Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: Book Review
As soon as I finished reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I pulled out the two computers that i had - Acer and MacBook Air - and compared both the hardware and software. The difference in the elegance of construction strikes you: more particularly, notice the screws at the back and you would appreciate that MacBook Air is truly a work of art besides engineering.
A comparison between Powerpoint and Keynote shows the same difference as there would be between a Volkswagen and a Mercedes. Both are brilliant design and excellent manufacture. Whereas Powerpoint has all the ingredients required to make a presentation, Keynote is versatile and user friendly. A lot of thought has gone into making it, reflecting the design philosophy and genius of Steve Jobs.
Steve believed that any product must be at the intersection of Liberal Arts Street and Technology Street. He believed, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. We believe that it’s technology married with humanities that yields us the results that makes our hearts sing.”
This reminded me of another great designer, my father, Dr KL Rao. When I asked him why he took such a big risk and decided to design the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam in masonry instead of concrete, he replied that besides the abundant availability of stone, there was abject poverty and therefore an urgent need to provide employment to unskilled workers. At one point there were a hundred thousand people moving up and down the scaffolding carrying stone. An unforgettable spectacle of human endeavour, paralleled only by the Pyramids and the Great Wall.
Both Jobs and Rao were deeply influenced by Buddhism and Vegetarianism. They transferred this influence into their design philosophies. A basic philosophical difference between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, one of the most fundamental of all digital issues, was whether hardware and software should be tightly integrated or more open so that software could be independently developed and promiscuously used by any manufacturer of computers.
A college dropout, whose parents used their lifetime savings to send him to college, by the age of 25 Jobs had become a multimillionaire, his net worth estimated at over $250 million. Starting with the computer Apple I which he and his friend Steve Wozniak built in Jobs’ parents’ garage, in the next 25 years Jobs would revolutionise digital computing, music and animated films.
In twenty five years he left a legacy – Apple I and II, Macintosh, Apple Store, iPod, iPad, iPhone, iCloud in digital computing, iTunes and Pixar for animated films. In those twenty five years he got thrown out of the Apple Company that he had founded, requested to return as its CEO. And in the interim he founded NeXT and Pixar.
It is not coincidence that most of the enterprising young multimillionaires - Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and others like them were not highly educated - many of them like Steve Jobs were rebels searching for an alternative. It is also important to recognise that Silicon Valley was fertile ground for startups to grow. It was possible to mobilise funds, material, components and human resources.
In India, billionaires are created either by patrimony or through mastering the art of manipulating the government and financial Institutions. There is neither institutional support nor recognition for an enterprising young person. The many failed startups and MSMEs are standing testimony to failure of governance systems rather than entrepreneurial skills. It would be interesting to study and understand the ecosystems that enabled China to, in a few decades, go from technological backwardness to becoming masters of cutting edge technologies in almost every area, thereby putting the nation even ahead of the United States.
By the age of fifty he was diagnosed with cancer that consumed him. When the pulmonologist tried to put a mask on him, Jobs ripped it off because he hated the design. Though barely able to speak, he ordered five different options for the masks to pick a design he liked. In this Covid era when almost the entire human race has been forced to wear masks, how many would make the design of the mask a criterion for wearing a mask?
That streak of perfectionism has a flip side. He was ruthless in building a team of A players. His philosophy was, “It’s too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few B players, and they then attract a few more B players, and soon they will even have some C players. A players like to work only with other A players, which means you can’t indulge in B players.”
But from the view point of the players, “It was difficult working under Steve, because there was a great polarity between gods and shitheads. Those of us who were considered to be gods, as I was, knew that we were actually mortals and made bad engineering decisions… The ones who were shitheads, who were brilliant engineers, working very hard, felt there was no way they could get appreciated and rise above their status.”
As a trade unionist, I have often been dragged into the debate on job security, seniority-based promotion versus complete freedom to hire and fire. An important question is do individuals alone achieve excellence, or is excellence nurtured? Would there have been A teams in Apple without Steve Jobs, or a continuous turnout of an excellent product range of iPhone to iPad etc?
The iPhone was ready for shipment. Jobs called the team and told them, “I didn’t sleep last night, because I realised that I just don’t love it. (Glass screen set into an aluminium case…) Guys, you’ve killed yourselves over this design for the last nine months, but we’re going to change it… We’re going to have to work nights and weekends, and if you want we can hand out some guns so you can kill us now.”
The aluminium casing was replaced with stainless steel bezel. It meant a redoing of the circuit boards, antenna and processor placement, but instead of balking, the team agreed because they knew Jobs was right.
An uncompromising insistence on quality and perfection has a price, but it is worth paying for that is what makes outstanding companies and nations. It was not just at work but even at home Jobs was uncompromising. He would rather sit on the floor, in lotus position, than compromise on buying sub-standard furniture.
It’s worth introspecting on why Zen Buddhism and seven months in India seeking gurus could teach Steve Jobs minimalism and perfectionism, but not most of us in India. There is no way India will emerge as a world class nation unless the “jugadu” (make or makeshift) mentality in everything, from engineering to politics, is abandoned.
K Ashok Rao is a trade unionist and social activist