He never even went to China and he said remarkably little about the world’s most populous country and second biggest economy.
And yet when the new biography of Steve Jobs (called simply enough Steve Jobs and authored by Walter Isaacson) went on sale there this month, queuing fans bought 678,000 copies of the Chinese language version of the book in a week.
CBN, a local newspaper, is estimating 5 million copies will eventually be sold.
As WiC has pointed out before, Jobs life is a subject of fascination for many Chinese. It’s not just that he started out his business in a garage and went on to become a multibillionaire. What really preoccupies many of his fans is the manner in which Jobs repeatedly reshaped industries through new ideas and innovation.
Hundreds of years ago China invented many of the world’s game-changing products: gunpowder, the compass and the blast furnace (to name but a few).
But in recent decades it has become known more for its prowess in copying other goods, or making cheaper versions.
That’s why Steve Jobs stirs debate: can China’s current system produce innovators like him?
Thanks to the Cupertino tycoon’s fame, WiC decided to make an exception to our rule and review a book that’s not directly about the country.
China does get a few mentions in the 571 page book – although not many, three by our count.
The first one is 1985, when Apple is awarded the rights to export its computers there. A signing ceremony is arranged in Beijing but Jobs plots to use it as an opportunity to get rid of then-CEO John Sculley.
“I’m going to launch a coup while John is in China,” Jobs tells his co-conspirators.
In the event, Sculley didn’t go to Beijing and it was Jobs who got kicked out of Apple.
The second mention has nothing to do with Jobs, but involves Apple’s then head of manufacturing (and current CEO) Tim Cook.
A meeting is called when a problem crops up with a Chinese supplier. Cook is unhappy and muses during a meeting that someone needs to be in China to sort it out. “Why are you still here?” he asks minutes later. The chided executive drives straight to the airport and boards a flight sans luggage.
The third instance is the most interesting. Jobs has a meeting with President Obama in which he mentions an Apple supplier in China having a factory with 700,000 workers. Why was it there? Because it needed 30,000 engineers on-site to support the workers. “You can’t find that many in America to hire,” Jobs told the President. “If you could educate these engineers, we could move more manufacturing plants here.” Obama’s aides later recounted that the President ponders the point, asking his advisers how Apple could get those engineers in the US.
So it’s not a book dripping with insights about China.
But what’s best about this biography is it doesn’t set out to deify Jobs. Instead it is very much a warts-and-all tale that gives a very rounded picture of a man who – by his own admission – could be a real “asshole” to work with.
Nor, as the book points out, did Jobs always make the right choices – although, looking back, he seems to have done so most of the time.
A good example of Isaacson’s thorough and impartial approach is the description of Jobs early years of employment at Atari. Not only did he upset other engineers (calling them bozos wasn’t ever likely to make him popular), he also offended their olfactory sensibilities.
That’s because – with his fruit-based vegan diet – Jobs was of the opinion that he didn’t need to wear deodorant. Not so: Atari put him on the nightshift to minimise the discomfort of neighbouring staff.
Jobs gave Isaacson carte blanche to write the book, believing it was important for his children to have a true record of what he was like. He also knew once he became seriously ill that other books about his life were going to be written. Better, at least, that one of them turn out fair and accurate.
But while he cooperated, Jobs also knew that he might not like everything that was said. Apparently, he told Isaacson he probably wouldn’t even read the book on publication.
Certainly, he might well have winced in recalling some of the episodes that Isaacson recounts.
Often, it seems to be women who gave it to him straight. Exhibit one: the wife of former CEO Sculley, who once told him: “When I look into most people’s eyes, I see a soul. When I look into your eyes, I see a bottomless pit, an empty hole, a dead zone.”
Then there are the conversations with ex-girlfriends, like Jennifer Egan, who says she used to argue with Jobs when he said Buddhist teachings meant avoiding attachment to material objects.
Wasn’t he defying that philosophy, Egan challenged him, by making products that people coveted? Jobs was irritated by the line of questioning. He also told Egan that he had a premonition he wouldn’t live a long life, which he used to justify his rather un-Buddhist-like impatience.
