Feb 24, 2014

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson


Foremost, just to be clear, I've never been a big fan of Steve Jobs or Apple. Neither a hater. I've never bought any Apple products myself, and in fact, my phone is the one which Steve Jobs called "shit" and "crap" (pffft). I used to know Steve Jobs as "The Apple Guy" whose commencement speech to Stanford in 2005 has truly fascinated me. Up until I'm writing this, never had I found any other commencement addresses that could be that moving and inspiring, not even my favorite Oprah's.

And about the author, well, I've only been on a reading frenzy for the last two years, and this is the first book of Walter Isaacson that I've ever read.

That being said, I believe I don't have any tendencies to be positively/negatively biased towards this book.


I think an outstanding biography must have three things.
  1. Comprehensive research which involves multiple perspectives and rich of resources
  2. Excellent wording and narrative. Yup, excellent! Just 'good' is not enough. We're speaking of a lifetime being compressed in one book here, it had better be easy to read 
  3. And last but never the least: one compelling subject 

Managed to finish reading this massive 600+ pages book within two weekends, it is safe to say that this book has all three.

I was thinking to write a review, but then I thought that I would just echo many people and might be the last person on earth to do so. Thus, I changed my mind and decided to write my personal takeaways instead.


As Steve Jobs commented when he was talking with Ann Bowers, reminiscing about his past, "I did learn some things along the way," well, so did I - reading his (rather incomplete) history.

The book taught me some important lessons. As a matter of fact, we can find thousands, if not more, of links revolving around that topic. Some came up with 5, 10, even 20 key points.

I will only focus into 3.

#1 People are the key; keep the A players and kick the bozos out of your circle! 
For most things in life, the range between best and average is 30% or so. The best airplane flight, the best meal, they may be 30% better than your average one. What I saw with Woz was somebody who was 50 times better than the average engineer. He could have meetings in his head. The Mac team was an attempt to build a whole team like that, A players. People said that they wouldn’t get along, they’d hate working with each other. But I realized that A players like to work with A players, they just didn’t like working with C players. At Pixar, it was a whole company of A players. When I got back to Apple, that’s what I decided to try to do. 
- Chapter 28, p. 363

For me, one of the fascinating parts in this book is when Steve Jobs got back to Apple in 1996 since his ouster eleven years earlier. I wonder what his first move would be and I noted that it was to re-manage the team. The book also mentioned that Steve Jobs had something called 'the bozo list' with names of whom he wanted to kick out of the company.

Though seemed to be harsh, I found his reasoning makes a lot of sense. As he later stated what he has learned over the years that "when you have really good people, you don't have to baby them." Well, obviously, he didn't have any interest to baby anyone (if you catch my drift). Nevertheless, he managed to save the company with this approach.

Speaking of keeping the A players, one of my favorite parts of the book suggests another idea,
One day Jobs barged into cubicle of one of Atkinson's engineers and uttered his usual "This is shit." As Atkinson recalled, "The guy said, 'No it's not, it's actually the best way,' and he explained to Steve the engineering trade-offs he'd made." Jobs backed down. Atkinson taught his team to put Job's words through a translator. "We learned to interpret 'This is shit' to actually be a question that means, 'Tell me why this is the best way to do it.'" 
- Chapter 11, p. 122 

I think the A players are not merely those who know and are excel at what they're doing, but also those who can work in the team, that means those who understand and are able to see the greater picture whenever necessary, as Atkinson did.

By stating the importance of having the role of Bill Atkinson, I'm not saying that Steve Jobs' rudeness and tantrums were wholly acceptable. I think there are lots of better ways. And there is always a better way. But certain way works for certain people. Choices are, either we want to accept it and make the best out of it, or disapprove and move on. To Steve Jobs' Mac team, the answer was crystal. When he challenged Isaacson to ask any member of that Mac team (who managed to tolerate his attitude) whether it was worth the pain, most of them answered that it was. I think like Atkinson, they understand the greater picture. A players, indeed.

#2 As the wise man once said "try to be everything, and you'll end up be nothing"
.."Stop!" he shouted at one big product strategy session. "This is crazy." He grabbed a magic marker, padded to a whiteboard, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to make a four-squared chart. "Here's what we need," he continued. Atop the two columns he wrote "consumer" and "Pro"; he labeled the two rows "Desktop" and "Portable." their job, he said, was to make four great products, one for each quadrant. "The room was in dumb silence," Schiller recalled. 
 - Chapter 25, p. 337 

Frankly, if I were there among the group, I don't know if I could hold myself not to run to him and give him a hug (braingasm alert). But if I really were there, I'm pretty sure my jaw would drop as it did when I was reading.

To be able to maintain his focus intensely is one of the best traits that Steve Jobs had. When he took the top 100 employees on a retreat, he, again, showcased how the company should focus. He understood what the company was good at and he maintained it to focus on that particular area. An advise he gave to Larry Page exposed the same trait,
Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up. It's now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they're dragging you down. They're turning you into Microsoft. They're causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great. 
- Chapter 41, p. 552 

#3 There is a subtle yet huge difference between 'making a dent in the universe' and 'making a hell lot of money' 
I never worried about money. I grew up in a middle-class family, so I never thought I would starve. And I learned at Atari that I could be an okay engineer, so I always knew I could get by. I was voluntarily poor when I was in college and India, and I lived a pretty simple life even when I was working. So I went from fairly poor, which was wonderful, because I didn't have to worry about money, to being incredibly rich, when I also didn't have to worry about money.
I watched people at Apple who made a lot of money and felt they had to live differently. Some of them bought a Rolls-Royce and various houses, each with a house manager and then someone to manage the house managers. Their wives got plastic surgery and turned into these bizarre people. This was not how I wanted to live. It's crazy. I made a promise to myself that I'm not going to let this money ruin my life. 
- Chapter 9, p. 105 

I couldn't help but notice how Steve Jobs kept iterating that money was never his motivation; when he succeeded to make Apple go public in 1980, when PIXAR went IPO in 1995, even when he blamed John Sculley for Apple's decline. All narrow down to one idea and one idea only, that, to make a dent in the universe--as he'd always aimed for-- should always be the goal and the motivation. Everything else, that includes money and profit, should be treated as nothing but merely a means.

Among many occasions when Steve Jobs stating the idea, here's the one I love most,
I hate it when people call themselves "entrepreneurs" when what they're really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They're unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That's how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now. That's what Walt Disney did, and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money. That's what I want Apple to be. 
- Chapter 42, p. 569 

I don't think I have ever heard anyone said it better than he did.


I know. You wonder if this book is worth the read?
Well honey, you tell me.


Had you been alive today, I'd say, Happy 59th Birthday, Steve Jobs.