Steve Jobs – Biography by Walter Isaacson

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.

Author: Barry OGorman

Barry O'Gorman is an independent business and IT consultant, based in Dublin, Ireland.

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