Another girlfriend, Tina Redse, even diagnosed Jobs as having a “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”, meaning an acute lack of empathy for others.
Isaacson also gives repeated examples of Jobs’ bad temper. When one working group wasn’t performing to plan, he stormed into one of their meetings and lambasted them with expletives. The team later turned things around and the abuse became a badge of honour.
What’s more surprising is how often Jobs would cry in meetings. Somewhat amazingly, when the iMac was about to be launched in 1998, he suddenly discovered that it had a CD tray he hadn’t known about – he hated these front-loading devices preferring slot-loading types. He went nuts before bursting into tears and telling the head of manufacturing he’d only go ahead with the product launch the following day if he promised a slot-loading version of the drive in the next release.
Such anecdotes don’t convey the quieter dignity that you might associate with the more typical CEO.
So, in sum, there is no way this book could be described as a panegyric. But nor is it a hatchet job. In describing such a complex personality it gets the balance just right, meriting comparison with some of the best biographies in the English language, such as Robert Caro’s work on Lyndon B Johnson, The Master of the Senate.
Isaacson also displays a deft use of pace. For example, Jobs early years are dealt with assuredly and in a way that draws useful conclusions about the man he would become.
Jobs was a very smart child but became easily bored and had a rebellious streak. At Monta Loma Elementary he began playing pranks. One of the more creative was to put up posters advertising a fictitious “Bring Your Pet to School Day”. Jobs recalled: “It was crazy with dogs chasing cats all over the place, and teachers were beside themselves.”
Later, that disruptive spirit would launch new industries.
From an early stage his parents (who had adopted him) indulged Jobs as a special talent – a view that the tech titan would later believe himself in life.
“Look it’s not his fault,” Paul Jobs told the teachers when his son had behaved badly. “If you can’t keep him interested, it’s your fault.”
His favourite teacher Imogene Hill spotted something else about Jobs as a boy: the famous ‘reality distortion field’ that helped him persuade just about anyone to do anything.
Says Isaacson: “Years later she liked to show off a picture of that year’s class on Hawaii Day. Jobs had shown up without the suggested Hawaiian shirt, but in the picture he is front and centre wearing one. He had, literally, been able to talk the shirt off another kid’s back.”
From the outset Jobs was full of confidence (the only time he was ever tongue-tied, reportedly, was when he met his idol Bob Dylan). Plus he had an instinct for how to get things done. Age 12 he wanted to build a frequency counter. So he looked up HP’s co-founder Bill Hewlett in the phone book and asked him for a key part. Not only did he get it; the impressed Hewlett offered him a summer job.
Then there was Jobs the non-conformer. One of the most formative experiences of his youth was the seven months he spent looking for a ‘spiritual’ guru in India. Throughout his adult life Jobs harboured a zen philosophy, regarding himself as a ‘counterculture’ product of the 1970s rather than just a corporate ‘suit’.
One of the more amusing anecdotes in the book surrounds this contradiction between Jobs the CEO and Jobs the child of the counterculture.
Thinking it uncool, Jobs didn’t want the usual CEO car parking space outside Apple’s headquarters. Instead he chose to park exactly where he pleased, often leaving his car in an area set aside for disabled drivers. Worse, he normally parked there haphazardly, taking up two spaces. This led Apple employees to make up a sign, playing on the tagline of one of the company’s best-known advertising slogans. “Park Differently,” they begged their boss.
When Apple went public in 1980 Jobs was worth $256 million at age 25. But it is co-founder Steve Wozniak who is generally regarded as the better engineer of the two, and it was Wozniak who created Apple’s first computer. Jobs, though, can take credit for bringing the Mac to life, recognising early on the revolutionary implications of the graphical user interface and the mouse, and bringing his own unique sense of design to this landmark Apple product.
Jobs himself believed his great skill was to be able to stand at the intersection of the arts and and technology, to deliver ‘human’ products. The Mac was the first of many examples in a career that would also produce the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.
