So I’ll take a small departure from whining about the jobs search to talk about the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. As you will probably recall, it came out soon after Jobs’ untimely passing and was very popular with readers hoping to find out more about this enigmatic technology leader.
I have to say: I really do love this book. I generally like non-fiction better than fiction (so I have gone through this book much faster than, say, the Hunger Games trilogy). Furthermore, I spent a summer as an intern at Apple and was privy to all the stories about Jobs. In fact, as interns, we were “treated” to a talk by Jobs and the fact that he was at least 20 minutes late and had a number of handlers and that the fact that the interns were basically held captive in the auditorium waiting for him to arrive was proof of how things functioned at the company. As a side note: he was also startlingly skinny in person.
I think this book is interesting on a lot of levels. One, in addition to being a story about the life of Steve Jobs, it is also a chronicle of the evolution of the SF Bay area. I was born and raised in the Bay area (leaving only two years to attending graduate school) and so there is something kind of refreshing and nostalgic about hearing the stories of the rise of fabled tech companies and the fact that people could easily purchase houses in Palo Alto and Mountain View (areas of the Bay area that would easily cost millions for a very basic home today). I was talking to a childhood friend who also grew up in the Bay area and we agreed that we would much rather live in the Bay are of then than the Bay area of today. There was such a sense of growth and hope back then. There is a sense of growth and hope today too– but it feels like it’s more of the risky variety.
Two, it’s interesting to finally have these stories come out. Knowing some of the things about how Apple functioned, it was kind of weird to hear people’s comments following Steve’s death. They called him a visionary. He was revered for his persistence. He was a great salesperson and made people want items that had previously been totally functional and banal. They speculated about who would take over the company (even though it seemed really obvious it would be Tim Cook). And it was a sad occasion. Just a really really sad occasion because somebody who should have had the chance to do it again, well– he just didn’t.
But the story also shows that he was, well, just a really mean guy. Crotchety. Persnickety. One story that doesn’t show up in the book but that I have heard many times (and was recently repeated to me by my mom on behalf of another former Apple employee, so I know I’m not the only one saying it) is that you never want to be in an elevator with Steve Jobs. Because at any moment, he could turn to you and ask you, “What do you do?” and if he wasn’t happy with your answer, he would see to it that you were fired. One story that the interns heard was that one intern’s answer was, “I’m working on a top secret project so I can’t reveal anything to you” or something in that vein. Jobs, being maniacal about secrecy, apparently was very amused by that response and the intern was spared his/her life.
Three, I think it’s generally just an interesting book about business and leaders and what they know/don’t know, do/don’t do. Having studied business, I’ve become more analytical to the point that it’s cutting into my ability to be social, I think. In the book, Isaacson takes people’s quotations but also takes into consideration the facts of a situation to give insight into motivations, missteps, etc. For example, he talks about the fight between Eisner and Jobs when it came to the relationship between Pixar and Disney. He talks about their personalities (I think he basically says that they were the same– super creative but not operations people and basically both hotheads). He talks about what they were fighting about. But he also talks about leverage (the fact that Eisner had only been successful during the tenure of Wells but following Wells’ death in a plane crash, ceased to have the same level of success) and bad blood and aspects of the situation and the people involved that influenced the course of events. I think stuff like this is really interesting to analyze b/c very rarely are fights won or lost over facts in a situation.
It also makes me sad about the reality of business: that it’s cutthroat and paved with lies. I blogged previously about Android being a copy of the iPhone and that Eric Schmidt really should have left the Apple board earlier had he known that they would be expanding into the phone market. To be honest: the fact that Google had tried to expand into the online payments market with Google Checkout (fighting PayPal, including the Boston Tea Party incident that caused eBay to pull all of its online advertising in retaliation) and its development of online Docs (as an alternative to MS word processing software), I kind of don’t think that Apple shouldn’t have seen it coming. They should have known that Google would always tinker and the lucrative cellphone market was kind of an obvious next goal. At least in hindsight, perhaps.
Finally, I think it’s really interesting when they talked about the search for leadership or the mismatches in previous leaders. The one that stands out the most was Amelio, who was the CEO right before the NeXT acquisition. The guy had a bunch of credentials to his name but at the end of the day, he just didn’t get it. He didn’t understand the Apple product introduction– the fanfare, the theatrics. There is also Scully, who came from a strong CPG background (helped to engineer the whole Pepsi Generation campaign) but never really cared for the product and also was a people pleaser instead of a leader who had to make the un-fun decisions or announcements. It just makes me think about the smokescreen and mirrors that exist during searches for candidates. I’ve worked with some dodobirds in my day (maybe I’ll blog about that soon) so it’s hard to swallow how bad candidates manage to make it to the end and get hired into a company.
Ok I think that’s all from me. Read the book, people. You will enjoy it and then maybe we can have a dialogue about it!