I have finally read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson over the last couple of weeks. It is really good and highly recommended reading for anyone with an interest in entrepreneurship, technology, or design. I am not entirely sure why it took me so long to get round to reading it – but it has been a very compelling read I’ve returned to readily.
If you’d like a proper book review I liked this one from The Verge
However, here are some of my thoughts that have bubbled up in the process of reading it.
Jobs’ greatest achievements nail the famous ‘intersection between Technology and the Liberal Arts’ like no-one else. Both in enabling non-technologists to engage in graphic design, music, film-making and more through the use of technology but in bringing those sensibilities to the design of technology. The design-led rather than engineering-led approach at Apple is something we see everywhere today.
The whole ‘rebel’ strategy (‘Think Different’, ‘Here’s to the crazy ones…’) has enormous appeal, even when they were no longer the upstart. They made computers and geeks cool.
The ‘Apple Marketing Strategy’ devised by Mike Markkula is likewise core to both the success and likely legacy of Jobs: Empathy (understand what the customer wants), Focus (eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities), and Impute (people do judge books by their covers so make sure you present and package your ideas as well as you can). These felt like the core of Apple’s success strategy, when they did these well they did well, when they didn’t do them well the company struggled.
A central narrative of the book is the struggle between Jobs’ desire to create closed systems (hardware and software shipped together, few or no ports on devices, refusing to make his hardware or software work with others’, he even resisted making others’ apps available on the iStore) which delivered a seamless user experience from beginning to end, and the open but in Jobs’ words ‘fragmented’ offerings from Microsoft and later Google’s Android. The book makes clear the advantages of both; it was the seamless systems that won over new audiences to the technology but closed systems also lock out innovation from beyond Apple. That tension seems to me to be a necessary one, open systems are messy and frustrating for novice users but allow a more democratic approach to innovation than leaving it all to Apple to know best.
I found reading about Jobs himself to be a largely frustrating experience on two levels: firstly, he was frequently rude, difficult, and even cruel to the people around him. Considering how much importance he gave to customer empathy I really struggled with how little he showed to those around him. There is a case for suggesting he was just being radically honest but I think he was just being humoured and tolerated whilst being a dreadful arse. It is suggested convincingly on a number of occasions that he didn’t seem to believe that he was subject the rules everyone else was, that rule-intolerance certainly helped liberate Apple from the conventions of the day, but I still found it unpalatable.
Secondly, he seemed to be successful despite being a dreadful arse, maybe even because he was so difficult. Maybe I value harmony with others over objective success but it did strike me that there were a lot of human casualties on the way to Apple’s success and that it could have all been achieved much more civilly. The propensity for shouting, demeaning others, and seeking revenge had me seething on occasion.
Bluntly, I don’t like living in a world in which being an arsehole is a viable route to success. I certainly don’t want to teach it. So how can I resolve this unsettling situation? I think Jobs’ rudeness is a sign of his single-minded obsessiveness, and that does seem to be a trait associated with success in many fields. A significant proportion of the biography of successful business, cultural, and sporting icons seems to point to a ruthless focus on a particular vision or ambition being critical to their achievements, often at the cost of their relationships with others.
Jobs’ own vision of creativity and technology harnessed for the betterment of society, and more simply for making awesome products was compelling and he clearly articulated that vision such that his team, his backers, and his customers bought into. That vision, and his intensity clearly allowed him to sweep people along even when he was being his most obnoxious.
That obsession and vision included a level of perfectionism that again I (as a devout pragmatist) found really tough. That perfectionism cost him his job during his first tenure at Apple and it would have brought NeXT computing down too. But conversely it was critical to the success of the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Apparently he went through 87 nurses during his cancer treatment until he found ones he could bond with. I think you have to be a billionaire to have that privilege. There is definitely a sense in which his wealth and success enabled his worst behaviour in a way that wasn’t tolerated earlier in his career – but had been apparently tolerated and indulged by his adoptive parents.
One further aspect of Jobs that I found difficult was his insistence that his rudeness helped ensure that only the ‘A-players’ survived in his demanding environment. According to Jobs “A-players only liked playing with other A-players”. I find this a rather arrogant position, especially as no clear criteria for being an A-player is set out and unless A-players start out as A-players from birth then no-one has the chance to learn how to be an A-player apart from coming up through the ranks of the Cs and Bs. It’s also clear that whilst Jobs might have been an A-player designer/marketer he clearly wasn’t an A-player husband or parent. I do suspect that that those who stood their ground and shared his commitment to the cause did bond powerfully, but I can’t help but think a lot of amazing people, or who had the potential to be amazing, were discarded along the way. I believe that the whole A-player schtick is a retrospective explanation for those who survived rather than any kind of sensible strategy.
Why do I find Steve so obnoxious? I’ve found this a really interesting and frustrating question over the last week or so. It’s partly his perfectionism and my pragmatism, it’s party his lack of empathy for others, but actually I think it’s his obsession with controlling the seamless experience of the user. It’s too controlling. I can appreciate it’s beauty, but it’s dangerously arrogant to assume responsibility for delivering the best possible experience when that experience crowds out the alternatives. Apple, and Steve, cultured themselves as underdogs striving against blandness, fragmentation, and crap products; but when they became the dominant force they were neither gracious nor yielding to the alternatives. Their rebelliousness that broke the rules started to corrode the social contract we all have with one-another.
Maybe the giveaway moment for me was that one moment that made me laugh out loud; his staff would tease him for persistently declining a CEO parking spot but then repeatedly parking across one or more disabled parking spots at Apple HQ by making signs up that said ‘Park Different’. My sympathies here are absolutely with the irreverent staff rather than the boss who believed that rules were for other people.