Google's Vic Gundotra, on getting a call from Steve Jobs on a Sunday: the Icon Ambulance

The news that Steve Jobs has resigned as Apple CEO, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, will inspire a lot of people to write a lot of things online. Much of it will be garbage. Some of it, like the personal recollection I'm linking to here, will not.

I am glad that Google's Vic Gundotra chose the moment to share this story, about receiving a phone call from Steve Jobs on a Sunday, while attending religious services.

Jobs blocks his outgoing Caller ID, so Gundotra didn't pick up—he was worshipping. At the time, Gundotra handled all mobile apps for Google, and had regular dealings with Jobs. Gundotra listened to his voicemail, and a message left by the Apple CEO, and called him back before even reaching his car.

"Hey Steve - this is Vic", I said. "I'm sorry I didn't answer your call earlier. I was in religious services, and the caller ID said unknown, so I didn't pick up".

Steve laughed. He said, "Vic, unless the Caller ID said 'GOD', you should never pick up during services".

I laughed nervously. After all, while it was customary for Steve to call during the week upset about something, it was unusual for him to call me on Sunday and ask me to call his home. I wondered what was so important?

"So Vic, we have an urgent issue, one that I need addressed right away. I've already assigned someone from my team to help you, and I hope you can fix this tomorrow" said Steve.

"I've been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone and I'm not happy with the icon. The second O in Google doesn't have the right yellow gradient. It's just wrong and I'm going to have Greg fix it tomorrow. Is that okay with you?"

Of course this was okay with me. A few minutes later on that Sunday I received an email from Steve with the subject "Icon Ambulance".

Icon Ambulance (Google+, via MacRumors, via @kouroshk)


  1. almost like the tiniest details really really matter to him, more so than your opinion of him.

    Genius is funny like that. Honey Badger don’t give a shit.

  2. I’m a college student in San Francisco and lately we’ve been having a lot of concern over the recent earthquake predictions. One night, I woke up to find that my bed was shaking violently. I panicked thinking “EARTHQUAKE,” but then I looked at the foot of my bed and there was a man standing about six foot, with both arms reaching around my mattress, shaking back and forth. It was none other than Steve Jobs. When I looked into his eyes the shaking immediately stopped. He stared straight back at me and whispered “No one will ever believe you,” then flew off into the night.

    1. That was Bill Murray wearing a Steve Jobs mask.

      While I admire his “go to chutzpa” that could’ve waited till Monday.

  3. OK this is a nice Jobs story, but I think anyone who has ever worked for somebody at that level in a company will know that it’s a pretty standard management technique to suddenly pick on a tiny detail. What this does is to show their underlings that they a) care about detail (and therefore so should the underlings), b) keep them on their toes by perpetuating a (obviously false) impression that they are better than their subordinates by being able to think about the big picture as well as the small one at the same time. Nobody can actually do that of course. It’s a trick.

    What this story shows is that Jobs is good at this technique, because what the management training people always tell you is that the trick is to choose the right detail to pick on that won’t make you look like you are just doing it gratuitously.

    1. What it says to me is “my wife/girlfriend/competitor/random-person-on-the-street commented on this, and I need to look like a big man by turning an insignificant thing into a big deal.”

    2. To a man who uses techniques, everything seems like a technique. A man who knows tricks, knows tricks. I’m not so sure you’ve said a lot about Steve Jobs there.

  4. One man’s “attention to detail” is another man’s “micromanagement in favor of missing the big picture.”

    I’m no mac-basher, but I WOULD like a tablet that can view webpages with flash, an iphone that connects at 4g, and a professional update of Final Cut that is compatible with my existing workflow of the past decade.

    In Steve’s world, that makes me some kind of luddite, but I think I have reasonable needs from my apple products.

  5. “Vic, unless the Caller ID said ‘GOD’, you should never pick up during services”.
    To which Steve added “As that would be me calling you from my non blocked number so you sure as hell better pick up the phone”

  6. Say what you will about the man, but an uncompromising eye toward minutiae is a valuable trait for anyone who cares about design. Jobs knew what he wanted and let everyone else know their jobs wouldn’t be done until he got it. I’ve been involved in enough “design by committee” projects to see the results of compromise.

