Steve Jobs’ former intern describes what he learned working ’20 yards away’ from him every day

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Steve Jobs’ former intern describes what he learned working ’20 yards away’ from him every day

Chet Kapoor, chairman and CEO of DataStax.

Datastax

As a teen, Chet Kapoor dreamed of working for tech mogul Steve Jobs.

One day, that dream became a reality when Kapoor was hired as an intern at software company NeXT, founded by Jobs.

“Steve was this iconic individual and I didn’t know him … I was the guy that got coffee for the guy that made coffee,” Kapoor — who is now CEO of generative AI company DataStax — told CNBC Make It.

“I was one step below the person that opened doors but that didn’t matter because I worked 20 yards away from him [Jobs] every day.”

Kapoor made his mark in Silicon Valley as CEO of cloud software company Apigee, which was acquired by Google in a $625 million deal in 2016. He has since held leadership positions at firms including Google and IBM.

However, he credits a lot of his success to his experience working as Jobs’ intern in the early days.

Kapoor explained that he would focus on the questions that Jobs would ask in all-hand meetings more than anything else because it gave an insight into his thought process.

“That exposure was absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “I can attribute a large portion of my success to my first two or three years at NeXT.”

‘This is who I want to go and work for’

Kapoor, 57, was born in Kolkata, India, and recalled his mother taking him to the British Council library so he could read books while she went shopping.

“In 1983, I read this book called ‘A Little Kingdom’ and it was written by a guy by the name of Michael Moritz,” Kapoor said. “This book was about two Steves: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. It was all about Apple. I was impressionable because I was 15 or 16.”

“I was like ‘this is who I want to go and work for’ and it was very clear to me that I wanted to come and hang out and work with Steve Jobs,” he added.

CUPERTINO, CA – APRIL 08: Apple CEO Steve Jobs points during a Q & A session during an Apple special event April 8, 2010 in Cupertino, California. Jobs announced the new iPhone OS4 software. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Justin Sullivan | Getty

Inspired by the book, Kapoor took computer classes and started applying to colleges in the United States. He eventually landed at Arizona State University in 1986.

During that time, Jobs left Apple and founded a new software company called NeXT in 1985. That’s when the opportunity arose for Kapoor to fulfill his dream.

NeXT started a program called the Campus Consultants and started hiring students to work for them part-time from their colleges — and Kapoor became one of them in 1988.

The company asked Kapoor and a select few students to join the company as interns after they graduated, where they rotated through various odd jobs.

“I started working for NeXT five years after I imagined that I would be working for Steve,” Kapoor said.

Jobs cultivated a ‘strong engineering culture’

Jobs created a very “product and design-centric” environment at NeXT, according to Kapoor.

“Everything starts with what is the user experience. How is the user going to interact with this? That made all the difference in the world and the maniacal focus on that was absolutely amazing,” Kapoor said.

This is reminiscent of Apple’s culture, with Jobs saying in a 1985 Newsweek interview that he enjoyed “making things.”

“What I’m best at doing is finding a group of talented people and making things with them,” Jobs said. “My philosophy is that everything starts with a great product.”

iPhone users just see a new pretty interface, but there’s a lot of “hardcore engineering” that happens behind the scenes, Kapoor explained.

“Everything starts with a very strong engineering culture,” he said. “He drove a very hard, regimented schedule because otherwise, you just leave it, and it becomes a science project. He was very driven in that regard.”

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