Monday, December 24, 2012

Steve Jobs

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's 2011 biography of Steve Jobs.  This book is basically a lengthy (630 pages with index and notes in hardcover) narrative account of Jobs's life.  Since Jobs led an eventful life (an adopted child and Reed College drop out who co-founded Apple Computer but left after losing a power struggle with John Sculley and then went on to found Next and finance Pixar before returning to lead Apple to great success until his death at 56) this makes for a fairly interesting read.  But the book is weaker when it comes to the bigger picture.  For example it is natural to ask why Jobs was so successful.  Was it mostly luck or did he have some rare and valuable talents (and if so what were they)?  This book isn't too helpful in answering this question although it provides plenty of material for speculation. 

Even considered just as narrative the book has weaknesses.  It isn't an authorised biography in the sense that Jobs had veto power over the text but Jobs did initiate the project by suggesting Isaacson write his biography and Jobs (and people close to him) cooperated by giving interviews in his final years.  This has obvious advantages for a biographer but also risks in that you can get too close to your subject (and their family and friends) and it can become hard to stay objective.  While the book includes plenty of negative material about Jobs it seems on occasion to incline towards not dwelling on it.  The discussion of Jobs's improperly backdated stock options is pretty cursory and I would have liked more about why his habits of driving around in a car without a license plate and parking in handicapped spaces apparently didn't cause him any problems.     

Another problem is the book appeared soon after Jobs died.  While there were no doubt good commercial reasons for this it also means the book lacks the added perspective (and material) which will be available in a few years.  I thought the last part of the book was not as good perhaps because it was rushed (or maybe this is just a sign the book was too long).  And for whatever reason the book says nothing about Jobs's will or the disposition of his sizable estate which seems a rather considerable omission. 

As to why Jobs was successful, certainly a large part of it was luck.  It is easy to imagine worlds in which Jobs dies an embittered failure, where he doesn't catch the breaks that led to the quick success which gave him credibility and made people more willing to tolerate his abrasive and obnoxious side.  But I don't think it was all luck.  I think the following traits contributed to his success.  He was willing to aim high and take chances. He was persistent.  He was generally decisive.  He recognized that good styling, appearance and image were important and worth considerable trouble and expense to get right.  He had good instincts about what would make a new product appealing.  He was an inspirational leader.  And he was willing to push his people hard and replace them if he came to believe they weren't the best available.  This last trait was somewhat double-edged of course as he could be a notoriously abusive boss but I think it is difficult to achieve what he did without being at least a bit of a jerk.   

In summary this is a reasonably entertaining (albeit lengthy) account of the life and career of Steve Jobs.  But it didn't seem particularly insightful to me and lacks the perspective that time will give.  And it concentrates on Jobs so is not a good choice if you want a broader view of events.  So unless you are particularly interested in Jobs and Apple perhaps you should skip this book.

1 comment:

  1. At the risk of being incredibly superficial, I think that another attribute helped Jobs was - his looks.

    It's not an experiment one can any longer perform (precisely because Jobs got so famous), but I suspect his early and mid career appearance placed him upwards of 99.9 percentile on the 'looks like a successful high tech leader' scale.

    I'm not asserting that this attribute was necessary, and it was certainly not sufficient for, or even the most critical enabler of, his success. But it had to help him get folks' attention.