Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Yet Another Steve Jobs Biography Book Review

First of all, I am not a hero-worshipper. Never have been. Never will be. Second, I am not an Apple fanboy. Never have been. Not sure, if I can say, "Never will be!" But, over the years, having worked in technology, having used Apple products and having closely followed product launches (Apple product launches, GoogleIO keynotes and sessions, Kindle announcements, CES etc.), I gradually began to have special regard for Steve Jobs and the products that he championed, even though I hated some of the Apple approaches to dumb down user interface and technology. However, after reading the biography, I have a new found respect for Steve Jobs - his creative talents, his visionary mind, his attention to detail and also the unsung heros at Apple behind those amazing products that they make. I think I have a better understanding of how and why they did the things the "Steve Jobs way."

Being a techie, I choose to judge only things that have "computer science" associated to them and hence I have chosen to neither judge nor comment on any of the personal, emotional or inter-personal aspects (relationships with family, friends, monetary dealings with Wozniack and the others etc.) of Steve. I believe that you have to be one of the parties really involved with the situation to be able to make a judgement and even then, I think, without actually peeking inside ones head and putting all the situational elements (circumstances, past history, personal biases etc.) together, it is really hard to judge somebody, unless you are a psychotherapist. One can argue that everything about him and his accomplishments finally boils down to his personality but since my degree is in computers and not human psychology, I would like to only address things that I can understand and glean from the book.

Some of the thoughts here may not have been explicitly mentioned in the book but may be the way I inferred or interpreted the various scenarios. At times, to drive the point I have added my own 2 cents, since this is what I learnt from the book rather than merely regurgitating sections from the book.
  1. Be persuasive.
  2. Believe in yourself. Never give up. Be obsessive.
  3. Work with and around people who share your vision. Without this, it will seem like sitting in a car with each of its wheels going in a direction that it feels like.
  4. Build an "A team". "A team" members can only with "A team" members and working with "C team" members is a huge drag on productivity and employee morale. Picture the car engine of a high performance race car - every piece in it is for a reason and every piece is giving its 100% and was hand picked to produce that level of overall performance. Even as small a thing as a loose nut can bring down that race car.
  5. Never do a sloppy job. Never. Not even if nobody is looking. Even if this is an internal tool, even if this is for personal use. Redo it how many ever times it takes to get it right. Visualize everything you do as a work of art that somebody is going to look at.
  6. Make technology less scary and more human. Nobody needs a user manual to operate most functions of a refrigerator or a washing machine. Why should technology be any different?
  7. If you build a classy product with the end user in mind they will buy it. Don't think about profits. Think only about the product and the end user. Profits will follow.
  8. Everybody judges a book by its cover. Even though we know not to do it and we are taught in school not to do it, everybody does it. Admit it. You do it at the grocery store - you buy only products that are packaged in an appealing manner. In fact, grocery stores sell you stuff that you don't need, merely by placing it in an appealing manner. It is very essential to make a great impression. Apple products, starting from the Apple store, to the buying experience there, to the packaging of the product,  to the feeling when you hold the product, to the experience when you use the product all culminate to give you the "Apple Experience".
  9. Iterate on your product. Do it multiple times. But do it internally. Don't make your end users your beta testers. Treat products like other consumer electronic devices. Imagine how it would be if your washing machine was released in beta and you would have to work through its water leaks, poor washing capabilities, keep taking upgrades hoping that the next release would give you all the features and finally start working perfectly as advertised? Using the washing machine should not entail having to read through a mass of documents or having to search the web for specific problems or having to ask questions on news groups on how to perform its basic operations.
  10. Anybody can construct a building but not everybody can build the Taj Mahal. When you build something, make it grand. Make it a work of art. Make it something that people will appreciate and remember.
  11. Focus on a few things. Have laser focus. Do a few things and do them well.
  12. Rally your troops by being hands on. Unlike leaders of today, who sit in the luxury of their office and send orders to the poor soldiers who fight in the front, be like the kings of historic times - fight the battle, shoulder to shoulder. Motivate your team. Push them to show them that they can excel.
  13. Don't build products like an assembly line - each group (chassis, hardware and software) building their piece in isolation and throwing it over the wall once they are done and the next team picking it up and repeating the same process. Rather than that, build it as one cohesive piece. Once built, it will work like that too. Again, analogy with the automobile. The entire car is envisioned as one piece - otherwise you might land up with a strange car having the chassis of a boat, the wheels of a tractor and a joystick instead of a steering.
  14. Don't build things that merely replicate functionality that is already out there. Leapfrog your competition by building something orders of magnitude better.
  15. Don't compromise on your key beliefs. Even if it will allow you to get an initial not-so-fully-baked version of your product out sooner. Not even if it will allow you to get a foot in the door first. Compromise is a slippery slope.
When I started writing this blog post, I chose not to comment on personality. However, it is hard for me to resist the opportunity. And since this is my blog, I am going to do it anyway. I think Steve was a genius, one of a kind, passionate, "artistic engineer", who strived to build technology that was more human and resembled art rather than merely the embodiment of product features from a marketing list that were slapped together on a piece of hardware. Most successful engineers (and artists) have made one or two brilliant products but he was able to make so many of them. He was a man way ahead of his times - a visionary. Of course, he was not perfect, especially when it came to inter-personal relationships and he may have burnt a lot of bridges by his abrasive personality. But, like I said in the beginning of the blog, I choose to only absorb the aspects that relate to his geeky part and possibly learn from the mistakes of his inter-personal relationships. I think his son, Reed Jobs, sums it up really well in the book:

"... was not a cold profit-seeking businessman but was motivated by a love of what he did and a pride in the products that he was making"

If you survived reading this post all the way up to this point, you are probably thinking that I am actually a hero-worshipper and an Apple fanboy! It is hard for me to convince you otherwise and all that I can tell you is that if you haven't read the book please do so. I always remember what Dr. Mike Bailey, former Professor of Computer Graphics at UCSD, once said that dramatically changed my thinking. Bill Gates was going to give a talk at UCSD and I was in my "Microsoft is Evil" frame of mind and did not want to attend the talk, which happened to be at the same time slot as the computer graphics class. Dr. Bailey, not only canceled his class but also encouraged us to attend the talk and told us that, weather we liked it or not, Bill Gates was certainly a man who had largely influenced the digital revolution and as computer scientists it was essential for us to have an open mind and listen to what he had to say. If you are curious, yes, I stood in line for more than an hour and listened to Bill Gates but I was really underwhelmed by the contents of his talk and his passion. But that is another story ...