An HR Lesson From Steve Jobs: If You Want Change Agents, Hire Pirates

Why? Because pirates can operate when rules and safety nets break down.
[The following is an excerpt from What Would Steve Jobs Do?: How the Steve Jobs Way Can Inspire Anyone to Think Differently and Win by Peter Sander (McGraw Hill)]

"It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy." This quote, made back in the days of the original Mac development team, says a lot about how Steve viewed people and selected them for teams. It also speaks to the kind of team and team behavior he admired. To build a team, all organizations seek the best and the brightest people, particularly for their innovation and new product development organizations—that’s not what’s in question here. By seeking out the pirates, Steve took the idea a big step further.

Why pirates?

A pirate can function without a bureaucracy. Pirates support one another and support their leader in the accomplishment of a goal. A pirate can stay creative and on task in a difficult or hostile environment. A pirate can act independently and take intelligent risks, but always within the scope of the greater vision and the needs of the greater team.

Pirates are more likely to embrace change and challenge convention. "Being aggressive, egocentric, or antisocial makes it easier to ponder ideas in solitude or challenge convention," says Dean Keith Simonton, a University of California psychology professor and an expert on creativity. "Meanwhile, resistance to change or a willingness to give up easily can derail new initiatives." So Steve’s message was: if you’re bright, but you prefer the size and structure and traditions of the navy, go join IBM. If you’re bright and think different and are willing to go for it as part of a special, unified, and unconventional team, become a pirate.

Pirates With Passion

Steve looked for the pirate in all his team members. But it wasn’t enough just to be brilliant, and it wasn’t enough just to think different. Steve’s pirates had to have the passion, the drive, and the shared vision to want to delight the customer with a perfect, game-changing product. Steve was constantly worried that as Apple grew, it would become like other big companies: tied up in bureaucracy, with a hundred reasons why something couldn’t be done. Pirates with passion would not let this happen. In keeping with this idea, Steve wanted his pirates not only for the product development organizations, but also for routine business functions like accounting and even his administrative assistants.

As Steve told Fortune editor Betsy Morris in 2008: "When I hire somebody really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, Are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else."

Well-Traveled Pirates

Steve Jobs placed a lot of value on having a diverse organization, and on choosing individuals with diverse backgrounds and sets of experiences, like his own. Steve never finished college—not even his first year. But he was able to synthesize his own interests and experiences, from electronics hacking to Zen Buddhism to calligraphy, add three heaping scoops of passion, and become what he became. He felt that others should do the same.

When selecting team members, Steve looked for the same breadth of background and experiences. A good technologist is a good technologist, but one with interests in philosophy, the arts, literature, and such really moved the needle. He also liked entrepreneurship and signs of success at other endeavors. People who show the ability to get things done in other fields, to synthesize their experiences, and to take a broader view of the human experience are more likely to be the pirates that Steve was searching out. In a March 2011 iPad event, Steve told us: "It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing."

You Can Find a Pirate Anywhere

Not surprisingly, as Steve Jobs looked for people with diverse backgrounds, he would look everywhere. He was known to recruit the friends and acquaintances of his existing team members, feeling that they were most likely to fit with the team and share many of the same values. Apple doesn’t do a lot of outbound recruiting—these days it doesn’t have to, but even in the old days, people were just as likely to be found through happen-stance and connections as through formal recruiting efforts. Even John Sculley was brought to Steve’s attention by two of Steve’s early Stanford recruits.

Once a contact was made with a prospective pirate, the interview was likely to depart from the norm. It wasn’t your typical engineering interview. Diverse, seemingly off-task questions often bring diverse answers, and Steve was known to rely not so much on what people said as on how they said it, and on the meta-data that came in around the actual answer. Again, from the Fortune interview: "Recruiting is hard. It’s just finding the needles in the haystack. We do it ourselves and we spend a lot of time at it. I’ve participated in the hiring of maybe 5,000-plus people in my life. So I take it very seriously. You can’t know enough in a one-hour interview. So, in the end, it’s ultimately based on your gut. How do I feel about this person? What are they like when they’re challenged? Why are they here? I ask everybody that: ‘Why are you here?’ The answers themselves are not what you’re looking for. It’s the meta-data."

So, in Steve’s book—recruit a team of diverse, well-traveled, and highly skilled pirates, and they’ll follow you anywhere.

Buy the book here.

[Top image: Georg Preissl/Shutterstock; Dice: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock; Passport stamps: Solid/Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • Jenn Whitford Palumbo

    HR is lazy no matter where you work. They do the absolute bare minimum.

