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What We Can Learn From Reading Steve Jobs' Biography

Greg de la Cruz works in the tech industry and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.

Steve Jobs introduces a new variant of the iPhone onstage.

Steve Jobs introduces a new variant of the iPhone onstage.

Steve Jobs' Path: Winning, Failing, Leaving, Returning, and Winning Again

Winning: Steve Jobs' first big accomplishment was when he and Steve Wozniak sold 50 computers to a store called Byte Shop, and this sale basically funded the Apple venture. This was Jobs' first taste of a win at business.

Learning this story from Isaacson's book made me reflect on the idea that perhaps all successful entrepreneurs need their first "win"—a foretaste of what succeeding in the business world feels like—for them to reach true success. Attaining that confidence early on becomes a foundation for whatever future success they might have.

As Apple grew, Jobs realized that Apple could use a proven marketing professional onboard, so he recruited John Sculley eight years into the company's existence. Popular belief might dictate that Sculley and Jobs were bitter through the end, but Isaacson's book emphasizes just how much Steve valued John as a friend. Despite their differences in personality, they were close—with Jobs looking up to Sculley as an unofficial mentor.

Before Sculley's joining the company, Steve and John would have these long talks, and a very important one was when John Sculley left Pepsi to join Apple in 1983. It was in that intimate discussion where the famous question, "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" was broached by Jobs, changing the course of Apple forever.

Failing: It's not mentioned very often when people talk about Steve Jobs' legacy with Apple, but Steve had a monumental failure when he launched the Lisa and Apple II. While these two products were great consumer electronics for their time, the sales numbers did not reflect their supposed market value, and Jobs had already sunk millions into advertising. And sadly, this failure worked against Jobs' case when Sculley made the board choose between him or Jobs.

Right before Jobs was ousted from Apple, he had a showdown with Sculley at a conference room with the board. But unbeknownst to Jobs, he was already coming from a weak position. It wasn't much of a contest because it was already decided beforehand that Steve would leave his top spot at Apple and become "Chairman"—a ceremonial position giving him no executive control.

Leaving: People don't mention it all much, but Steve Jobs leaving Apple was a good thing for both him and the company. For him, it was an opportunity to become great again, to prove that his early success of launching Apple into the mainstream wasn't a fluke.

As CEO of Pixar, he steered the company to great feats with the monumental successes of Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Steve would also play a big role in Disney acquiring Pixar in 2006. His success as CEO of NeXT wasn't comparable to what he led Pixar to accomplish, but Apple eventually bought NeXT in 1996.

Returning: On his return to Apple, John Sculley was long gone, and it was Amelio who was CEO of Apple, trying to save the company from ruin. And what better way to save the company than bring back the lost founder, Steve Jobs?

Before Steve Jobs returned to Apple, it became an enterprise that did not do a good job in focusing on its product lines. Back then, Apple was so unfocused that it even released its own line of printers.

Upon his return, Jobs focused the products into four quadrants—desktop, portable, consumer, and professional. Such product quadrants continue today with the iPhone, iPad and iPad Pro, iMac, and MacBook. By simplifying Apple's products and focusing on each one, he paved the way for Apple's new generation of success.

Winning: Steve Jobs was winning again. He was winning back in the 80s with the pioneer Apple computers and with a legendary advertisement. With his return, he started winning again with the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Even our grandparents are aware of these three products because they truly revolutionized consumer electronics in our age.

Jobs Being Ousted From Apple: Was It a Good Thing?

Steve Jobs' getting ousted from Apple is a good lesson in failure. I think this was one of my favorite portions of Isaacson's book on Jobs. It's a perfect example of a real-life lesson that even the greatest people in the world can make the greatest of mistakes.

It's easy to say that he was betrayed by his friend John Sculley, but he really was still not the Steve Jobs that made Apple legendary. Before Jobs left Apple in 1985, he still had yet to develop the real leadership skills he would gain from steering a successful animation studio in Pixar and from launching from the ground-up computer hardware company, NeXT.

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When he left Apple, he gained leadership experience and was refreshed on what success looked like. The story behind Jobs' ousting at Apple was more than just a simple power struggle. Yes, Isaacson does reveal that John Sculley was talking to company employees and higher-ups about Steve Jobs behind his back, but to say that this was the sole reason why the Apple board "fired" him would tell an incomplete story.

It is clear from Isaacson's recount of this that it also had to do with Jobs' leadership incompetence at the time. Here was a guy who was willing to burn company cash just to launch something "perfect." He was spending so much on advertising, and he was also delaying the release of a product by a long time. Such principles, if applied today, go against the popular "lean startup" principles and would surely lead a company to bankruptcy.

