Steve Jobs Biography | Book Review
My book review of the Steve Jobs Biography written by Walter Isaacson
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life is one of many widely well known Steve Jobs quotes included in this book. This biography titled Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography is full of insights of both inspiration and drama as it charts the journey of Jobs, focusing on the high-profile projects he was involved in. I picked up this book a few months ago but my review is a little late in the day since the publish date was October 24, 2011.
The author spent a lot of time with Jobs and it includes lots of direct quotes, with him also agreeing not to censor any of the content. Considering that Isaacson also interviewed a lot of people who had personal and/or professional relationships (both good and bad) with Jobs it’s quite possible that this biography is more honest than if it were an autobiography.
I should add that I’ve done my bit for the Apple enterprise by buying iPods, iPhones, iPads and I use a MacBookPro but I don’t consider myself to be a fanboy.
Thoughts on the Book
The book is a combination of facts, stories and spin from the parties involved in notable product launches involving Steve Jobs and the companies he worked with. Aside from his own version of events, we hear alternative points of view often from the who’s who of Silicon Valley.
The first half of the book tells the story of how Jobs went from a barefoot, acid-dropping college drop-out to the spearhead of a young, idealistic company called Apple that within less than a decade made him a multi-millionaire. He ended up being ousted from the company he co-founded to go on to found NeXT Inc., become involved with Pixar and eventually return to Apple. The second part of the book details Jobs’ return to Apple where he instilled a strategy for success that would result in the creation of products like the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. The closing chapters of the book document his struggle with terminal cancer.
Each product launch is covered in detail with words from Jobs and the other stakeholders (rivals, in some cases) in order to paint a true picture of how these projects came to be. There are lots of juxtapositions in the version of events presented by Jobs and the other people involved.
The main product launches discussed are:
- The Apple II
- The Macintosh (and the 1984 commercial)
- Toy Story & Pixar
- The iMac
- Apple Stores
- The iPod
- The iTunes
- The iPhone
- The App Store
- The iPad
There is a lot of data condensed into this book and I commend the author for keeping it to less than 700 pages (656 to be exact). I found that I lost a little momentum as I got halfway though the book as in some areas the names, dates and facts were top heavy when compared to the story telling. I also felt that the ending was unexpectedly abrupt considering how much longer and fact-laden previous chapters had been. This of course may be due to the unfortunate premature death of Steve Jobs.
I do now have a deeper insight into the main components that made up Apple, its philosophy and of course, the main individual driving the company forward. That’s exactly what I wanted from this book.
Thoughts on the man
Before I read this book I had a vision of Jobs being a polished, zen-like individual who stood at the crossroads between technology and the humanities; the person we saw at the keynotes presenting the latest and greatest tech gadget we didn’t even realise that we needed. The book challenged this view in providing evidence of a tantrum prone, selfish individual with a poisonous tongue.
So was he a bad person who had good product ideas? I don’t think it’s that binary. My thought is that he must have been polarising, leaving no middle ground. If he thought of a person as like himself he treated them with more respect and if he didn’t, he showed none.
The lasting impression I have of Jobs having read this book is his ability to channel his focus, ignore all distractions and maintain an intense attention to detail. He was relentless in pursuing his idea of perfection and would remove all obstacles that stood in his way. Whether it was hardware, software, ad campaigns or Apple stores his attention to detail was unwavering. This included exerting control over all aspects of a product including the software, the hardware and the people; the hallmark of Apple products.
Jobs said of himself:
My job is to say when something sucks rather than sugarcoat it.
This earned him a reputation for being brutally honest, abrasive and difficult to work with. Mediocrity within the ranks would result in very public removals. On one occasion, after a high-profile bad review about the MobileMe service he replaced the team leader in front of the entire team after berating them for half an hour.
I wondered how he was able to retain good people in spite his sharp tongue and brutal honesty that most of us would deem professionally impossible. Given the products that Apple produced it’s clear that they had great people capable of landing a job anywhere, so why would they stay? He’s quoted as telling employees the journey is the reward, which turned out to be true for many. The sense of mission and a culture of doing great work must have been a pull strong enough to overrule personal insults and also allowed Jobs to push people beyond their limits. And of course, on many occasions his blunt assessment products would turn out to be correct.
This intense focus yielded astonishing results but at the cost of damaged personal relationships and Jobs’ own theory that gruelling years earlier in his life resulted in his first brush with cancer.
Some leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture. Others do so by mastering details. Jobs did both, relentlessly.
Things to take away
What lessons can we take away from the story of Steve Jobs? I think I will still continue to wear shoes and don’t plan to bluntly tell any of my peers that their ideas are “s**t”. And LSD is perhaps out of the question too. There are many inspirational ideas and philosophies in this book that were the basis of great Apple products. As a software engineer I’ve picked out a few that resonated with me.
When Larry Page returned to Google as CEO he consulted jobs for advice. His advice for Page:
Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up.
What are the five products you want to focus on?
This theme of limiting and prioritising came up many times throughout the book and this was exactly what Jobs did when he returned to a failing Apple. He wasn’t afraid to make bold decisions and cut products or features.
Another marked quote from the book was:
In the annals of innovation, new ideas are only part of the equation. Execution is just as important.
Execution was of course vital to all of the Apple successes. Other companies had similar ideas and visions to Apple but they didn’t push hard enough towards the vision or made compromises based on commercial “realities” that resulted in inferior products. In my conclusion, I think that Jobs’ grit and determination was the differentiating factor in his achievements. The other aspects of his character make for interesting stories and allow us to speculate as to whether he would have achieved the same level of success by being nicer to people, but in my opinion at least, I think the results would have been the same.
He refined his strategy of focus and execution as his career progressed having learned from a few failures, but the grit was always there. Not all his early Apple products were successes, with the real defining products coming in his second tenure at Apple. After his fall from grace he could have cashed out and walked away and never founded NeXT, not gotten involved with Pixar and never returned to Apple. But he did. His relentless drive was powered by his own personal mission statement. What was his personal mission statement? I think he told us in the Think Different advert that was launched when he returned to Apple. The slogan was:
The people who are crazy enough to think they can change to world are the ones who do.
You can buy the Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography from Amazon.
The original quote used in this post is taken from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address.
This is a fantastic interview with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Fun fact: In an earlier solo interview on the same day, Jobs made a public quip about Microsoft where he responded to a remark that iTunes for Windows was becoming popular, he said “it’s like giving a glass of ice water to somebody in hell”. This of course got back to Gates who was not amused!
Have you read the book? What did you think?