  7. Who says a generic like “I was in religious services”?

    Is that a California thing where people try not to tip their hand about what their actual affiliation is?

    1. I am not Jewish but I have studied their mating rituals, One of my native guides explained it to me like this.

      Using a generic “worship” or “religious services” is easier than using the actual Jewish term. Invariably when you say “I was at סעודה שלישית” to a gentile he loses his train of thought and either says, “what?” repeatedly or insists on learning the correct pronunciation.

      When you’re talking on a cell phone it is an order of magnitude more tedious.

      Full disclosure: I am one of those tedious gentiles. Even though the tribe rejected me they gave me a nice כִּיפָּה‎.

  8. Bill pwned personal computers.
    Steve pwned imagi – nations

    i published a finicky cryptic icon editor in 1992 because of that man. took me , er, six years to kick the icon habit.

    i swear he must be some kind of manic obsessive high-functioning savant. or a kinder, gentler reincarnation if Rasputin

  9. Is this case the result of a sense of design or is it just great ‘negative taste’? To some people, anything that looks out of place is like a kick in the nuts, regardless if it is big or small. I’m pretty sure that Jobs is one of these people.

  10. I’m disinclined to care how ingenious a guy is, but to call a vendor on a Sunday morning to complain about an “urgent issue” that happens to consist entirely of one’s perception of the inaccuracy of the color gradient of one-sixth of said vendor’s logo on a half-inch-square icon is a dick move.

    Yeah, I get it.  He’s STEVE JOBS.  His opinion matters, his taste is impeccable, his sense of design is unparalleled, his uncompromising devotion to perfection is impeccably perfectly unparalleled, blah blah blah.

    On a personal level, his expectation that colleagues (not just employees) leap to adjust reality ever so slightly to fit his preference on a day off seems kinda psychotic.

    If the voicemail described the problem and asked if they could get into it first thing Monday, well, that’d be a perfectly reasonable exercise in detail-oriented executive attention.

    Sundays aren’t necessarily sacrosanct in the business world, but usage of the word “urgent” damn well ought to be.

    1. This is why Apple is so successful. They’ve conquered the personal tech business by paying attention to detail. Uncompromising attention to detail. It might personally upset you that the head of the company would give a shit about their products, but I’m grateful that he did. It’s but one of the reasons why the competition won’t be catching up any time soon.

      1. It might personally upset you that the head of the company would give a shit about their products, but I’m grateful that he did.

        Who’s upset?  I don’t have to work for the guy.  FWIW, “giving a shit” is a good thing.  Hell, even obsessing about it to the point of noticing and altering the damned yellow O is worthwhile.  Leaving someone a voicemail saying “call me at home, I have something urgent to discuss” instead of something on the order of “your icon’s second O is the wrong shade of yellow, and I want to fix it at the earliest opportunity, so gimme a holler when you get a chance, thanks” basically puts forward a fairly arrogant assumption that the world should cease to turn on its axis until your color sensibilities are mollified.  The second approach gets the problem fixed just as fast without making anyone’s stomach plummet into their shoes wondering what crisis is unfolding that requires a call to Steve Jobs at home on a Sunday.  The first approach ignores (or deliberately preys upon) any anxiety that might be caused by someone receiving a cryptic message from Jobs regarding “something urgent.”  Maybe Jobs is blissfully ignorant of his own godhead in his industry… yeah, sure.

        It’s but one of the reasons why the competition won’t be catching up any time soon.

        Oh, no doubt.  And when the competition does, in fact, catch up, it will no doubt be due to the absence of Jobs at Apple’s wheel.  Indubitably.

        1. As an aside to our moderator pals, what do you keep needing to edit?  Are we still getting too much space after our blockquotes?

          Is there maybe a way to indicate when something gets edited for content as opposed to formatting?  Or do you refrain from editing for content outside of obvious edits like disemvowelment and deletion?

          1. Yes. I take out extra line breaks. Our CSS for blockquotes is not quite what it could be, so you need to back the text after the blockquote right up to the closing tag – don’t hit enter even once. But some people also put like six line breaks between paragraphs. I’ve been cleaning up extra space all along, but today Disqus decided to start announcing it.

          2. Ah.  Well, thank you for the insight, and also for the cleanup work.  I shall endeavor to keep my carriage returns to a minimum.  You work hard enough as it is.

