Jobs worth doing

31 October 2011 By Richard Beales

The authorized biography of Steve Jobs sequences his DNA but doesn’t unravel it. It could be what author Walter Isaacson intended. His book provides plenty of new material directly from Jobs and those around him. But it leaves most of the interpretation to readers.

To put it kindly, Jobs was quirky. Along with a single-minded interest in Zen, he was an early adopter of veganism and other weirdly confining diets – believing, as a result, that he didn’t need deodorant. When he worked at Atari before founding Apple with Steve Wozniak, such traits, along with his arrogance, saw him banished to the night shift.

Later, he was often too wrapped up in his latest product to give anything, or anyone, else much attention. Jobs, who was adopted, eventually got to know his biological sister, novelist Mona Simpson. But he also initially disowned his daughter by a high-school girlfriend, and later noticed her only in short bursts.

The Jobs “reality distortion field” described by colleagues also worked both ways. His belief that anything was possible helped motivate Apple engineers. It didn’t, however, do Jobs any favors in his battle with the cancer that would eventually kill him: he initially refused treatment.

Charisma, mixed with intense charm and hurtful put-downs, seems to have worked at Apple. He wanted the A team around him and expected a lot. Those who endured, like Tim Cook, now Apple’s chief executive, and Jony Ive, the company’s chief designer, found ways to cope with Jobs’ temperament and tolerate other shortcomings, like his habit of taking credit for other people’s ideas.

Isaacson sketches out some of Jobs’ guiding principles. One message conveyed repeatedly, perhaps the result of a rush to publish soon after Jobs died, is that Jobs saw himself at the intersection of humanities and sciences. The motto defines Apple today. The iPod, iPhone and iPad are products that didn’t require new science per se, but which united and extended existing technologies in packages that worked for consumers both as useful tools and as aesthetic and social statements.

Jobs also had a relentless drive to commercialize products. Wozniak, the genius behind the Apple II computer that launched the company and had an extraordinary 16-year run, would probably have been happy to give it away.

There’s ample evidence in the book of Jobs’ quest for perfection, including menu arrangement on the iPod and software that makes scrolling on a screen continue briefly after the user stops. On the other hand, his insistence on painting factory machines the right color, thereby damaging them, exposed the detrimental side of such obsession.

A belief in intuition influenced Jobs, for instance empowering him to ignore focus groups when creating new products. But so did old-fashioned hard work. After he was ousted from Apple in 1985, Jobs founded NeXT Computer and bought Pixar Animation Studios. When he returned more than a decade later, he ran Pixar for a while at the same time as Apple – both successfully. According to Isaacson, Jobs blamed his disease partly on this grueling period. But it’s testimony to his drive that he managed it at all.

Another important characteristic was a willingness to say no. After resuming his leadership of Apple, Jobs hacked the bloated range of product types down to four. Plenty of other companies could learn from such streamlining, even though it risks the loss of customers around the edges.

Whether the Jobs approach to business relationships is worth reproducing is questionable. Among others, Isaacson documents fascinating up-and-down interactions with Microsoft’s Bill Gates and manipulative ones with John Sculley, the man hired from PepsiCo in 1983 to run Apple who then forced Jobs out.

Isaacson’s book is valuable for all of this. Yet he ultimately fails to explain how exactly his subject made Apple, or even Pixar, so great. Significantly, there’s a void of explanation about what changed during Jobs’ exile from Apple, which was partly due to his refusal to control project costs or schedules. “The products, not the profits, were the motivation,” Jobs said.

But when he returned, he found a way to make more money, all the same – and to make Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world. For all Isaacson’s access, this, like so much else about Jobs, remains a mystery.

 

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