Another of the enlightening aspects of Isaacson’s book are the descriptions of how Jobs motivated people to do what he wanted.
On the original Mac project, he thought the operating system was taking too long to boot up. So he approached the responsible engineer and said, if it could save a life, would he be able to find a way to shave 10 seconds off the boot time?
The engineer said he probably could. So Jobs went to a white board and showed that if 5 million people used Macs and it took 10 extra seconds to boot per day, the wasted time would add up to 300 million hours per year.
That equated to the lifetimes of 100 people, he calculated.
A few weeks later the engineer got the Mac to boot up 28 seconds faster.
Jobs didn’t always get his own way. In another great story, Isaacson tells of the engineers challenging their boss and winning. For the Mac’s original disk drive they wanted to use a Sony product, while Jobs wanted to use that of a rival Japanese firm. The engineers were convinced the smaller firm wouldn’t hit the deadline. So, defying Jobs, they brought a Sony engineer to Cupertino to work surreptiously on the disk drive project. Amusingly, whenever Jobs visited the office, they’d have to hide their Japanese visitor in a closet.
“American business practices, they are very strange,” was his take on having to cower in the dark.
As it turned out, the engineers were right. The smaller firm missed the deadline and the Sony disk drive was used.
“Steve swallowed his pride and thanked them for disobeying him and doing the right thing,” Isaacson writes.
As the book catalogues, Jobs was right about a lot more than he was wrong. Still, earlier in his career, he didn’t have the visionary reputation that he would later develop.
Bill Gates wasn’t convinced, for instance. When Gil Amelio was on the verge of bringing Jobs back to Apple, via the acquisition of NeXT in 1996, Gates was dismissive: “Don’t you understand that Steve doesn’t know anything about technology? He’s just a super salesman and 99% of what he says and thinks is wrong.”
When Jobs did return to Apple the company was close to bankruptcy and in chaos. He made thousands of Apple workers redundant and closed down product lines, insisting that the firm refocus on what it did best. He promised to make four “insanely great” products, with design once again the priority. To do this he formed a crucial partnership with the head of design, Jonathan Ive. Jobs’ wife says that Ive was so important that he was the only person to whom the tempestuous billionaire would not say anything “deliberately wounding”.
He would also side with Ive against those who said something couldn’t be done. For example, when Ive came up with five new casing colours for the iMac, there was internal pushback that the range of choices would create huge challenges for manufacturing, inventory and distribution.
“At most companies, including even the old Apple, there would have been studies and meetings to look at the costs and benefits. But when Jobs looked at the new colours, he got totally psyched and summoned other executives over to the design studio. ‘We’re going to do all sorts of colours!’ he told them excitedly. When they left, Ive looked at his team in amazement. ‘In most places that decision would have taken months,’ Ive recalled. ‘Steve did it in a half hour.’”
The other key person in the Apple story – and now its CEO – is Tim Cook, an expert in operations and manufacturing. Cook rapidly got Apple’s costly inventory cycle down from a month’s supply to two days.
As a story about Jobs’ life rather than Apple as a corporation, the focus on brand and design is understandable. As a result, China’s appearance is fleeting, despite its workers being responsible for assembly of the lion’s share of Apple’s products.
That sense of distance is further established by the motif engraved onto the backs of millions of iPads and iPhones: “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China”.
The point is clear enough: the vision is still an American thing, even if the parts are being put together by Chinese workers. Hence also the interest in Jobs in China today – where will it find leaders for its own brands to achieve similarly iconic status?
Of course, Apple’s view of China is changing. Now it is a place to sell its products, and not just somewhere to send the production orders. Greater China sales were up 600% in the most recent quarter and was “very key to our results”, Cook remarked. That means that the accounts of the Apple story over the next decade will not be as light on China references as Isaacson’s book.
But for anyone interested in the life of an individual who can genuinely be said to have shaped our times, this is a must-read.
Isaacson calls Jobs a genius and leaves him the last words. In a remark that sums up his whole approach to business success, he tells his biographer: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
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