“Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson is the story of the life of the co-founder of Apple, Inc., the company that brought us one of the first desktop computers and other technologies that have changed the world in which we live.
Prior to reading this biography, I admittedly did not know much about Steve Jobs beyond the fact that he started Apple and frequently wore black turtlenecks. The story told by Isaacson is a comprehensive view of this technology entrepreneur’s life, from his birth and adoption by a middle class family in Silicon Valley in 1955 to the end of his long battle with cancer in 2011. Isaacson is effective in portraying Jobs in an objective manner through interviews with both Jobs himself and those who had interactions with Jobs throughout his life.
From his childhood years, it was clear that Steve was a special person. In the 4th Grade, Steve tested at a 10th Grade level. His interest in building things came from his father, a mechanic, who was always tinkering on cars in the garage of their Palo Alto home. Steve’s father instilled in him a strong work ethic and a certain integrity in all his creations. Although Steve would be less interested in mechanics than electronics, this constant tinkering helped fuel his curiosity and creativity, while giving him an inside look into how things are made.
Growing up in Silicon Valley during the rise of Hewlett-Packard meant Steve was able to nurture his interest in electronics throughout his childhood and into his early adulthood. After dropping out of Reed College, Steve embraced a counter-culture lifestyle, dropping LSD and practicing Zen Buddhism. Upon returning from a 7 month trip to India to find his ‘dojo’, Steve decides to build desktop computers for the masses. In 1977, he enlisted Steve Wozniak, whom he met during his high school years, and Ronald Wayne, a co-worker of his at Atari, and this partnership becomes Apple Computer, Inc.
As Apple Computer begins to create their first products, Steve fathers a child with his on-again, off-again girlfriend. This is the first time we see the cold side of Steve Jobs, as he inexplicably denies paternity and all the responsibility that comes with fatherhood.
From the first computers that Apple brings to market, Jobs’ perfectionism and obsession with design and user-friendliness come to light. These characteristics drive Steve to demand a lot of himself, his team, and Apple products. In 1980 this hard work and dedication paid off as Apple went public, instantly making Jobs and almost 300 other Apple employees millionaires.
In interactions with employees, Steve frequently seems almost bipolar. He uses extremes to either criticize or praise people’s work, thinking it is the “best thing ever” or “complete shit”. In addition, he sets unreasonable timelines and expectations for his teams. However, this counter-intuitive leadership style seems to work for Steve as it makes the team stronger and creates a better final product.
In 1985, Steve’s erratic management style is deemed dangerous for the now-publicly-traded company and the Board of Directors pushes him out. Steve takes his newfound wealth and launches another company called NeXT, in hopes of creating a computer with mass-market appeal. Shortly thereafter, Steve purchases the computer animation wing of LucasFilm, which later became Pixar. In addition to these new business ventures, Steve’s personal life changes dramatically as he meets a woman whom he marries and eventually has three children with.
In the mid-1990’s, Apple has fallen on hard times and needs to shake things up. Apple buys Jobs’ NeXT and paves the way for a re-entry of Jobs as the creative leader behind Apple. After significantly shrinking their product offerings and re-focusing on their core competencies, Jobs is able to turn the company around. The team that Jobs builds up around him is able to work in unison to create great products, great marketing, and great distribution, just as it had done prior to Steve’s departure in 1985.
Apple flourishes under Jobs’ leadership, pushing the bounds of technological advancement in consumer products by introducing the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. In addition to changing the technology industry, Jobs and Apple are able to have profound impacts on the retail industry (through the introduction of the Apple Store), the music industry (with iTunes and GarageBand), the film and camera industry (through iMovie and camera lenses on iPhones), the advertising industry (through unconventional ads), the publications industry (through digital applications and iBooks), and countless other industries (through creating the platforms for new industries to thrive).
In the middle of all of this innovation, Steve Jobs is diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. He struggles with this diagnosis, knowing he has so much left to do in this world, but not much time. Steve keeps serving as CEO of Apple despite his sickness and works right up to his death in the fall of 2011.
In-Depth Topic: Cultivating Creativity
One topic that came up again and again throughout the biography was Steve’s ability to cultivate creativity. From the early days at Apple, to Pixar, and then back at Apple: creativity followed him. It seemed to come down to the culture of inclusivity and teamwork throughout each facet of the business. Steve encouraged cross-functional work and integration, and although at times he was opinionated, he embraced the ideas of others (whether or not he gave them appropriate credit is another discussion).
This culture of creativity went all the way down to the design of the office spaces. In particular, Steve designed Pixar’s offices to be centered around a massive atrium immediately inside the doors that houses the cafe, entrances to screening theaters. This space forces interaction and encourages collaboration, which is important for any creative firm. In the last few years of his life, Steve designed Apple’s newest campus, 1 Infinite Loop. Although he didn’t live to see it completed, he designed it on many of those same principles that help aid the creative process.
The need for constant innovation and a strong culture of creativity has led many firms to takes cues from Jobs’ success and change the office setting from a traditional space with separate divisions, dress codes, and cubicles to a more open, relaxed concept where cross-functional collaboration is encouraged.
It will be interesting to see how different firms attempt to cultivate creativity within their own office spaces and cultures on our trip to Silicon Valley.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys biographies. Steve Jobs is now a household name, but few know his true story. Isaacson is a renowned biographer who is able to paint a fair picture of the Steve Jobs that he came to know. By gathering the perspectives of his family, friends, business partners, employees, ex-girlfriends, and competitors the story becomes real. Isaacson is able to put you in the room, and keep you interested in, each step of his life. It isn’t sugar-coated or biased, but instead shows the real ups and downs of the life of one of Silicon Valley’s titans.