  • sammyclareson2

    Okay, we're all aware Jobs was a total psychopath, right? Like one knife away from Jeffrey Dahmer.

  • metadesigners

    Apple vision started from a vision of user-empathy, not greed. Game-changers need dyslexic-style thinkers (more like artists than pirates)

  • Art

    Old news... at IBM they called them Wild Ducks and that goes back 50 years or more. 

    Question: is there REALLY any value that an innovation consultant can deliver to a company? I am not making a point, just asking. What is the value? The level of discussion demonstrated here and in many other entries does not convince me that these consultant can really bring any value. 

  • Juan Carlos Salazar Pardo

    There is value that can be delivered. Besides the actual development of a product/service, I think one of the greatest and most valuable things a company can do is to try to learn and adapt the methodology of innovation used by the consultant, and to establish a culture of innovation inside the company by nurturing communication and cross-pollination of ideas between its different areas and teams.

  • michaelmousedisqus

    All this leaves out apple's biggest accomplishment which is unbounded GREED.

  • Claudia

    It is very interesting to think that to succeed in life you must be a pirate: when you conform, your chances to excel diminish. 

  • Swdeva

    Pirates who think out of the box, a big box. The more you have the better it is.But it only takes a few. This is what its all about, not "business".

  • Gustavo Chinchilla

    Excellent article! I believe these are the pioneers of the future organizations in terms of people dynamics and culture. Self managed, passionate, no bureaucracy, innovators, risk takers, challengers of conventions, out of the box thinking, love for details.....definitely a pirate! I can say I have worked with a whole bunch of them, and it is great! Not only the companies in the future will need them, but the new generations are more like pirates as well, so many of them will have to dramatically change their cultures or die!

  • Michelle Cubas

    Enjoyed the article. Now I know what I want to be when I "grow up"—a pirate. I'm well qualified and enjoy being around other "pirates."

  • karla

    not every organization has leaders such as Steve. to be able to think outside of the box and always in the best interest of the organization requires a keen sense of loyalty. Any oprganisation thatis to survive this era needs pirates on board, may be KODAK could learn a thing or two about the use and importance of pirates

  • Bkoster

    Only a handful of Pirates ever could sink a ship with dozen cannonballs; Buccaneers taught their crew to sink a ship with one cannonball. Three kinds of Pirates. The rarest of these pirates is an authentic “Bluebeard Buccaneer” – Wacky but intuitive, he draws just conclusions from unchartered waters to discern the soul of things. He knows where to sail the seven seas to discover the treasure of innovation.The Second pirate are easy to find in every sea; These “Redbeards” are highly intelligent seaman in good standing with the crew and understand and admire the mystic deep blue ideas of the Buccaneer. They also testifiy that “Bluebeard” is not mad. He yells loud for changes, but shivers in his timbers on how to get to the treasure of innovation alone.  The Third pirate is a “Scalawag Storyteller” He reveals that the discovery of treasure does exist and convinces others that the invisible “X marks the spot” will have buried treasure. He organizes an army sized crew to dig up the treasure faster than other pirates.

  • Joseph Olewitz

    I love the idea. 

    My only suggestion is change it from "Hire Pirates" to "Hire People With Pirate Style." After all, Pirates inherently are all about breaking the law and the rules of society and that's not what we're after. Instead we want individuals who are willing to break out of old ways of thinking and innovate.-- JOSEPH

  • BarryS

    I'm responding to a comment earlier in the chain. Where Paulette said
    " Steve is dead and will not be replaced Cancer or karma got it's revenge!"

    What a dreadful thing to say. The whole pirate euphamism is just a way of capturing the concept of taking a calculated risk now and again, and not being afraid to challenge the conventional. It's good copy too. Made me click the link, and all of the other people here.. Cancer got it's revenge? Rediculous statement.

  • equusignis

    I am getting a bit tired from articles coming from fastcodesign with the attitude that good design, innovation and innovative thinking at the core is somehow new and revolutionary. It sounds more and more as a platform for evangelists to find some way of making money off of knowledge that is nowhere any near new. I find this point of view ludicrous and disappointing.

  • guest

    ...ok, is just me or is the romanticizing of the pirate a bit much? how do we really know what a pirate would do? "...Pirates support one another and support their leader in the accomplishment of a goal. A pirate can stay creative and on task in a difficult or hostile environment. A pirate can act independently and take intelligent risks, but always within the scope of the greater vision and the needs of the greater team." You lost me at that grand assumption.
    And besides not really applicable to the way business operates.