Steve Jobs Was a 'Product Person'

Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs is a portrait of a "product person." Apple's legendary design studio, where prototypes of their famous products like the iPhone and iPad sit on a bar cloaked with black cloth, show how much Apple as a company reflects Steve Jobs' values of being product-oriented.

Throughout Jobs' tenure with Apple—both in his pre-ousting and returning days—he worked closely with the product team, and this really showed when he developed a close relationship with chief designer Jony Ive as well as elevating the Industrial Design (ID) Team at Apple to a very high level.

The best way to describe being a product person is by contrasting it with a person like Tim Cook, who, while Jobs endorsed him for the CEO position shortly before his death, was technically not a product person. Instead, Tim Cook was a day-to-day operations guy who made Apple profitable, streamlined business operations by closing down warehouses, and made Apple efficient. He created value in that way.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, is easy to compare with Apple's former head of product design, Jony Ive. Steve Jobs was all about the product—from the way the iPod scroll wheel looked to the user interface to whether these items fit inside your pocket—he was hyper-meticulous about these matters.

If there's one key takeaway from Isaacson's book on Jobs, it's that Steve Jobs was a person who wanted to release the greatest possible product out there, and as Isaacson put it in the book, "you could only release a product right once."

Steve Jobs's success had to do with his product-focused vision but also his team.

Steve Jobs's success had to do with his product-focused vision but also his team.

Steve Jobs Had Talented People Around Him

Steve didn't necessarily hire all the talented people around him, but talented people were around him either way. Steve Wozniak can be said to be the one of the first talented people or "A players," as Isaacson refers to them in the book, whom Jobs worked with. But it really started with his adoptive father, who was the first real talented person to whom Jobs was exposed. Paul Jobs taught Steve the importance of making sure that even the parts of products which couldn't be seen (like the back of a wooden cabinet) were designed with meticulous care because that's just what good designers did.

Throughout Steve Jobs' life, he really was around a lot of talented people. He had a great personal relationship with Larry Ellison, the Chairman of Oracle and one of the richest people on earth.

He didn't even hire Jony Ive—Jony was hired before he returned to Apple. Kahney's book on Jony Ive is also a very interesting read. While it focuses on Jony Ive's origins and the products Apple released during the time he was in there, it also shows how Jony Ive and Steve Jobs gravitated towards each other, both being talented people in their own fields. Jony Ive was already one of the most talented designers in the world before joining Apple, winning multiple design awards before ever coming on board.

Jobs did hire Tim Cook. He hired him shortly after he returned to Apple. Tim Cook was another talented "A player" who Jobs brought on when he returned. Tim Cook is a model for all operations managers in the world. People don't give Cook enough credit, but because of his efficient management, Apple has now become the most profitable company in the world.

Where Steve Jobs Left Us and Where We Are Now

Watching Steve Jobs' final keynote speech at MacWorld brings tears to your eyes. As you watch the clip, you just know that by his well-meaning thoughts, he still had so much to give. But looking at his frail frame, you see obvious signs that this was a man on the edge of survival. In his final keynote address, you get a good snapshot of all his accomplishments and how far Apple had come as a technology company.

So where did Steve Jobs really leave us, and how far had Apple come?

  • The iPod revolutionized consumer electronics. It's said to be the unofficial predecessor of the modern smartphone.
  • The MacBook made laptops sexy. Laptops were not very friendly looking back in the '90s, where boxy, bulky types filled the market.
  • iTunes changed the way we buy or listen to music, and the App Store launched a new industry all on its own.

Look around you, and you'll see Steve Jobs' legacy everywhere.

Steve Jobs was not just about introducing fancy new tech that looked cool and functioned well. For him, it was all about the intersection of art and technology. Not many prominent people in tech can claim this for themselves, but Steve Jobs had a spiritual connection with technology.

Any person looking at Apple products can easily say that Apple likes to do things in a minimalist way, or that it likes using white or gray on its products. But to subscribe to that line of thinking would lead to a limited worldview.

And I, too, once fell victim to appreciating what Apple does without the depth that it deserves. I failed to appreciate the magnitude of Jobs' contribution to the tech industry. Because his true legacy was infusing art and soul into technology—and he only made consumer electronics in a way that was for the consumer.

I highly recommend reading Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs—it's a book that anyone, techy or not, should get their hands on to find themselves enthralled by the Apple world around them.

© 2020 Greg de la Cruz

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