman] got in trouble for hiring only women in the finance group. Steve asked her ‘When are you going to hire men?’ She said, ‘When you double my head count.’”

Said Koalkin Barza: “I felt like Steve was more concerned about could you do the job, not even had you done the job before. Steve was open to whoever would get the job done.”

Coleman recalled when Jobs promoted her to run manufacturing. “He had a vision for this automated factory,” she said, “and he tried a couple guys in a row from big multi-letter companies. He told people, ‘They were a couple of bozos, then I put Debi in.’”

Jobs, the panelist recalled, was accommodating to parents, women or men.

Said Hoffman: “The first person in our group to have a family was Mike Murray [a marketing director]. He has to be home for dinner, and Steve was very respectful of that—to some extent, to the resentment of the rest of us [who thought] ‘Well, he chose to have a family.’ But Steve was my age at the time and he didn’t resent it; he made accommodations for Mike to spend time with his family and children.” 

Today, the panelists agreed, tech could use more of Jobs’ attitude towards women. The mid-1980s, Hafner pointed out, were the heyday of women in tech; 37 percent of computer science grads were women. By 2013, that number had dropped to 18 percent. “It’s very grim out there right now,” Hafner added. 

The panelists are trying to improve matters, both personally and professionally. Coleman, for example, is on the board of the Anita Borg Institute, which runs the annual Grace Hopper conference for women in computing. Barnes is on the board of Bryn Mawr; she encourages tech companies to go outside their normal pipelines for new hires.  

But you don’t have to work for a large organization to change things, they indicated. To reinforce their point, Barnes said, “I was working at Intuitive Surgical and walked by someone who had a big poster of Wondergirl, I said that makes women uncomfortable, take it out. If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.”

Indeed, Cunningham pointed out, women in tech should make sure they are helping other women—that wasn’t the norm, she said, back in the 80s.

imgKate Winslet, right, as Joanna Hoffman

Of course, many in the audience came not just to hear tales of the tech world, but also for stories of Hollywood. After all, it’s not every woman in technology who ends up being portrayed by Kate Winslet on the big screen.

Hoffman did not disappoint. “When Kate Winslet called me,” she said, “she had her baby with her, and said ‘We are cooped up in a hotel, do you have a yard?’ I thought, Yes, of course, if she could be an ally [in making sure my relationship with Jobs was portrayed correctly], then I would be happy to talk to her. I was glad I did; just reading the script, there were some images she had that weren’t in the spirit [of the truth].  For example, she pictured me as being a much more subordinate… that I was an assistant. Because, who knows what a product marketing person does if you are in the movie industry?”

Hoffman’s assessment of Winslet: “She is a lovely, brilliant, infinitely energetic person. We really hit it off. Alain [Rossman] was there, my husband, who is French. At some point she told him, ‘Don’t talk, because I’m trying to pick up her intonation, not yours.’”

How close was the movie to reality? Hafner pointed out, with Hoffman nodding vigorously in agreement, that the story took, “great license with all kinds of facts.”

imgJoanna Hoffman (left) with Debi Coleman; both were winners of the annual “Stand Up to Steve Award”

But some things that might have seemed like fiction were indeed true. There really was a “Standing Up to Steve Award.” Coleman told that story: “I joined [the company on] November 1, 1981, and Joanna was the center of the Macintosh group at the time. I was mesmerized; here was this brilliant young chairman of the board, head of our group, and the only person who would stand up to him was Joanna.”

“At one of our Friday pizza meetings,” she continued, “someone jokingly said ‘Joanna, you win the award as someone who stands up most to Steve in our group.’ I began to have secret aspirations. The next year, I brought up the topic at one of these dinners; I nominated you [Hoffman], knowing you would win two years in a row, but that I was secretly aiming to displace you. I won in ‘83.”

imgAndy Herzfeld, portrayed in Steve Jobs by Michael Stuhlbarg, rose from the audience to answer a question: Was the original Mac demo really done on a more advanced 512K system, not the 128K system being launched? “Yes,” he said.Photo: Tekla Perry

And, in another yes-it-really-happened detail, the original Mac demo was indeed performed on a more advanced computer with 512K memory, not the 128K model officially being launched. Andy Herzfield, designer of the Macintosh system software, rose from the audience to confirm that story, though he did point out that the switch was not because the Mac needed to say “Hello,” as indicated in the movie (he didn’t reveal the real reason).

As time for the discussion drew to a close, a member of the audience asked these women who knew Jobs so well what he’d be doing now, if he were still alive today, at age 60. Said Hoffman, “I can’t pretend to think about what he would think or be doing. Part of being a visionary is that you are unpredictable. This is a man that was one in a billion and touched the lives of billions.”

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