I finally finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and thought I’d share some of the impressions I was left with. Most striking is that Isaacson didn’t pull any punches. I’d read somewhere that he has been criticised for getting too close to his subject, and the fact he effectively watched Jobs die made him unable to be objective. I have to say I didn’t find that to be the case.
Whilst it seems Steve Jobs was almost universally loved toward the end of his life, the picture Isaacson paints of a young Steve Jobs is not an edifying one. Indeed, reading of the self-obsessed hippy who had questionable personal hygiene and a tendency to emotionally hurt everyone close to him, makes him out as a distinctly un-likeable character.
Jobs touched upon his parent’s Herculean effort to raise enough money to send him to college in his now famous speech at Stanford in 2005. At the time he seemed to wilfully waste that investment, but whilst he dropped out of Reed College, the time there undoubtedly shaped him: As well as embracing the substance use endemic of the time and the similarly typical (stereotypical?) eastern mysticism, it was here that his life-long obsession with wierd and wonderful vegan & fruit diets began.
Even his first foray into the world of electronics as a business was highly questionable ethically – the marketing of Steve Wozniack’s “blue box” which allowed the payphone network to be “phreaked”. In other words, during his early adult life, Steve Jobs stood for pretty much everything I would find abhorrent.
In detailing Jobs’ life, it is inevitible that Isaacson chronicals the rise of Apple – and a fascinating story it is too. It is perhaps the one fact about Steve Jobs that most people who had heard of him knew; that he had been famously sacked from the company he founded, only to return later and save it from oblivion. Again as noted in the Stanford speech, Isaacson details why the parting from Apple turned out to be a good thing for him. The narrative suggests that this was the turning point when Jobs changed from petulant and abrasive asshole, to skilled manager of people, subject to mood swings but with exceptional focus.
Jobs’ first undoubted success was in building and driving the team that created the Macintosh. Note that I didn’t say he invented the Mac, as history will erroneously record if based on current reporting. Like most of the creations he is credited or associated with, he saw the potential in disparate concepts invented by others. He put together a group of exceptionally hard working people who could just about tolerate his management style and who then brought the project to fruition, satisfying his exacting requirements. That first Mac was a computer which was indeed revolutionary.
Isaacson’s book, perhaps unintentionally, serves as a manifesto for Apple. It details the vision Jobs has infused the company with: That by putting products first and making something people will buy, and buy again once the next version comes out, the company will make money. Money and Jobs seem to have had an uneasy relationship – I suspect he never really understood it. His parents were not rich, but it seems he never wanted for anything and certainly never went hungry. When he did experience hunger as a student, it was pretty much of his choice in his search for whatever it was he was searching for in his Budhism. Apple was an almost overnight success, thanks to Woz’s brilliance as an engineer in the early days – his Apple II design sustaining the company well into the Macintosh days.
Even as a family man, we are told Jobs eschewed ostentatious displays of wealth – his house was modest, there were no security details or entourages around him. He famously worked for $1 a year on his return to the company, but then stuffed them in several ways by demanding a huge stock option. Another famous trait was to change his Mercedes every six months, taking advantage of a quirk of Califormia law that gives drivers that long to register new cars… allowing him to never display a licence plate. He refused to have a dedicated parking space at Infinite Loop – but promptly parked in the disabled bay wherever he went?!
The tale Isaacson’s tells which struck me deepest about Steve Jobs related to Apple’s MobileMe service. It is something I subscribed to and always found it perfectly functional. Not sexy, but certainly effective at what it did. However, it had teething troubles and attracted some negative publicity for the company. Walt Mosberg, a tecology columnist who is famously pro-Apple wrote a piece dismissing MobileMe as broken. That resulted in the entire MobileMe team being assembled in the auditorium at Infinite Loop and being berated by Jobs for an hour and a half. He told them they had brought shame on the company and should be embarrassed, that they were B players (Jobs’ ultimate insult!). It culimated with the manager of the team being sacked and humiliated in front of his team. I read this story and squirmed. Other than a bullet to the head this was the tactics of Joe Stalin. Perhaps in Apple’s world this is how you get the best out of your staff, but once again, it was behaviour which I found totally alien.
I was left wondering, had I met Steve Jobs, what would I make of him and what would he have made of me? The second part of that question is quite easy; there is nothing in my character that would tick any of his boxes, perhaps quite the opposite. Would I like him? It seems if I didn’t I would be completely out of step with everyone else who knew him. Isaacson’s book is crammed with accounts from people who were on the receiving end of Jobs’ worst behaviour, and yet no-one derides him or speaks of hatred. Perhaps, as I suspect, everyone who was that close to him knew he was dying by the time they were interviewed – something which has to colour people’s opinions of someone. Maybe though, despite all his mood swings and prickliness, people could see what he has achieved and thought it an acceptable trait in pursuit of the genius of Steve Jobs?
An excellent account of a unique man’s life. Given who that man was and what he meant to a generation, that the book is selling by the million – in both physical and electronic format, of course – is no surprise and entirely justified.