on 2 January 2012
Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson
A man in a hurry who never seems to have been particularly happy.
By any measure of business success he achieved a great deal - built a company (Apple), lost and regained control of Apple (including rescuing Apple), shaped another company (Pixar), developed and commercialised a range of outstanding products.
It was interesting to read the book as someone who has lived through most of the same period. In a previous role within KPMG I was very involved in the role out of Apple technology across the firm (and the development of specialist software for the platform). I also recall the subsequent decision to migrate to the Windows platform because of a perceived lack of business applications software for the Apple platform at the time. And in my current role I have not yet returned to the Apple platform - to date preferring the combination of Microsoft, Google and Android.
Jobs is not portrayed in a particularly attractive light as a person nor as a boss/manager. His treatment of people falls far below that expected. Yes he was within his rights to demand focus, attention to detail, brilliant engineering, quality output from his advisors, etc. But the haranguing of employees and vendors, the tantrums, the rejection of ideas and subsequent relabeling as his own ideas - none of these would warm you towards the man.
I suppose Jobs is an example of the entrepreneur who stays in control. In many cases we talk about the need to transfer control from the entrepreneur to the professional management team - on the basis that the entrepreneur brings the idea and the energy for the startup but may not have all the skills to see the startup through to full development into an established company. Perhaps the appointment of Sculley was the attempt to do this. But it failed and failed badly. A couple of points here: it can only work if it has the support of the entrepreneur and the timing is also critical. In Apple's case it happened too late, it did not have Jobs support )in spite of the initial `love-in' and perhaps Sculley was not the tight person. The other essential question though is how do you maintain the innovation momentum when you switch control to the professional management team? In theory the entrepreneur should have more time to devote to product development, research, etc. But would this have resulted in the stream of new products from Apple (post Jobs' return) if he has not been at the top of the organisation? I don't think so.
I often distinguish between those who get projects done and those who play a positive role in corporations. Good project managers will do whatever it takes to get the project delivered on time and on budget - including managing scope and user expectations. Good corporate managers understand the corporate objectives and develop teams of people in this context. Typically the two types are different. Project managers have little interest in anything except closing out the project - leaving someone else to pick up the pieces in terms of people who have been sidelined, over stressed, temporarily over praised. Corporate managers work to a different timetable - seeking to develop the people and move the company toward tis objectives.
Jobs had a vision for Apple and Pixar - and this vision drove him. And he embodied this vision in many of his products - e.g. Toy Story, iTunes, iPhone. But the impression I form from Isaacson's account of Jobs is of someone who was so project focused, delivery focused, that a lot of what is associated with building corporate culture, developing people was dumped. And the interesting summary of all of this is that it worked. Jobs created a company of `A players' and demanded A performance. He got A performance and refused to accept anything less. The result - outstanding products and outstanding commercial success.
So what was the genius of Steve Jobs? A number of thoughts strike me after reading the book and experiencing a number of his products (Pixar and Apple):
* Hard work and sustained application comes in near the top. How many times do we read about getting close to product release and deciding to rework something because it was not quite right? Yes this points to the high standards he set for himself and the team - but also the commitment and willingness to take on the rework to get something right.
* Jobs was comfortable being surrounded by experts - be that brilliant engineers, designers or marketers. He never lost sight of the fact that regardless of their individual ability they were all cogs in the wheel - all with a role to play. He may have had a natural bias towards to design side, but he understood that he needed the best in all areas. His management style may have been questionable - at the very least on a human level - by the did not struggle in an environment of brilliant people
* Tough commercial negotiator - whether dealing with Microsoft, music industry or Disney - and executed a number of his deals from positions of weakness.
* His own consistent advice to others appears to have been to focus - and he appears to have followed this advice himself. He was not short on ideas but focused on specific opportunities.
* Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We can all see now that smartphone, digitised music, etc all make sense. But Jobs saw the opportunity looking forward - he saw the opportunity with the Xerox GUI development at Palo Alto. Jobs saw the opportunity for innovation through technology.
The Jobs/ Gates rivalry is a recurring theme through the book. They both built hugely successful companies in the same period. Isaacson emphasises the basic difference in philosophy being Jobs' obsession with total control (hardware and software) as against Gates' willingness to release his software for different platforms. I think this analysis is an over simplification - Gates was very keen to own the desktop by ensuring it was running his operating system (and today Balmer would like to see mobile phones running a Microsoft operating system). Jobs is dismissive of Android - in fact seems to see Android as a poor quality rip off of Apple. I think this case is unproven.
Having read so much comment about the book in the press was wondering whether I would learn anything from the book itself. Not sure that I fully understood the man himself after reading the book. Isaacson was determined to paint the picture `wars and all'. He probably did this. But I think somewhere in this he missed a trick in summarising the man. I enjoyed reading the biography. It was a rip roaring life when you look at the ups and downs, the product releases, the deal making, the family life. And because we have all been touched by his technology it feels relevant.
If you're like me the first thing that strikes you as you read this book is that Steve Jobs led a mythological life.
Put up for closed adoption by unmarried parents who eventually married, rejected by the first would be adoptive parents, then adopted by working class parents, it would be difficult to imagine a more inauspicious beginning, or a more auspicious outcome. Steve Jobs would grow up to prove that an apple can fall quite far from the tree, and still blossom. Abandoned, the chosen one, special.