    2. This reminds me of a boss I had a while back. There was a service he was interested in using for our company, but their FAQ left one of his questions unanswered. So he picked up the phone, and called the number they had listed.

      It was about 8 in the morning, so it wasn’t surprising when he got sent to voicemail. What was the message he left?

      “Hi, this is [name redacted] from [no-name startup nobody had heard of yet]. Call me back at [number].”

      No mention of his question. No mention of what he was calling about. I pointed this out to him, and he said, “Well, if they don’t call back, that’s their problem.” Actually it’s our problem because we’re the ones who are trying to find out if you know what screw it I’m not even gonna try.

      I think my boss thought he was Steve Jobs, but, uh, wasn’t.

  11. I worked as senior designer at a small ad agency for years, and art director at a small publisher for many more.

    The thing about working in Silicon Valley is that many, if not most people at most companies, work 7 days a week to one degree or another. I wouldn’t be shocked that it simply didn’t occur to him that it was a Sunday, and he was simply dealing with the problem as soon as he noticed it. (a great habit BTW)

    As for the “unreasonableness” of his problem… well, that’s debatable. I’ve dealt with many an emergency design tweak that was on a similar level of detail, and with similarly dire-sounding language. I would 1000 times over rather deal with a perfectionist than work with a lead designer who DIDN’t look at and and sweat the details.

    It’s that kind of a process of continual, fine-grained improvement that results in a gorgeous device like the iPhone 4. It isn’t accidental, and it’s been going on since at least the birth of the Mac. Read some of the accounts of the icon design in the 1.0 Mac OS.

  12. Steve really cares about quality and realizes how important image quality is, logos and branding being an extension of that. Working as an image producer at Apple made me ultra aware of even the tiniest imperfections in photos and logos, and I have to say, I lose a bit of respect for companies that don’t manage their images, websites, and logos as well.  People sometimes don’t believe me when I tell them how involved Steve is in every aspect of Apple’s business, but especially in matters concerning design and anything the public sees.  When I worked there, Steve always had input for our group on every launch, and definitely directed the look and feel of the imagery from the beginning of any campaign or launch. This story doesn’t surprise me at all. 

  13. Who says a generic like “I was in religious services”Is that a California thing where people try not to tip their hand about what their actual affiliation is?

     I’m nominally Christian, and I still speak this way. It maintains some privacy for me (my faith is none of your business!), and it shows sensitivity: Religion is not a topic for polite conversation and underplaying it emphasizes that I’m not going to take the conversation in an uncomfortable direction. It might indeed partly be a regional urban coastal city thing, part of learning to get along in those environments.

    1. I don’t think a diagnosis would really matter much.  If he’s OCD he’s clearly found a way to make it work for him.

  14. While people seem to feel it’s justified that jobs micromanage every detail of the company’s products, it does make one wonder how a committee of conventional bean counters will carry on.  

    Who will be the decider, and how will Apple without Jobs not fall into the same race to the bottom of cheap crap that Dell, Microsoft, HP and every other computer vendor has?

  15. At the risk of violating the “if you don’t have anything nice to say” dictum, what I wonder is how much truth there is to the ’99 docudrama, Pirates of Silicon Valley. It portrayed Jobs as an abusive boss and a jerk who would let the mother of his child be on welfare rather than admit he was the father.

  16. Christ, what an asshole…

    Also he could be completely wrong about the color altogether, depending on his mood, the time of day an so forth, according to this previous article :

  17. This is a tiny more anecdote that predisposes me against Jobs. This explains the restrictive nature of Apple products to a T.

    I would have told him to get lost ( Silicon Valley is  really detached from real life, drowning in their sense of self importance), it is about time that people stopped believing all the nonsense about working with no rest in detriment of their own health and their families well-being.

  18. I think it was Umberto Eco that said the only 2 people in the world that need cellphones are doctors and adulterers. I think he also said that the Mac is like the Catholic Church and Wndows is like the Anglican Church. But enough of that – Now, if Steve Jobs had REAL power, he would not need a cellphone, and he would have got his assistant to make the call.

  19. Wow, this illuminates a new management level.  We need a name for something lower/finer than micro-management. Pico? No. Nano-Management!

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