Thursday, January 19, 2012

A flawed genius

Title: Steve Jobs
Author: Walter Isaacson
Publisher: Simon and Shuster (HB, 2011, 627 pps)
Price: RM 99.90

“(Sir Alex) Ferguson’s failings are well known. He possesses a quick temper, a despotic streak, a frequent inability to see the other side of an argument and an immoderate appetite for flattery,” said the Mail on Sunday of the football coach.  I had to laugh out loud. In my experience, every ‘successful’ CEO is a despot, a bully and an arsehole. And (many are) criminals as well. That’s what they don’t teach you in Harvard. What sets ‘great’ CEOs apart is their passion, knowledge of their products, and an ability to discern quality.

I have heard of individuals described in Tamil as either "camphor" brained or "banana-stem" brained. Camphor burns quickly, so people with camphor brains are quick on the uptake and learn quickly. Banana stem will only splutter, at best. (The Director General of an organisation I once worked in was a major banana stem. Returning from a management course, where they had told him he ought to try to get to know his staff better, he stood his bemused officers in a row outside his office and brusquely shook all their hands before disappearing. Scott Adam’s pointy haired boss is real!)

In Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs was certainly camphor brained. He was a ruthless despot, a bully, a though negotiator, a good marketer, an egomaniac, completely bipolar, cunning, spectacularly greedy, arrogant, obnoxious and rude; that is, he had enough ingredients for him to be a successful CEO. But he had more – he had a burning passion, appreciation and an understanding for technology, design and art, he was quick on the uptake, learnt quickly to differentiate what was important and what was not, and he was sensitive. Then there was his famous “reality distortion field” – his charisma, his ability to make his people do the impossible. He recognised and nurtured ‘A’ players. He had no time for ‘B’ and ‘C’ players; the bozos.  (Declaration: I have been reading about Jobs and have been buying Apple products for 40 years.)

His design talents included architecture: ‘… he had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparkled by serendipity,” he said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”’

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, however, does leave one somewhat dissatisfied in the end. There are interesting chapters, like his battle with Eisner in Disney for example, but also many lame ones. The first twenty years of his life is dismissed in the first 55 pages, and we really don’t learn much about his early childhood to give us a hint as to what made him tick, except that he was some sort of loveable rouge and prankster. His relationship with his adoptive parents, Paul and Clara, are quickly brushed aside.  Several of Isaacson’s chapters read like, as if, written by a fan-boy. Particularly disappointing is the chapter about Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives. How did these two ultra-sensitive individuals hit it off? What made the two tick? (Did Jobs have a spot for soft spoken Brits?)

This is not a biography worthy of Jobs, as some reviewers have said. Besides being overly fawning, it feels unfinished and rushed to the market to take advantage of the publicity following his death. It feels like an early version of Strawberry Fields Forever; in some places it still feels like an alpha.  It’s like a Windows PC; gets the job done, but is bloody annoying sometimes.

Isaacson’s Steve Jobs is a thriller; fast paced and full of action. Like most thrillers, unfortunately, the pace and thrill comes at the expense of character development, and after 627 pages, we still don’t know Jobs.

Still, it is a book worth buying and owning, at least in memory of a flawed genius (is there any other kind?) of our lifetime, while we wait for meatier biographies, hopefully less infatuated with his undeniable talent. Equally, he could also be whitewashed, given a fictitious ‘Kite flying in a storm’ moment, and made a mythical being (as if we need more gods).

We’ll see.