28 October 2012

Nigeria: Brilliant, Driven, Ambitious and Nasty

book review

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: Published by Simon and Schuster; New York, 2011, 630 pages.

At the tail end of his authorised biography, Steve Jobs is asked by his biographer what it feels to be relinquishing control at Apple. "I've had a very lucky career, a very lucky life," he replied. "I have done all that I can do."

Those are fitting words, an appropriate epitaph to a life defined by genius, innovation, creativity and imaginative leaps of technological faith.

Steve Jobs did not rule a country neither did he invent anything in the real sense of the word. His genius lay in seeing potentials beyond what already existed; the laptop after Xeros, the iPod after Sony's walkman, the itunes after netscape, Toy story after Lions King. He revolutionised things across industries from personal computers to graphics, from digital animation to music; his was a restless and prodigious imagination.

A master of design, Steve Jobs inhabited the nexus between the humanities and sciences, between design and technology. His products, from the Mac to the iPad are delightful feats of seamless design and engineering. Steve Jobs redefined the word seamless.

Born to a Syrian father, Abdulfattah "John" Jandali and American mother, Joan Schieble, whose parents were opposed to her marrying an Arab, the little tot was abandoned at birth and adopted by a white couple Clara and Paul Jobs, a librarian and mechanic respectively. His birth mother had left a caveat that the couple that adopted her son must have college degrees and send him to university too.

His adoptive parents didn't have degrees but they sent him to good schools while his father led him down the path of engineering and design. Steve says his life changed at about ten "when I realised I was smarter than my parents."

His parents realised it too and helped him develop his genius. It helped too that they lived in Palo Alto which had a lot of engineering companies and would later become known as the Silicon Valley, a term coined by Don Hoeffler, a columnist for a weekly trade paper Electronic News in a series of articles he wrote about the area in 1971.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule for defining genius. Reading the life story of Steve jobs one is constrained to agree with Gladwell.

Steve Jobs and his parents lived in a house that had a garage where they tinkered with stuff all the time. He had a neighbour who was an engineer and who introduced him to electronics. Steve Jobs also belonged to the Hewlett Packard Explorers Club which offered them insight via mentoring engineers who told them about the brave new things HP was working on. He was also a student of John McCollum's famed electronic class. McCollum is a Silicon Valley legend, a former Navy pilot who felt that "electronics was the new auto shop." He even made a call to Bill Hewlett, one half of Hewlett Packard who gave him a job at one of their plants thus exposing him to the inner workings of the electronic industry.

The point here is that Steve Jobs had access and advantage and these coupled with his genius set him on the path of technological innovation never before seen since, maybe, Thomas Edisson.

And it is fitting that Jobs, always with an eye on history and his legacy, sought out Walter Isaacson to write his biography. Isaacson had written the definitive Edisson biography and Jobs felt that he was an innovator if not inventor in the same rank as Edisson and he wanted the man who had documented Edisson's life to document his.

The story of Apple and its effect on information technology is effectively the story of two Steves; one well known, the oethr not so well known. The two Stevess were an odd couple yoked together by electronics. Wozniak was already a graduate while Jobs was in college and McCollum's favourite student. Wozniak was awkward, a loner and son of a brilliant engineer who graduated from CalTech. Jobs was doing drugs, a rebel and the son of a high school drop-out who fixed cars. But their love of pranks and electronics and music gave them a bond.

It was Bill Fernandez who introduced the two Steves in what has been described as one of the most amazing Silicon Valley hook ups. Bill told Wozniak "His name is Steve. He likes to do pranks like you do, and he's into building electronics like you do."

The partnership revolutionised things despite the differences in their personalities because as Jobs noted Wozniak was the 'the only person I'd met who knew more electronics than I did."

Their collaboration and break is Silicon Valley legend but the company they created will outlive them both. That first thirst of success was adrenalin shot for Steve Jobs and he ran with it while Wozniak was content to just be an engineer. As he put it "My dad was an engineer and that's what I wanted to be. I was too shy ever to be a business leader like Steve."

Wozniak had the engineering brain, Jobs had the vision, design, packaging and marketing flair to make the products they produced fly.

Steve Jobs almost did not make it to the university. After high school, he announced he was moving into a cabin in the hills with his girlfriend, Chrissan Brennan. His father was upset, but Steve had his way. He would later apply to Reed College a liberal arts university where the rebel in him refused to take the classes he was assigned.

A year later he dropped out but didn't leave school. Instead he stayed back and took the courses he liked which included a calligraphy class which he says sharpened his love for mixing design with technology. As he put it: "If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since windows just copied Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them."

After leaving Reed, he found a job at game maker, Atari but had a tough time with his colleagues who complained about his hippie ways and body odour. To keep him, his boss assigned him to the night shift where he could have fewer interactions. (As an aside, Steve Jobs named the company he would later found, Apple, mainly because he wanted his company to appear before Atari in the phone directory. He was that petty.)

Jobs and Wozniak set up Apple computers on April 1, 1976 in a 3 person partnership; Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs and Ron Wayne. The ownership was 45%-45%-10%. But eleven days later, Wayne who had stated a company and failed earlier on, had a change of heart and backed out, selling his shares for $2,300. If he had stayed on, his shares would have been worth $2.6bn in 2010.

The story of Steve jobs and Apple, of how he built and lost it then regained control is the classic American story writ large and Walter Isaacson does a fine job of it but it is also in many ways a cautionary tale about the limits of ambition and ego.

Steve Job died at 56 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was a brilliant, talented, driven, ambitious and well accomplished man but as this book makes clear, his was a very conflicted personality. Steve Jobs was a polarizing figure; the proverbial elephant that yields many sides to the seven blind men. To put it mildly, Steve Jobs was not a very good person.

But the whole world is united on one score; he produced good products; beautiful products that changed the way we work and play. Steve Jobs revolutionised things and redefined the way we communicate, share, have fun and interact in the digital age and for that he will forever remain one of the greatest titans of technology in the ranks of Thomas Edison.

- Toni Kan writes from Lagos

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