Focus and causality: two lingering lessons from Steve Jobs biography

Two themes run across the dense and well-timed Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson that came out last fall.

The unfaltering focus and dependable insensitivity of Jobs, so, having just finished it myself, I’ve been left trying to find causality: did those two qualities make him a better CEO and Apple a better company?

For focus, I believe it’s unquestionable: make fewer products and make them better. It’s the complete opposite of the market share angle of, say, spaghetti sauces. The second has me more uncertain, particularly when the success of Jobs is seen as motivation to drive employees to the edge.

Throughout Isaacson’s book, there are tales of the people who rejected how Jobs treated them and left, and then there were those who were motivated by Jobs and, often they said, did the best work of their lives. If that happened, I’m uncomfortable with thinking it was much more than an exception — being ruthless gets you further faster, but I’m not convinced there’s any real lesson for longer, sustained growth, despite Jobs and Apple.

On the contrary, I was most moved by the stories of Jobs listing the products his company was working on and cutting all but the most important and relevant. It sounded like the kind of broad goal work that my colleagues do and aspire to do better.

In 2011, I tried to focus my professional efforts, and while this year I’ve wanted to do better at risking, to improve my chances at success, limiting the projects I’m involved in seems to be an increasingly top priority.

Reading the Jobs book — full of interesting anecdotes from great reporting — just may help me do that. As always, I share a slew of notes below.

