President Barack Obama met briefly with Apple CEO Steve Jobs on Thursday at the Westin hotel in Millbrae, Calif., to discuss American competitiveness and education. Obama had arrived in San Francisco earlier in the day to headline fundraising events for his party.
In California, the line between politics and tech business have blurred recently with former Silicon Valley CEOs running for office. Tech workers must be feeling a little dizzy as their super-rich leaders, stressful work environment, and culture of innovation are put on display in heated debates and television advertisements.
Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has poured a record-breaking $141.5 million of her own money into her campaign against Jerry Brown in the race for California governor, yet still finds herself behind in the polls in the final two weeks.
In the rough and tumble world of Silicon Valley, Whitman had helped grow eBay from a $4 million company with 30 employees in 1998 to an $8 billion company with 15,000 employees a decade later. Touting her business acumen, Whitman won the Republican primary.
But her tough talk and actions came back to bite her when alleged abusive treatment of an eBay worker and, later, the hiring and firing of an undocumented immigrant maid surfaced.
In the senate race, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is closing the gap against Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in the most recent polls. Like Whitman, Fiorina also trades on her tech business experience. In her latest ad, she alludes to tech business and innovation being results oriented and accuses politicians of partisan games. “When bickering ends, solutions begin,” Fiorina says.
Boxer’s new television ad, on the other hand, shows the underbelly of tech companies. Her ad stirs bad memories for tech workers—and fears that persist to this day. The ad shows former Hewlett-Packard techies who were laid off as part of a 30,000 worker reduction plan under Fiorina’s watch in the early 2000s, in which Hewlett-Packard shipped much of the work overseas.
In those days, I met a few “impacted” Hewlett-Packard workers—some angry, some in tears—who told me that they had to suffer the indignity of training their cheaply paid foreign replacements in order to collect another paycheck or two. Offshoring and outsourcing turned Silicon Valley into a cauldron of racism and hate. It was an ugly time.
Now enters Obama who wanted to pick Jobs’ brain about American competitiveness, which was in full display early this week when a feisty Jobs took shots at Google and RIM. Obama also wanted to talk about energy independence and how to create jobs, according to the Associated Press.
Why not? Apple just posted a whopping $20 billion quarter, the most recent in a string of quarterly record-breaking sales during one of the worst recessions in history. Jobs continues to deliver exceptionally innovative products, such as the iPhone, iPad and, most recently, the new MacBook Air. (Check out the CIO.com book review of 7 Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs.)
It’s unlikely, however, that Obama will ask Jobs for advice on how to handle politically sticky situations. Jobs’ well-documented ego showed up at the iPhone 4’s “antennagate” press conference a couple of months ago—the same ego that some industry watchers say gives Jobs an edge in the fast-moving, hard-hitting world of technology.
During the press conference, Jobs complained that the iPhone 4’s antenna reception woes were overblown by a media that likes to “tear down” successful companies. His rhetoric digressed into a desperate attempt at tying Apple with patriotism. “Would you rather we were Korean companies rather than American companies?” he said.
While high-flying tech companies (and their CEOs) have much to be proud of, the dark side of that success doesn’t look very good under the harsh light of politics.
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.