Book Review

What I Learned from Steve Jobs (Book Review)

Okay, now that I have your attention, allow me to clarify. I did not have the pleasure of meeting Mr. Jobs. I did, however, have the pleasure of reading Walter Isaacson’s landmark biography on the legendary Apple co-founder and CEO simply titled Steve Jobs. I review books here pretty regularly but they are usually confined to the areas of branding and social media. So what am I doing giving you a review of a thick bio from the bestsellers end-cap?

The Elevator Pitch

While Jobs built some of the more venerable brands in the zeitgeist today (Apple, Pixar) and created mobile devices that drive social media use, there’s another insight that emerged over the course of this 600-page journey. It’s what made Steve Jobs Steve Jobs. It’s also a key business skill that’s rarely addressed directly and that is focus. Laser-like, precision focus on what you want and how you can get there. As a young, college drop-out, Jobs worked on an apple-growing commune. His job? Pruning the tree branches so they would grow stronger. In many ways, “the Steve Jobs school of business leadership” is one of understanding focus.

The BIG Idea: Focus

Walter Isaacson

Jobs spent his own life focusing on building great products to help people navigate the intersection of arts and technology. In doing so, he built two lasting companies — Apple and Pixar. Regular readers also know that I love Jobs quotes. As such, the best way to quickly articulate Jobs’s impressive mastery of focus is from anecdotes and quotes that occur during the course of Isaacson’s book.

  • Focused Work Teams. Small teams can do great things like the first Apple team in the Jobs family garage to the original Macintosh team that Steve personally pulled aside to the skunkworks he assembled when he returned to reinvent a struggling Apple in the late 1990s.
  • Focused Design. This focus meant a design where “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Less is more. Literally fewer lines, fewer ports, fewer buttons. Throughout his career you see that his personal contributions often simplified, pared down, and made things more usable and, as a result, irresistible.
  • Focus on Details. Little things matter, as in the case of a story about the tops of the windows on the original Macintosh OS. “Can you imagine looking at that every day?” asked Jobs.
  • Focus on Getting to Market. “Great artists ship.” Anyone can sit around and create and iterate forever. True artists get their work into the marketplace. Jobs never lost site of getting products in the hands of customers as the ultimate objective of his focal point.
  • Focus on Ideas, Not Presentations. In pitches, Jobs pushed his team to focus on ideas rather than PowerPoints. “I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.”
  • Focused Product Offerings. When he returned to Apple in the late 1990s, Jobs eliminated excess products, divisions, suppliers, and inventory to focus innovation. Jobs was ‘lean’ in every sense of the word.
  • Focus on the Org Chart. If design is an organizational priority then it should report to the C-level as Jobs did with Apple’s design chief Jony Ive. By direct reporting to the CEO, Ive had more operational power than anyone at Apple except Steve.
  • Focus on Workspaces. Pixar needed to foster creativity. When it came time to build new offices, Jobs personally oversaw the design and construction of one big building around a central atrium to encourage random encounters and unplanned collaborations and as such creativity.
  • Focus on the Customer Experience. Jobs obsessed on what he called “end to end from silicon to flesh.” To the latter point, packaging matters. Early mentor Mike Markkula taught Jobs to “impute” customers’ needs. People do, in fact, judge books by their cover. The ultimate manifestation of this focus was that Ive and Jobs often patent protected their packaging design as well.
  • Focus on What’s Next. “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.” What a great quote. This thinking lead Jobs to constantly focus on what’s next from iMac to iPod to iTunes to iPhone to iPad to iCloud.
  • Focus on Institutional Memory. What use are any of these valuable business lessons if they exist only in the memories of certain team members? That’s why Jobs created Apple University to institutionalize many of the key moments the organization encountered such as the migration to Intel chips and Apple’s retail stores.

So, Should You Read It?

Let me be clear, Mr. Jobs biography is not an easy-to-grab ‘Leadership 101’ tome. Many of his tactics — particularly in dealing with people — though they worked for him, are abysmal and not for broad application to say the least. Having said that, without putting on airs, this book provides you with the closest thing to an actual meeting with Mr. Jobs. It lets you in his head and, more importantly, into his creative genius. He not only built great products, he built great companies. Isaacson’s unprecedented access into one of the greatest business minds of the century (coincidentally one of the most guarded as well) makes this book a valuable read for anyone who considers themselves a change agent charged with innovation. Particularly, folks in the C-suite should give this a read. Though controlling and often obsessive, Jobs mastered the ability to toggle between big picture strategy and tactical details. There aren’t a ton of books out there that give insight into this skill.

Jobs respected artists who proved themselves against his tough standards such as Apple’s design chief Ive, Pixar’s John Lasseter, even the author Isaacson himself. Jobs didn’t want his biographer to pull any punches. And he didn’t. What you’re left with is a complete and comprehensive look into a brilliant mind. If you’re one of the crazy ones who is bent on changing the world, Steve Jobs provides a road map to how one kid from Cupertino actually did.

How about you? If you’ve already read Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, what was the big take-away for you? If you haven’t read it, what are you most curious about? Leave a comment below to get the book group started.

Photo of book via Flickr user katerha