Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: The Steve Jobs Way

OK, I'll admit it.  I am a sucker for anyone who can decipher or decode Steve Jobs.  After all, the guy is a repeat Icarus.  He has flown too close to the sun not once, not twice, but at least three times and every time has come out better than before.  The effect he's had on Apple upon his return has been nothing short of a resurrection followed by a seating at the right hand of the Father.

Jobs is an interesting, mercurial creature, and I often wonder if he is simply one of a kind, a kind of idiot savant who understands how to tap into our wants and needs, and who has an almost messianic vision that we need to follow.  Sometimes I suspect that books about him are probably best read to illuminate how different we are from Steve rather than how we can become more like Steve.

I've read several books about Jobs, but in many regards The Steve Jobs Way is probably the best.  The subtitle for the book is iLeadership for a New Generation, which is a bit unfortunate, for reasons I've just presented above (I'm not sure we can easily emulate Jobs) and for the hackneyed use of the "i".  But Jay Elliott, who was present at the beginning, knows Jobs probably as well as anyone, and gives insights that few can do from the outside looking in.  And if the first few pages where Elliott describes how he first got the job with Jobs doesn't hook you, then really nothing will.

Here's the plain, unvarnished truth about what Elliot has to say:  Steve Jobs is unlike just about everyone you'll ever meet.  After founding Apple and wowing a bunch of venture capitalists and business people, Jobs had visions of a different kind of computer and become a disruption in his own company, and was eventually thrust out (first Icarus moment).  Using the funds he received from his stock sale, he purchased Pixar and developed the NexT computer.  For a man who is supposedly a marketing genius, he misunderstood Pixar and targeted a tiny university market with a computer that was far too capable and expensive.  Fortunately, due to his inability to recognize his failures, he stuck around and funded both long enough for the world to catch up to his technologies.  Both Pixar and NexT reached Icarus points of their own, and Jobs had the ability to reach deep into his own pockets to keep them float.

Jobs returned to Apple as an "advisor" to Gil Amelio and supplanted Amelio very shortly afterward.  Amelio must have been the only person on the planet who didn't foresee this outcome.  Jobs, having learned his lessons from his first stint at Apple and his near failures and spectacular successes with Pixar, determined to trust his vision and turn Apple into a customer experience company that happens to make electronics.  And that's where we are today.

The Steve Jobs Way is mostly a biography about Jobs, which I've encapsulated above.  Along the way Elliot points out the successes (in great detail) and the failures (in not so much detail).  Elliot points out the things we should learn from Jobs, like his passion, his vision, his obsession with detail, his ability to create and share a vision and so forth.  Frankly, most of us regular humans would find it hard to mimic Jobs in even one of these attributes, much less pretend to match Jobs in all of these attributes.  Layer on top Jobs' first win at Apple which gave him deep pockets and staying power, and very few people can touch his success.

What strikes me most about the short biography is how much I think Jobs learned from his own near failures that he now applies at Apple, including shortening the product offerings, focusing on customer experience and creating a mystique around the Apple brand and Apple products.  Jobs knows, and I think increasingly Apple knows, that the expectations are now so high for Apple that one stumble could seriously damage the firm, so every new product must meet Jobs' vision and expectations, which will hopefully outstrip the expectations and needs of the customer base.  Frankly, Jobs is in a competitive race by himself.  Every other computer and electronics manufacturer has ceded the high ground to Jobs and Apple and are merely hoping they make mistakes.

While it probably won't be a surprise when I tell you this, perhaps the greatest impact Jobs has with Apple is that he is the de facto product manager for the iPad, and the iPod and the iPhone.  I can think of no other significant consumer electronics manufacturer where the CEO is so involved in the design and development of the core products.  It is his vision and involvement and his passion for the product and the product features and attributes that differentiates Apple.  

Some books are proscriptive, they tell you what to learn and what to do based on examples.  Some books are descriptive, they tell you a story or describe an event.  This is a book that seems to suggest it is a proscriptive book, but ultimately it is a descriptive book.  However, it is a great read and perhaps one of the best I've seen about Jobs and what makes him tick.  I'm just not sure whether to wish for more Jobs or to acknowledge that only one can exist at a time.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:47 AM


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