Book Review – Steve Jobs

I borrowed this book from a friend in Perth back around Christmas-time last year, lugged it back to Melbourne, and I’ve been reading it on and off since then. I guess this shows it isn’t “un-put-down-able” but it was definitely compelling enough that I came back to it again and again, wanting to finish it. For example, I blogged about one of the many parts I found interesting previously. Having finished it now, I can say it was definitely worth it.

Steve Jobs

Insightful biography, leadership text and history of computing

I read the actual, physical hard-cover form of the book, which in retrospect was ironic since Steve Jobs made available the means to easily read the e-book form of his book on the iPad 2 that I own. The book – at 1125g – weighs-in at about twice that of the iPad 2, and hence I couldn’t easily read it during my usual work commute. This would normally be a severe impediment to reading, but the book was fascinating, insightful and a surprisingly easy read. However, I would recommend the e-book edition for those that have appropriate devices.

I’ve read a few biographies, and this stands-out as the one that I’ve come away from with the greatest sense of understanding the subject. Isaacson is a good researcher and writer and has produced a book that seems to effortlessly roll together a biography, a business leadership text and a history of the computing revolution that came out of Silicon Valley. On the one hand, it was eye-opening how badly Steve Jobs treated people – colleagues, employees, family – but there were many things that I took out as lessons for how technology products evolve and why they succeed.

Yet there is a problem in extracting such lessons from the life of Jobs. As Isaacson has commented elsewhere, Jobs’ “personality was integral to his way of doing business”. There is a similar problem in divorcing the value of his products from his own value system. Either one can accept that his success and his faults are inseparable, Apple Inc could never have been achieved by anyone else, and hence the delightful products are the result of bad treatment of amazing people. Or one can extract out the key lessons of his life, another person could achieve similar greatness in following them without treating others as roughly, similarly inspiring products could be created through other means, and hence Jobs’ treatment of people is inexcusable.

The book also touches on the lives of John Lasseter and Jonathan Ive, who are potentially the prime creative forces at Pixar and Apple, respectively, although somewhat overshadowed by Jobs in their day. Both are creative visionaries and leaders, yet neither seem to possess Jobs’ inter-personal flaws. This suggests that the latter view above is more likely. However, I eagerly await a similarly in-depth biography of Lasseter or Ive.

Rating by andrew: 4.5 stars

Leadership, Simplification and Elegance

I’ve come across many different explanations of “what is a leader”, but the one that seems to make the most sense to me is that a leader absorbs complexity. Where there is chaos, ambiguity, confusion and complexity, the addition of a leader makes things simpler and clearer. People know what they should do.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember where I came across this definition, but I was reminded of it again as I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Most people would agree that Jobs was a leader in his industry and, together with his lead designer Jony Ive, has transformed many consumer electronics products.

Isaacson describes Jobs as aiming for “the simplicity that comes from conquering complexities, not ignoring them.” He also quotes Ive as saying “Simplicity isn’t just a visual style … It involves digging through the depth of the complexity … You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”

Adding features to a product makes it more complex and often more difficult to use. Another quote from the book has Jobs instructing the programmer of the iDVD application: “It’s got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click the button that says ‘Burn.’ That’s it. That’s what we’re going to make.”

As I read these quotes, I was going “Yes!” Leadership and simplification, it became clear to me, were two aspects of the same endeavour.

Additionally, internal reports are the “product” that we deliver to company executives, and can benefit from this sort of product simplification thinking. Providing decision-makers with more options is often unhelpful – the outcome that is best is creating an environment where decisions can be made easily and confidently. However, this shouldn’t be done by merely eliminating options (e.g. just giving the “top” 2 or 3) – this provides a veneer of simplicity rather than conquering the complexities underneath. Providing thought leadership and guidance involves understanding the problem deeply.

Another way I think about strategic analysis is that it is like an “argument” – it concludes with recommendations that follow logically from the data. In this way, a simple and powerful argument can be considered elegant – a concept well known in mathematics. The computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra, commenting on mathematical elegance, said “Elegance is not a dispensable luxury but a factor that decides between success and failure.” This is probably something that Jobs would agree with.

In any case, the definition of leadership that I started with is itself an elegantly simple one: absorbing complexity.