Book Review: Steve Jobs

Image credit: Amazon

Like many, I spent the better part of this fall engrossed in the life story of Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson’s biography of this century’s greatest visionary thinker does a good job of creating drama and intrigue. For fanatics of Apple’s history, there isn’t anything new or groundbreaking. But for those wondering who Steve Jobs was and what it would be like to have him in your life, this book does not disappoint.

And, after finishing, who would want Steve Jobs in their life? The author’s portrayal of Job’s continual gruffness and complete lack of tact was cringeworthy at times. But was it accurate? I highly doubt it. My main issue with the biography was how Isaacson made Jobs to be some hellbent monster, and nothing but. Readers walk away thinking Jobs was the antagonist of his own life story.

You could tell the book was rushed due to Jobs health. The author and his constituency say it was because Jobs wanted to see it published in his life time. But I can’t help but have a cynical view—the publishers saw an opportunity to sell a lot of copies at the height of his popularity riding the coat tails of his death. The end result is a terribly rushed book that didn’t seem to do justice to the man.

But there were some interesting insights.

Insight 1: Jobs iterated a lot, and it just might be the hidden secret to his success.

From his first blue box project with Woz to the polished process at the time of his death, Jobs iterated a lot. What struck me was the time frames of his iteration. In the early days of the Apple I, he would iterate almost daily. His process looked like this:

  • Hire a strong team and trust them to get work done.
  • At the end of the day, review what progress they made. And not just casually look, but actually use heavily the prototypes they created. This meant a clear requirement existed: don’t deal in hypotheticals.
  • Give feedback on what to change for tomorrow. If it was big enough changes, teams would have to work all night.
  • Start the day over in the same manner.

Intense. The reason why I think this is a sneaky secret to Apple’s success is because I believe strongly what Tim Hartford says in his TED Talk, embedded below. In short: The best advanced throughout history are due to heavy trial and error experimentation.

I disagree with Malcolm Gladwell’s synthesis of Isaacson’s book, and I think Jobs’ innovations is due to heavy trial and error experimentation. He did not steal existing ideas and simply implement as Gladwell states. He truly innovated, and I believe it was due to this process.

I plan to break my development process into smaller steps with better checkpoints so I and my team can iterate better.

Insight 2: Everything is a negotiation. Accept that fact and then learn how it’s done.

A maxim coined long before Jobs, but emphasized throughout his life story. Jobs was a master negotiator, and all of his huge successes were not just due to his skill as a product guy. All included an element of good timing and negotiation that put Jobs and his party in a place to succeed. The Pixar stories best illustrated it.

I often wondered while reading if the reason for Jobs disconnection from the emotions of others was because he was always negotiating. Separating yourself from the how others feel or what they think about you is a real key to negotiating. Perhaps Jobs took it too far.

I certainly plan to be better at this skill. Step one is being better at caring less about what others think about me.

Insight 3: If you want to do great things, it’s really important to have a broad background.

And no I don’t mean we all need to take trips to India for a year. I’m referring more to the liberal arts emphasis Jobs had throughout his career. I totally agree with him, and always have.

Far too often, I run into an engineer or programmer who isn’t versed about the other side of the coin. You know, the stereotypical IT vet who has zero empathy towards the world he is building for.

Or on the opposite side, I’m disheartened by the volume of art/english/design/music/psychology/theater/etc type students who have zero experience or interest in technology. Too many of them are going to end up as a barista with impossible student loans wondering what happened. Some of them will make it without ever having to touch a computer, but everyone else would have a better chance at changing the world by embracing technology.

I’m by no means an all-star on both sides of the isle. But I embrace liberal arts and have a genuine interest in just about everything. I wish more students understood the value in combining art and science.


You could read this book. But if you didn’t I wouldn’t be heartbroken. Instead, you should take an hour out of your day and watch this recently unearthed interview with Jobs from 1995. Or this one where he digs for carrots.

Death is Life’s Greatest Invention

That’s a quote from Steve Jobs. He liked how it allowed the old to be removed and new to flourish.

It took his death yesterday for me to realize exactly how much he’s changed my life. He is certainly the biggest form of impersonal inspiration in my life and career. This picture has always been one of the most motivating snapshots for me:

(Image credit)

My favorite thought from Steve:

You don’t find success, it finds you. Your job is the practice so it finds you more often.