  • Silicon Valley roots (p.9) — I am always interested in the descriptions of how regions, like the Silicon Valley, developed, and here Isaacson centers on the growth of missile contractors and R&D spending.
  • “Engineering is the highest level of importance you can reach in the world” – Steve Wozniak (p. 22)
  • Difference between hardware and software guys (p. 24) —  Wozniak tells the story of hardware guys being used to getting shocked from doing the hard work.
  • Teenage Jobs shunned his parents (p. 34) — During a campus visit: that sounds like a lot of whiny kids.
  • Calligraphy class led to Mac fonts (p. 41) — Jobs sat in on a Calligraphy class while at Reed, which he says developed his admiration for the design of typefaces.
  • Jobs mediation following Eastern trip (p. 49) — Led to a lifelong pursuit of the spiritual
  • “Initially the technologists and the hippies did not interface well.” (p 57) — Jobs and Apple helped grow that relationship.
  • “I see God in the instruments and mechanisms that work reliably.” (p. 58) Buckminster Fuller
  • Wozniak makes and Jobs sells (p. 60) — the beginning of the role development
  • First annual Personal Computer Festival (p. 70) — In Atlantic City, Wozniak and Jobs flew to Philadelphia and then drove to show off the Apple I.
  • Reserve stock for investors (p. 77) — Wozniak, Jobs and Mike Markkula, who put up $250k, each got 26% of original Apple ownership and the rest was reserved for investors.
  • Empathy, focus and impute (p. 78) — The original three values of Apple, most prominently, for me, was the second: “we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.”
  • Trading investment for insight (p. 96) — Jobs gave up part of his company for investment and the chance to see Xerox’s secret graphical interface, a major commercial breakthrough that Apple brought to market.
  • “Because I didn’t know it couldn’t be done, I was enabled to do it.” (p. 100) Bill Atkinson on developing the overlapping feature of files and folders that we take for granted on computers today.
  • Wozniak gave out shares, Jobs didn’t (p. 105) — Where Wozniak made sure all of his employees and friends made out well when Apple when public in 1980, Jobs certainly did not.
  • Product price pipeline (p. 113) — In a new industry, first you build a great expensive product to show off its power, then create cheaper, commoditized versions. Jobs battled with Macintosh project lead Jeff Raskin for many reasons: Raskin wanted the cheaper product first, but it wasn’t ready to wow anyone.
  • The reality distortion field (p. 117) — throughout the book, stories are shared of Jobs ignoring facts and pushing forward, sometimes leading to improbable success … and sometimes not.
  • Philadelphia’s Susan Kare designed the Mac fonts (p. 130) — And as we have reported, they were originally named for the Philadelphia transit stops, but Jobs renamed them.
  • Gates did not see Jobs as competition at first (p. 173)
  • Jobs thought Gates ripped Apple off, but Gates thought they both stole from Xerox (p. 178)
  • Steve Jobs freaked out about a hotel arrangement (p. 188) — he was a whiny dick
  • Jobs spent $100,000 on a logo for his new company NeXT (p. 220)
  • After denying Wozniak the right to use a design he made while at Apple, Jobs then wants to be able to use the Apple design firm Frogdesign after he leaves the company (p. 221) — Lots of examples of his hypocrisy here
  • Perfection over shipping it (p. 223) He lost a bet by shipping his Macintosh later than Apple’s LISA computer to make sure it met his specifications.
  • “I pick the jockeys and the jockeys pick the horses and ride them.” (p. 227) said Ross Perot
  • Gates wanted compatibility and Jobs wanted control (p. 230) — A central theme in the Microsoft and Apple wars was Jobs’s focus on owning every step of hardware to software to product
  • Whoever starts the meeting is in control (p. 239) — Executives tried to have everyone at a meeting on time and then have the CFO come in to determine his control. Instead, Jobs just started without him.
  • Let customers find uses for your product (p. 241) as Jobs tried to do with Macinstosh and Pixar
  • Art and tech, like Macintosh and then Pixar, defined jobs when at his best (p. 244) — You need to find what defienes your best work
  • Steve Jobs falls for a Penn undergrad (p. 261)
  • Jobs struggled with a relationship with his kids and wife (p. 283)
  • Like Disney head, Jobs was a tyrant with the gift of gab (p. 285)
  • Toy Story was bad at first draft because bosses meddled (p. 287) — Protect creativity
  • Photos: Leonardo said good artists copy, great artists steal. Jobs said this about taking from IBM for Lisa computer but criticized Microsoft for stealing from Apple
  • Know what you want in negotiations (p. 301) — Jobs negotiated with NeXT purchase by Apple and had to have known what was his ideal, his moderate success and his minimum for accepting.
  • Pictures page 7: We don’t do market research because customers don’t know what they want until we tell them.
  • Competition is good (p. 334) — Jobs liked to stoke up rivalries, like he did with IBM, Microsoft and then with Dell.
  • Microsoft licensed out its OS and recommended Apple do the same (p. 335) — they didn’t
  • (early In Book someone else recommends apple company name, jobs mistakenly wanted to change it)
  • Make four great products (p. 337) — When Jobs came back to the role, he cut 70 percent of their lingering products and variations and focused.
  • For some design is veneer, but to Jobs it is fundamental soul (p. 343)
  • People do judge by the cover, so act like it (p. 347)
  • No analysis for the signature iMac translucency (p. 350) — Even though it cost more than three times standard casing
  • Apple only hires A players (p. 363) — and he pushed out those who weren’t
  • Company would list 10 biggest priorities and then only do the top three (p. 379) — He also notes here that often after 30-years-old, people develop rigid set of thinking and are less innovative
  • It was a mistake ignoring the CD burning craze at first (p. 382)
  • iTunes sold million songs in six days (p. 403)
  • Sony had strict corporate divisions (p. 407) — and so they failed to innovate by working together
  • Bob Dylan’s talks about his writing style when meeting Jobs (p. 415) — Dylan said of writing songs: “they just came through me, it wasn’t like I was having to compose them. That doesn’t happen anymore, I just can’t write them that way anymore. But I can still sing them.”
  • The job of an artist is to chase ugliness away (p. 423)
  • To succeed, Jobs needed a foil to challenge him (p. 427)
  • Physical presence, a headquarters, does a lot for company culture, through in person meetings and collaboration, said Jobs (p. 430) — Spent considerable money and time on this
  • Jobs on Disney’s Eisner (p. 437) — When Eisner couldn’t just be creative, he faltered
  • Scared of surgery so ignored it (p. 454)
  • Memento mori (p. 461) — Remember you will die
  • Apple University (p. 461) — Focus on culture
  • Developed ipad and then iPhone (p. 467) — But the time was right, so it held back on iPad
  • FingerWorks (p. 469) — Company from University of Delaware had the multi-touch glass technology
  • Jobs lied about his health to shareholders (p. 480)
  • Once someone dies, off the record often goes out the window (p. 482)
  • In hospital, Jobs complained about the design of his oxygen tube (p. 486)
  • Jobs replacement Tim Cook gave a great speech after Jobs left his role (p. 488)
  • Bill Gates gives some lukewarm praise of the iPad (p. 495)
  • the App Store was part of the Internet evolution (p. 502)
  • Who cares about Turkish coffee? (p. 528) — Jobs on why the global revolution makes products like Apple more valuable, by bringing together world culture
  • Biology will be the next revolution, says Jobs (p. 539) — the web and digital world has gone shallow
  • Apple would need 30,000 engineers to have all its operations in the United States (p. 546) — But the education system isn’t there and so those jobs won’t come here, Jobs told President Obama.
  • Magician genius (p. 566) — Mark Kac called a magician genius: someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power.
  • Jobs gives advice to incoming Google CEO Larry Page (p. 552) — Focus and keep it simple: Microsoft tried to do everything and it made worse products for it.
  • Built an efficient company (p. 562) — Had 7% of the industry’s revenue, but 35% of its profit
  • Did Jobs’ “nasty edge” help? (p. 565)
  • How to build a company, says Jobs (p. 569) I have my own theory about why decline happens at companies like IBM or Microsoft. The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it and some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. the company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the sales people end up running the company.