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THE CUTTING EDGE

Unlikely Apple Exec Behind Jobs' Return

Management: Ellen Hancock's masterstroke of bringing the prodigal son home is the talk of Silicon Valley.

December 23, 1996|JULIE PITTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CUPERTINO, Calif. — Steven P. Jobs' remarkable return to Apple Computer, announced by the company late Friday, began in a most unlikely way: with a phone conversation between two engineers at Jobs' Next Software and an Apple executive, Chief Technology Officer Ellen Hancock, who would seem to embody everything that Jobs isn't.

Hancock spent 28 years at IBM Corp., a company that Jobs often ridiculed after he co-founded Apple 20 years ago. In the mid-1980s, when Hancock was IBM's highest ranking female executive, Jobs masterminded a TV commercial that portrayed IBM customers as lemmings marching single-file off a cliff in matching blue suits.

Jobs' free-wheeling, highly individualized style is the antithesis of the conservative Hancock, whose appointment to the Apple job in July was greeted with something less than wild enthusiasm in many quarters.

In incestuous Silicon Valley, she was said to be too stiff a bureaucrat, too old-fashioned--and yes, maybe even just too old--to inspire the young, egocentric engineers who had in many ways emulated Jobs even though he had been deposed 11 long years ago.

The rumor mill buzzed with stories about how Hancock brought her IBM ways to Apple and suffered disastrous consequences.

Among them: that Hancock used an IBM PC and not an Apple Macintosh, that she moved through the famously casual company in prim business suits and surrounded by assistants, and that the engineers rebelled against her authoritarian rule.

It turns out, though, that none of those rumors are true. And her bold stroke--recommending that Apple solve the life-or-death issue of how to replace the aging Macintosh operating system by acquiring Jobs' Next Software and bring the prodigal son home--is sure to stop such talk for a while.

When the two Next engineers, unbeknown to Jobs, called Hancock's office, they were astonished to find that the former software engineer was eager to talk "code." Weeks after joining Apple, Hancock had pulled the plug on Copland--a floundering effort to upgrade dramatically the creaky Mac operating system--and now she needed an alternative.

(With the steady improvements in Microsoft's Windows software, Apple can remain in the game only with innovative new software.)

"Contrary to the Apple way, we were not going to be too proud to look outside the company for technology," Hancock said. "They guys [at Next] had heard about what had happened to Copland and they knew were talking to people in the industry about other options. They called to tell me they thought they had something we should look at."

"How many executives would return a phone call like that?" asked Jobs at the hastily called news conference on Friday. "These guys were able to talk to Ellen, engineer to engineer."

Days after that conversation, it was Jobs' turn to be surprised when Apple Chairman and Chief Executive Gil Amelio, a man he barely knew, broached the idea of replacing Copland with Next's software.

Talks proceeded quickly, and by a week ago Sunday, Hancock, a devout Catholic, was at a church near Apple headquarters praying for the deal go through. "I thought, this isn't something that I really should be praying for but I then I thought, 'If you don't ask you don't get heard.' "

After the service, she returned to Apple for what would be 5 1/2 days of intense negotiations. Jobs, notoriously mercurial, proved relatively easy to deal with. He did not ask for the board seat that Jean Louis Gassee--the former Apple research and development chief who had tried to sell Apple on his start-up, Be Inc.--had demanded.

And Jobs, unlike Gassee, did not want to run Apple's software efforts, preferring instead to join the company as a part-time consultant so he could continue to be chairman of Pixar Inc., the computer animation company that created "Toy Story."

"So far, I have only seen the very nice Steve," Hancock said. "But, of course, I've read about the other side. But I think things are going to work out fine. Look, there's plenty of work to go around at this company.

"Steve is the visionary," Hancock said. "I'm sometimes cited as a visionary, but not very often. I consider myself a general manager. I'm good at seeing that projects get out the door."

The new version of the Macintosh operating system--a reworked version of the Next operating system with pieces of what had been Copland--will be finished by the end of 1997, promises Hancock. "When it shows up, it's going to be stronger than Copland ever was," she said. "It's going to be nice not to have to apologize for the software anymore."

Hancock's six months at Apple have been a baptism by fire, but one the 53-year-old executive was prepared for, from her early days as the overachieving eldest child of a middle-class Irish Catholic family to her training as a fast-track employee at IBM.

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