- Tim Milliron worked at Pixar for over 13 years and also at companies like Google, Twilio, and now Podium.
- He says Jobs insisted Pixar employees articulate the value of every new project in extreme detail.
- Jobs pushed them to always keep asking the hard “how” and “why” questions for clarity.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Early in my career, I worked at Pixar Animation Studios for over 13 years. I started as a technical director and left as the company’s director of simulation tools, and I held various key leadership roles related to engineering and product development.
For a portion of my tenure, Steve Jobs was still CEO and already a legend in Silicon Valley. I once had the chance to pitch him on a new technology (one that the studio still uses today) – and the entire process of pitching him became like a graduate-level course in how to think about business like an entrepreneur, no matter your company, role or title.
Pixar was in the middle of one of the greatest hot streaks a film studio has ever seen.
Our most recent releases were “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and “Cars.” But the technical challenges of these films made it clear it was time to overhaul our 20-year-old animation platform if we wanted to stay at the very top of the industry.
Along with four other leaders, I was leading a team that would go on to develop a new animation platform from the ground up.
At virtually any other organization, working under almost any other leader, our project would have been greenlit with little fuss. We would create a detailed formal proposal and someone higher up the ladder would sign the dotted line.
But not at Pixar – not with Steve in charge.
With Steve, getting buy-in and approval felt more like an early-stage VC pitch and less like an internal greenlight.
It took several months of pitches with Steve reviewing the product, the team, and the plan, complete with “due-diligence” trips back and forth to get sign-off from Apple’s technical experts.
Movies and first-hand accounts of Steve Jobs depict him as a jerk, or, at the very least, tough and difficult. In our pitches, Steve didn’t mince words, to be sure. But I found him to be incisive, smart, and appropriately skeptical.
Steve had a way of asking questions that forced us to distill our proposal to its essence: In terms of software, what was Pixar’s “secret sauce?” How did our proposed system deliver that ten times better than the old system? Why did this really matter to the core of Pixar’s business – making the best films?
To us, the answers were obvious. We were trying to give animators the best possible tool to bring the director’s ideas to life, and we were codifying the magic our old system just stumbled upon – while letting hundreds of artists collaborate on the same film at the same time.
But that clear description of “why” was thanks to Steve. He made us articulate that vision crisply, create a compelling pitch for why our solution was the best way to achieve it and explain why we were the best leadership team to build it.
The intensity of this process initially caught me off-guard, but I learned three critical lessons over the course of the experience:
1. Stay humble, and never take a company’s resources for granted
Don’t assume your ideas will automatically be greenlit, even if your project is valuable, your organization can afford it, or if your credentials are beyond reproach.
Pixar certainly had plenty of resources, and in many ways the value proposition was obvious. And every member of our leadership team had led very successful teams on the studio’s most profitable films.
But Steve still insisted that we crisply articulate the value we would deliver and the correctness of our approach in fine detail.
And, it wasn’t just rigor around what we were building – it was also rigor around how we were building it. A big part of our process when pitching to Steve was working with engineering leaders he trusted at Apple in order to make sure the tech made sense. In later years, I came to understand this as Steve probably did: he was sending us to a technical team to do due-diligence, just like a VC would.
Great leaders continue demanding a deeper understanding of the “why” and the “how,” especially as they find themselves with more resources. Steve understood that we couldn’t stop asking the hard questions and insisting on crystal clarity just because we were successful at the time.
2. Business co-ownership trumps lone heroes
There were five of us that comprised the leadership team for our project, and we brought very different perspectives and sensibilities. Sure, one of us was “the boss” and for any given topic one of us owned “the decision,” but we were all passionate about understanding each others’ perspectives and ultimately coming to agreement as a group.
That heated collaboration proved to be one of our best assets. It took time for the best argument to win, but once it did we could all articulate in great detail the reasoning behind virtually any strategic decision. And that unity of thought proved invaluable when facing tough questions from Steve.
In my career after Pixar in product and engineering leadership roles, I’ve held onto that ethos. We come up with our best solutions when we build strong business co-ownership between product, design and engineering. And, when things inevitably don’t go exactly according to plan and the product needs to pivot, everyone can make better decisions because they deeply understand the strategy and the reasoning behind it.
3. The medium isn’t the whole message, but it sure helps
Leaders at Pixar were film-makers. So, as our task shifted from pitching to Steve to getting buy-in across the studio, our team decided to create animator-style storyboards to explain what we were building: How would an animator use the tool? How would other artists work on a shot at the same time? What would a day in the life of a Pixarian be like once they were using our new system?
It was a format I would never dream of for most VC-style presentations, but it resonated perfectly for the leadership team at Pixar. The extra time we took to understand how our leaders would best receive and absorb the information we were trying to share made all the difference.
In roles beyond Pixar, I’ve taken this lesson to heart: meeting your audience where they are in the format that they’re most able to respond to is a big part of making sure your ideas land and you get the best “appropriately skeptical” feedback you possibly can.
Entrepreneurial best practices can help businesses of all sizes improve the value of the work they output. It would have been very easy for Steve – or someone else on the leadership team – to just rubber-stamp our project and allocate budget.
By leveraging a model that was less “internal greenlight” and more “VC pitch” – complete with rigorous problem definition and technical due-diligence – Steve made sure the foundation was sound.
Tim Milliron is EVP of Engineering at Podium and has been a product leader at companies like Google, Twilio, Lytro, and TripActions.