Firstly, I don't think there is any such thing as an illegitimate child, only illegitimate parents.
The public life and business achievements have been well chronicled, and I didn't want to read a book about Apple. I wondered about the family life, the relationship with Bill Gates, were they collaborators or competitors, some of the other cast of characters. I wondered how much of Apple's great accomplishments were due to Jobs, what effect his passing would have on the future of Apple. I wondered about how he got the Beatles music, and the reputedly fractious relationship with Apple records.
Isaacson has put together a narrative never less than fascinating about a mercurial man. My opinion of Jobs did not change as a result of reading this book. He already struck me as being a highly driven type A personality, narcissistic, aggressive, perfectionistic. Certainly these traits contributed to both his successes and his setbacks, and made him a difficult man to get along with, but those high standards imposed by a drive for perfection, and a demanding lack of compassion, would also draw out of people great abilities, enhanced creativity, and great accomplishments.
Certainly, Isaacson's unvarnished portrait, means many people will not find Jobs the man appealing, and will not condone certain of his behaviors, and I commend Jobs for his honesty in allowing that. Perhaps the biggest surprise that he let go of his controlling tendencies, and did not seek to approve the book.
Ironically at age 22, he would find himself in the exact same position as his birth parents at that age, and would not acknowledge his out of wedlock child Lisa. He would eventually reverse that position before Apple went public agreeing to a DNA test, and making an arrangement. I was interested to discover that he has a lost sister Mona Simpson, an author who has written a book, A Regular Guy : A Novel, the main character based on Jobs and the relationship with his daughter Lisa.
Nemesis follows hubris with punishing fall from grace at Apple, betrayed by his hand picked underling, fired by the company he founded, exiled, buying Pixar off George Lucas for $5 million, selling it to Disney for a reputed $500 million, eventually returning as conquering hero to regain his throne, after many lean years the kingdom would once again prosper.
Among his influences were The Beatles, particularly John Lennon, also rejected by both his parents, and raised by an aunt. The Beatles being greater than the sum of the individual parts would inpsire his own management style of making better products through teamwork. Perhaps more surprising was his relating to Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, and that despotic tyrant King Lear.
The strength of this book, unfettered access to Jobs, the uncensored commentary and insights, of family, friends, business associates, even enemies, and critics.
I enjoyed the story of how he met his wife Laurene Powell. Her name is quite similar to my name, Laurence Power, and she has a degree in Economics. I enjoyed the humor and pranks of the early days with Wosniak. I particularly like calling the Vatican prank pretending to be Kissinger, collecting bootleg Dylan recordings, and illicitly mimicing the long distance beeps. I also enjoyed reading of the reality distortion field sometimes employed effectively, sometimes not. He would one day meet his father in a restaurant but neither would be aware that they met.
If you're wondering about hardback v Kindle, I found the Kindle does have photos. Unlike the book which has a central montage the photos on Kindle are present at the beginning of chapters. If you don't already have Kindle, you can download the app here at Amazon, and get a free book sample. By the time you finish reading the sample I predict you will want to read the rest of the book.
The book did answer most of my questions, yet I do not give it five stars. Here is why:
Recently, I have bought several quotation books, and when I learned Jobs illness was fatal, I started looking up quotes by Jobs.
Some quotation books such as Bartlett, Forbes Business quotes, and so forth do not have any Jobs quotes. Oxford and Yale each have two. In fact most quote books do not have many if any quotes by business leaders. Hopefully, this will be addressed. In fact, the The Ultimate Book of Investment Quotations (The Ultimate Series) book I found to be the only decent book that quotes business leaders and investment experts.
If you look at the Stanford commencement speech for example, available where video clips are seen, Jobs has many good quotes, and has great presentation skills. In fact, I understand there are about 100 books due to be published about Jobs.
While Isaacson's book contains many good quotes, most of these are by other people about Jobs, by Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Andy Grove, Al Gore and many others. Perhaps my favorite was the Herman Hermits quote by Bono. What I found curiously lacking were so few great quotes by Jobs himself. When I watched the Stanford speech on youtube, I wrote down six or seven quotes from that speech alone. Isaacson references the speech but barely quotes it.
Certainly, he could have sprinkled some of Jobs best quotes throughout the book. If he had done this I would definitely give the book five stars. Hopefully, this will be addressed in future editions and printings. That would make both an honest depiction and a fitting tribute to a great visionary.
Jobs: The Beatles all want to be on iTunes, but they and EMI are like an old married couple. They hate each other but can't get divorced.
Jobs: Picasso had a saying, good artists copy, great artists steal.
Alan Kay maxim adopted by Jobs: The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
Tim Cook: I realised very early that if you didn't voice your opinion he would mow you down. He takes contrary positions to create more discussion because it may lead to a better result. So, if you don't feel comfortable disagreeing, then you'll never survive.
As I read the book, three quotes by George Bernard Shaw came to mind:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man.
If I give you an apple, and you give me an apple we each have an apple. If I give you an idea, and you give me an idea, we each have two ideas. Jobs certainly turned apples and ideas into dollars).
Some people see things as they are and ask why. Steve Jobs dreamed things that never were and asked, why not?
As a result we have iPad, iPod, iPhone, iTunes, iMac, iBooks.
iThink you will enjoy it, and iHope this was helpful.