Review: Steve Jobs

by Nov 9, 2011Books, Uncategorized4 comments

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book made a deep impression on me. I could hardly stop reading it, even when I was supposed to be sleeping. Even when I was especially supposed to be sleeping because of a newborn who sometimes fails to do so herself…

Walter Isaacson’s work is world-class. He did his homework—hundreds of interviews, including 40 with Jobs—and he let all sides have their say. He adds some real wit and has an eye for it in anecdotes from Jobs’ life. He’s sympathetic to Jobs but not afraid to blame him for lying or whining.

The book tells the story of one of the landmark tech titans of the turn of the 21st century, and it has a lot to teach readers.

First, the positives. I learned a number of good leadership lessons from Jobs’ life:

• Make a quality product your priority, not money.

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings. Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

• Get your departments to work together, not compete.

”Steve would fire people if the divisions didn’t work together, but Sony’s divisions were at war with one another.” Indeed Sony provided a clear counterexample to Apple. It had a consumer electronics division that made sleek products and a music division with beloved artists (including Bob Dylan). But because each division tried to protect its own interests, the company as a whole never got its act together to produce an end-to-end service.

• Don’t forget form in your pursuit of function.

[Jobs:] I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics…. Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.

• Your greatest work may be creating a company culture that lasts beyond you.

Jobs said that the past twelve years of his life, since his return to Apple, had been his most productive in terms of creating new products. But his more important goal, he said, was to do what Hewlett and his friend David Packard had done, which was create a company that was so imbued with innovative creativity that it would outlive them.

But now the negatives… I learned a number of bad leadership lessons from Jobs’ life:

• Don’t be like Steve Jobs. He was one-of-a-kind… or at least I hope so. I would never want to work for someone who curses and screams and cries and throws tantrums like him, no matter what we were accomplishing. I’m glad I work in an organization in which the leaders are told, “The servant of the Lord must not strive” (2 Tim 2:24).

• Don’t motivate people mainly through fear.

Was all of his stormy and abusive behavior necessary? Probably not, nor was it justified. There were other ways to have motivated his team. Even though the Macintosh would turn out to be great, it was way behind schedule and way over budget because of Jobs’s impetuous interventions. There was also a cost in brutalized human feelings, which caused much of the team to burn out. “Steve’s contributions could have been made without so many stories about him terrorizing folks,” Wozniak said. “I like being more patient and not having so many conflicts. I think a company can be a good family. If the Macintosh project had been run my way, things probably would have been a mess. But I think if it had been a mix of both our styles, it would have been better than just the way Steve did it.”

• Don’t forget that money still has to figure into your calculus when making good products.

“The best thing ever to happen to Steve is when we fired him, told him to get lost,” Arthur Rock later said. The theory, shared by many, is that the tough love made him wiser and more mature. But it’s not that simple. At the company he founded after being ousted from Apple, Jobs was able to indulge all of his instincts, both good and bad. He was unbound. The result was a series of spectacular products that were dazzling market flops. This was the true learning experience. What prepared him for the great success he would have in Act III was not his ouster from his Act I at Apple but his brilliant failures in Act II.

One Criticism
Isaacson left Jobs’ religious views very unclear. That notable feature of his life certainly merited a chapter, and yet Isaacson never explains how Jobs went from Hindu ashrams into Buddhist spirituality, and what exactly that meant for him. Perhaps Jobs didn’t tell Isaacson. Perhaps Jobs himself had little explanation. It’s not clear from the book that Jobs’ religious views made much of a difference in his life, except for abetting his wacky eating habits. None of Jobs’ religious dabblings succeeded in making him a nicer person; that much is clear from most of the pages of the book.

I think Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Jobs’ first child, gave the best short description of Jobs: “He was an enlightened being who was cruel.” Everyone and everything was either a hero or an unbloggable curse word. Some people managed to swing wildly between the two poles, even in the space of one day. His perfectionism was intense and scary—and, admittedly, productive. But it left a lot of people out to dry.

I read most of the book on my iPod Touch, and I’m typing this review on a Mac. I find myself having a somewhat different attitude toward my beloved Apple devices now that I know more about their genesis. I’m a little wary of them while still being in awe.

Not so incidentally, Jobs made these devices by unconsciously obeying the Bible—hear me out. As Andy Crouch points out so well in Culture Making, people made in God’s image are called in Genesis 1:26–28 to cultivate existing traditions (in technology, farming, art, music etc.) and create within them, making it progress for the benefit of others and the glory of God. Jobs definitely did that, whether he knew it or not:

What drove me? I think most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us. I didn’t invent the language or mathematics I use. I make little of my own food, none of my own clothes. Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow. It’s about trying to express something in the only way that most of us know how—because we can’t write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me.

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  1. Samuel Sutter

    I will be picking this one up… on the kindle.

  2. Jeremy Patterson

    Great review, Mark.

    I am wondering–and maybe this is a dumb or trivial question but I’m not trying to be dumb or trivial–how do you, as a serious Mac user and a Christian, feel about using products that bear a logo purposely chosen to mock what is a very serious biblical concept? Is it just an infelicitous analogy that we can ignore since it is a mere logo, or perhaps something more pernicious, even pagan?

  3. Mark L Ward Jr

    I’ve never actually seen someone claim that that was the case, and I’m not aware that this is the meaning the logo has taken on in popular imagination. Sounds more like something could handle!

    But in the biography, this is the explanation given for the logo:

    McKenna had his team get to work on brochures for the Apple II. The first thing they did was to replace Ron Wayne’s ornate Victorian woodcut-style logo, which ran counter to McKenna’s colorful and playful advertising style. So an art director, Rob Janoff, was assigned to create a new one. “Don’t make it cute,” Jobs ordered. Janoff came up with a simple apple shape in two versions, one whole and the other with a bite taken out of it. The first looked too much like a cherry, so Jobs chose the one with a bite. He also picked a version that was striped in six colors, with psychedelic hues sandwiched between whole-earth green and sky blue, even though that made printing the logo significantly more expensive. Atop the brochure McKenna put a maxim, often attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, that would become the defining precept of Jobs’s design philosophy: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

    Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs (pp. 79-80). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

    If Jobs and the designer agreed upon some secret anti-Christian meaning behind it, they didn’t tell the rest of us! (And by the way, I know the true meaning of the word okay.)

  4. Jeremy Patterson

    There was a tragic word choice in my original comment. I should have written “purposely used” rather than “purposely chosen.” For, as you so adroitly point out, the designer himself (who should know after all) says that he had no ulterior motives in his design.

    That said, the logo as a representation of the forbidden fruit is no urban legend. Even early Apple promotions drew the analogy (do a quick search of “bite that apple,” for example). In addition, the same analogy is quite commonly drawn online, particularly on news sites and blogs since Jobs’ death.

    The question is (everything comes back to language of course!), does usage determine meaning or does the original designer determine meaning? Oh well, it’s probably not a big deal. I’ll keep using my iPod. (Whew! Glad to get that one of my chest.)