Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book review: "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson

There's two main points I want to make about Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. First, it's an outstanding book. It's undoubtedly the best biography I've ever read, and is among the best books I've read of any kind.

Second, it's a LONG book. It's 571 pages, and it took me a good five weeks to read it (your mileage may vary). But it's long in a good way. It's filled with scores of interesting stories from Jobs' personal and professional lives, and packed with colorful detail. It's not a book to rush through; each section gives you something to stop and think about.

Isaacson interviewed over 100 people for the book, allowing him to faithfully describe countless moments throughout Jobs' life. We see the strange alchemy that allowed Jobs and Steve Wozniak two young men of virtually opposite personalities to create a computer company called Apple. It's amusing to read how Jobs avoided bathing as a young man, believing his vegetarian diet prevented body odor (it didn't). Later on, we see behind-the-scenes stories as Jobs butts heads with Michael Eisner, Bill Gates and other business heavyweights. One of the most amazing revelations of the book is that Jobs, who was adopted, unknowingly met his biological father, who owned a Silicon Valley restaurant.

The book works on various levels. On one hand, it's a history book, recounting key events at Apple, Next Computer and Pixar, and the development of such signature products as the iPod, iTunes, and iPhone. While I lived through these events, and often followed the news coverage, I discovered that I really didn't know the full stories until I read this book. I was surprised to discover how close Jobs and John Sculley were at first, before Sculley ousted Jobs from Apple in 1985. I was amused to learn that it was the success of Pixar's "Toy Story" that in many ways saved Jobs from oblivion and gave him newfound influence.

Also, the book is a fascinating look at business and management. Jobs brought a unique style to the workplace he was controlling, abrasive, demanding, and perfectionist. Unlike companies such as Google and Microsoft, he did not like trying a lot of things to see what worked. Rather, he preferred to focus intently on making small numbers of products great. He was both a long-term visionary, and incredible micromanager, fussing over the small details of products and driving many of the people who worked with him crazy in the process. "His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical," writes Isaacson

Third, the book is an intriguing look at a unique human being. He was abusive and bullying to many people, while still inspiring people to do great work. "He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will," says Isaacson. For all his faults in interpersonal relations, I found myself admiring his passion for accomplishing great things. It's disconcerting to be reading about Jobs' brilliance with making products that are easy to use, while in daily life we are all frustrated by all sorts of poorly designed technology.

As much as a I like this biography, no book is perfect and I have three small criticisms. First, the section in which Isaacson discusses Jobs' favorite music is completely unnecessary. Second, I wished that Isaacson included more dates in the book. Sometimes, I was trying to determine exactly when something happened, but it wasn't always clear. Finally, I wish there were more pictures of the other people besides Jobs and his family who are mentioned repeatedly in the book.


  1. This book given an insight to the mind of a genius. It tells us that design matters in life and no detail is too small to ignore. Its a must read for someone who wants to be an entrepreneur. It deals with the notion of merging creativity with engineering. It describes how Apple was built and what it core values are.

    This book will definitely make us admire Apple and their designer engineers.

  2. hi..Im student from Informatics engineering, this article is very informative, thanks for sharing :)