Thursday, November 17, 2011

Steve Jobs: Impressions from the Biography

Steve Jobs was quite a remarkable man. I rarely read full books and cannot remember the last time I read a biography. But I just finished a fast 3 week journey through the recently released 650 page biography by Walter Isaacson. (Kindle on iPad edition, by the way)  It was quite a remarkable story and even more remarkable with its openness (as pre-approved by Steve) to be a clear, unbiased account of the author’s impressions after over 40 interviews with Steve and more than a 100 with those that knew him. What results is a enduring picture of a 20th / 21st century technology icon who is as unique as the products he introduced.

I’m not one to do book reviews, but I wanted to share some of my impressions mainly because his work had such an impact on my career and my “early adopter” mentality.

Steve is a several years older than me, but as he and Bill Gates were redefining the computer market from two different angles, I was just entering the workforce, having worked on both IBM and Apple computers, programming my way through the last few years of college. I remember watching the product rollouts and also choosing sides during the 80s when I needed to bet on the technology that would determine my career. I chose Microsoft and continued to keep an eye on Apple through the rollouts of various products through the 80s and 90s. Then when the 21st century Jobs emerged, I left my first choice behind and made the switch to Apple products, first with the iPod, then iPhone, iPad, MacBook Pro and finally even a Mac Mini, just because. The technology released in the last 10 years has been nothing short of revolutionary and we should all be indebted to Jobs for his persistence, his perfectionism and his vision to go with his gut.

As I was reading the book, many asked me what were my impressions. Here they are in no particular order.

  1. Steve was a very hands-on manager. He never hid behind reports, market surveys, PowerPoint slides, or “expert opinions”. He was naturally curious and drove for perfection in everything he did. Early stories tell of how he insisted on every element of the original Mac design right down to the perfection of the layout of the circuit boards inside the case itself.
  2. He was never afraid to voice his opinion. When you would show something to Steve, he would generally reply with one of two signature responses. Either he would “love it” (which was rare) or he would simply reply “That is sh—“ . No matter how hard the team worked, he was always stepping on egos and ridiculing his staff. I guess it made it all the more special when he finally liked what he saw. He insisted in hiring only “A-players” and equally insisted that everyone needed to have thick skin and needed to hear the truth (even though his “truth” often reversed into something else later depending on his moods.)
  3. Steve and Bill Gates were really good friends through it all. I was taken by how much of an impact Microsoft had on the original Mac software. Their commitment to develop Word and Excel for the Mac was a big decision that paid of quite well for both Apple and Microsoft. Through the years, the two sparred often quite publicly and one would think maybe hurt feelings or grudges would take over. But the two truly needed each other and right up to the end when Bill came by to visit Steve in his final months, the two had a tremendous mutual respect for each other. I suppose they had each other to share in their common but equally unique journeys through the explosion of the personal technology wave.
  4. Steve knew his life was likely to be cut short. Even before he was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, he pressed on to move as fast as possible. He was eager to make a difference, not for the money, but for the pure pleasure of making truly remarkable products. But looking back, his more significant work happened in the last 10 years of his life. He had a string of wins one after the other with the original iPod, iTunes, iTunes Music Store, iPhone, the App store, and finally the iPad. (We often forget the contribution his company, Pixar, made to animation with Toy Story and a string of hits through the late 1990s and 2000s with Toy Story, A Bugs Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, and Wall-E.)
  5. He was a dedicated family man when it finally counted in the end. Jobs was very private as he lived, but after his death, he allowed the “family man” side of him to be documented. The book has several great pictures with Steve and his children (including 2 teenagers still at home). Yes, he made many mistakes, but in the end, was a dedicated husband of 20+ years and a loving father to his kids.
  6. Steve, went to “find himself” during his early years. Very vocal about his experimentation with LSD and his travels to India, he did not have a strong religious foundation and instead spent his entire life searching and focusing on eastern philosophies. As a teenager he claims he abandoned Christianity because he could not reconcile why there was suffering in the world. In the end, he continued to be unclear about the afterlife and says he had come to a 50/50 conclusion about the existence of life after death. He did begin to make “deals” with God as he described it. One was that he really wanted to live to see his eldest son, Reed, graduate from high school. It’s sad that such a visionary in the tech world could be so confused all his life about the spiritual world.
  7. Apple is Apple today only because of the unique vision, leadership, and drive of Steve Jobs. The company started with his inspiration, grew quickly through its early innovations, nearly choked on corporate “hand’s off” management without Jobs, and then was revived to become the world’s most valuable technology company under his encore leadership. Yes, Apple still has a great pipeline and will likely put out several more innovations over the next few years, but I would expect that it will unfortunately wind down without the wind of Steve Jobs in its sails and never get back to its earlier glory.
In the end, Steve wanted to write the post script. I feel I should give him that same honor here in this post.

“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…We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation to all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me” - Steve Jobs

Thank you Steve. You certainly succeeded by adding your “something” to that flow. For that, those of us in technology are truly grateful.

Rest in Peace Steve Jobs.

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