L&T sat down with Jerry Oh, Product Manager at Amazon, for an in-depth discussion about his journey from Columbia University, to Apple under Steve Jobs, to a thriving career in tech.We discussed what an arts background brings to the tech industry and the importance of keeping an open mind in an increasingly profit-focused sector.
L&T: I’d like to begin by talking a bit about your background. A liberal arts degree at Columbia to working at Apple is an unusual trajectory, can you tell us about your journey?
Jerry Oh: I chose to be a liberal arts major because I wanted to be exposed to a broad set of academic subjects. But it’s kind of an accident that I ended up an Art History major. Columbia and New York led me down that path. I could study a work of art in a book and experience the artwork firsthand. You can sit through lectures, and hear the concepts, but it’s seeing a Picasso in person that crystallizes everything. These experiences really spoke to me.
When I finished my undergrad, I knew I didn’t want to work in finance — that was the popular path at the time. I was fond of technology, sent an application to Apple. People never want to talk about the role luck can play in your career, but it really jump-started mine. I was open-minded, and I happened to have the kind of knowledge that they needed at time.
The job at Apple was on a product called Final Cut Pro. I moved out to California, and that was that. Tech has seen explosive growth in the last 20 years, and it has really transformed into one of the most interesting, dynamic industries to work for.
Back in the day, Steve Jobs used to say Apple was at the intersection of liberal arts and technology. Apple looked for more than computer science degrees or traditional engineering backgrounds. It had college dropouts and people who are self-taught. This was in stark contrast to companies like Sun Microsystems or SGI, where you have to be top of your class in engineering. It was a place where a guy like me with a liberal arts background could get a foot in the door.
“Apple Was at the Intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology”
L&T: Let’s stay with your time at Apple. Conventional wisdom sees Apple as one of the first companies to marry branding and tech, to treat both as equally important. Do you think that characterization is correct?
JO: I think that’s the easy outsider’s view. I can’t speak for Apple now, but when I was there, everyone who worked had the highest standards and the highest expectations of themselves, of each other, and of the product. You were expected to be harder on yourself than your customer will. Excellent design was part of wanting the product to be as close to perfection as possible. It wasn’t “design for design’s sake.”
L&T: The public perception seems to be that Steve Jobs was prioritizing what is profitable. But from your insights into Apple, would you say that wasn’t the case?
JO: Steve Jobs was hardly fiscally irresponsible, but at the same time, maximizing profits was never our top priority. He was focused on perfecting the product. He reduced the product offering from dozens to a sleek two by two matrix. This way, we could execute the hell out of it.
A Less “Outcomes-Focused” Approach
L&T: Do you feel that your background in the liberal arts brought something unique to your Apple career?
JO: I have to say that in general, throughout my life and career in tech, very few things have been more meaningful and important for me than my liberal arts education and the concepts I gained there, like critical thinking, logic, and rhetoric.
L&T: Do you think things like logic and critical thinking are elements that someone with an arts background brings to tech? Is it something that tech needs more of?
JO: It’s not really about what engineers don’t do or how they think, but I think some disciplines can predispose you toward achieving a result or getting an outcome. But the arts and the humanities really don’t. There’s something different about the way they think that can be brought into tech — a less outcomes-focused mentality. I think this mindset is helpful for everything in life, not just business or the tech industry.
L&T: Do you think that kind of outcome-oriented thinking is harming the tech industry? Is it prevalent?
JO: I think it’s certainly fairly prevalent in tech, but it’s not endemic to tech. You can find it in all profit-driven businesses. In that respect, Apple under Steve was a very special place — we really weren’t profit focused and that’s rare. There’s discussion to be had about the role venture capital and investors play in tipping the balance towards a more profit-driven, outcomes-oriented industry. Tech is a case study, but the problem is not exclusive to tech.
The Right Connection at the Right Time
L&T: Let’s talk about your business development role at Telink. What do you think is unique about building relationships in tech? What do people really misunderstand about building these types of relationships?
JO: In business development, we care less about outcomes and more about relationships in the long term. In sales, by contrast, you’re usually aiming for a clear outcome. It’s more transactional. Personally, I try to approach relationships this way.
I say, look, you don’t have to have your guard up with me — I’m not trying to sell you something. All I want is to commiserate about the industry or commiserate about the market. One thing I’ve relied on in every relationship is honesty. It sounds so cliché and old school, but when you’re not focused on outcomes and transactions, honesty matters in every way.
L&T: You were also overseeing digital transformation at Telink. I know it’s a big topic, but can you speak a little bit about that process?
JO: For all companies, but especially smaller ones, there’s always a litany of things you want to do. But when you’re constantly putting out fires everywhere, you might overlook marketing and branding. They’re very important, but sometimes they’re not perceived as “urgent” when compared to other things. When we started the conversation with L&T, it took three months to get everything moving. But when it comes to marketing, sometimes it’s as simple as connecting on the right day, seizing an auspicious moment to move something forward.
Strategy and branding at Telink really bears out this idea. At Telink, we knew there was a need for digital transformation. But it took a long time to start the project. You might not know when the right time is to strike, but you always have to be ready. Anything related to a brand identity is powerful. It’s meaningful, and you can build narratives around it. If you have patience and are willing to commit, you will see the incredible growth and evolution of a brand identity. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
L&T: How would you say your experiences at Columbia and in New York City contributed to your career?
JO: New York for college and Columbia formed me in every way — through social engagements, business, even reading and writing. Generally, a liberal arts education can be compared to being offered tools in a toolbox.
People often dismiss the humanities as impractical. They ask — how could you possibly apply art history or philosophy in a business or a tech context? But I think that’s the wrong question. What I learned at Columbia gave me a set of foundational tools that I can apply in almost every context. The key is staying on the macro level instead of getting caught in the details. The open-mindedness and adaptability I learned in undergrad has guided me throughout my tech career, from software to hardware to services, to content.
L&T: Did this conversation spark any ideas you would be willing to share?
JO: One thing that this conversation made me think about is the importance of diversity and the way exposure to diverse experiences and people have informed my life. New York and Columbia are at the heart of this.
But when it comes to what we are doing as a society at the moment, we are acting against diversity. We self-categorize — we find tribes — we have to label the people we meet, associate them with a group. It’s not about diversity in an institutional sense per se, it’s about diversity in a looser sense. For instance, my neighborhood in New York was diverse, but it wasn’t just about different ethnicities. It was about being flexible and open to different ways of living and thinking.
Even in universities where many young people are exposed to new types of diversity for the first time, they are also being told to find a group — to define themselves by a major, an activity, or a social circle. They’re told to pick one thing and stick with it. This self-selection, self-categorization is then reinforced throughout their career and their life. Whereas whether in marketing strategy or in business or in life, I have always tried to champion the value of diversity and openness, not purity.