Review: Leander Kahney's 'Inside Steve's Brain'

The Wired.com editor takes a unique approach to the Steve Jobs biography: Showing us the intellectual processes that lead to Apple's products and the company's incredible success.

For years, the Steve Jobs biography has been a staple of the technology business publishing press.

The genre has been highlighted by titles such as Alan Deutschman's 2000 book, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs and 2005's iCon: Steve Jobs, The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business by Jeffrey Young and William Simon. The latter was attacked by Jobs himself for being an unauthorized biography, and by Deutschman for being eerily similar to his own book.

There was also, of course, Forbes writer Daniel Lyons' (aka " Fake Steve Jobs ") 2007 parody, oPtion$: The secret life of Steve Jobs.

Leander Kahney's new biography of Steve Jobs is built around insight into the Apple CEO's thought process. Portfolio

And now into the mix comes Inside Steve's Brain, by Wired News editor Leander Kahney, the latest attempt to distill the mysteries of Apple's enigmatic co-founder and CEO.

My quick takeaway from Kahney's book is that while it covers a lot of ground that has been well explored by others, it also picks up where Deutschman, Young, and Simon left off, and takes us into the present--the era of the iPhone, the MacBookPro, the backdating scandal, and much more. Essentially, as influential as Apple was when the previous biographies were published, it is now a more important technology company than ever before, and Inside Steve's Brain catches us up. And rather than talk about Apple and Jobs from an outsider's perspective, it attempts to tell the story from, well, inside Jobs' psyche--explaining his thought process and his motivations and culling lessons that can be learned along the way.

Does it work? I would say so. I came away from the book feeling like I had a better understanding of Apple's successes and failures of the past 30 years, as well as how the thought processes in Jobs' mind have directly influenced so much of what has gone on in Cupertino, Calif.--where the company is headquartered--and the lives of the millions of people who use Macs, iPods, and iPhones.

The book itself comes in an unusual form factor. It is small--about 7-1/4 inches by 5-1/4 inches--and seems almost bible-sized.

In fact, the book was originally titled Chairman Steve's Little White Book, Kahney told me, but his publisher's lawyers freaked out, worried that Jobs would sue, since that title implies that the book is an authorized biography. Indeed, Kahney said that Apple's PR department contacted him to say Apple wouldn't participate--even before he asked. And he also said that he had to sign a $1 million defamation and libel insurance policy as part of his book contract.

Ultimately, Jobs' lack of participation in the book is disappointing, though not at all surprising. It makes writing a book that purports to explain the Apple CEO's mental processes all the more challenging without being able to include direct and original interviews.

Instead, Kahney relies on numerous interviews with Jobs from previously published articles. And I must say, he uses these interviews to very nice effect. One trick of the book intended, no doubt to avoid getting the reader bogged down in attribution language, is that it uses copious footnotes. This allows Kahney to weave in many quotes from Jobs and others and have it all fit in seamlessly into the narrative.

As I mentioned above, there is a lot in Inside Steve's Brain that is familiar ground for veteran Jobs followers. But there is also plenty that is new, especially in the approach to telling the story.

One nice innovation of Kahney's book is to use the commentary of others, including some original interviews with former Apple employees and veteran Apple commentators, to draw informed conclusions about how Jobs arrived at a particular decision.

In one anecdote explaining the way Jobs rules by intimidation and fear--a common thread throughout the book and in other Jobs biographies and articles--Kahney relates a story from a 2000 Apple sales rep gathering. Using quotes from former Apple engineer Edward Eigerman, he shows how Jobs verbally dressed down a sales rep for losing a contract to Hewlett-Packard.

And while Eigerman said he was impressed by the sales rep having stood up for herself, Kahney wrote, "Perhaps most significantly, the public humiliation of the unfortunate rep put the fear of God into all the other sales reps. It sent a clear message that everybody at Apple is held personally accountable."

Kahney is a longtime Apple reporter and has written two previous books on the company and its products--The Cult of Mac and The Cult of iPod. And there is little doubt that he is both a fan of the company's products and fascinated by Jobs' machinations.

So while it is standard fare in books like this to devote endless pages to Jobs' well-chronicled strategy of inspiring great work by engendering great fear--something Kahney does at great length--it was refreshing to also see him mix his admiration with sections on some of Jobs' failures.

Among them is an examination of the doomed Mac Cube, a product that received stellar critical praise but barely sold.

"The Cube was Jobs' baby: a beautifully designed, technically advanced machine that represented months, maybe years, of prototyping and experimentation," Kahney wrote. "But aside from a few design museums, few were interested in it. At about $2,000, it was too expensive for most consumers, who wanted a cheap monitor-less Mac like the Mac mini that succeeded it...Jobs had badly misjudged the market. The Cube was the wrong machine at the wrong price. In January 2001, Apple reported a quarterly loss of $247 million, the first since Jobs had returned to the company. He was stung."

But Kahney doesn't leave it at that. Rather, he continues and explains how Jobs' mindset had led to this rare disaster, talking about how Jobs has always liked incorporating cubes in his work--the NeXT Cube and the huge glass cube that rises above Apple's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan--and that while Jobs tries to always focus on the user experience, he lost sight of how this particular product didn't really have a place in the market.

The user experience--and the ways that Jobs focuses on it--is a major theme of the book. Again and again, Kahney uses anecdotes and quotes to illustrate that at the core of Jobs' thinking is a committed, if somewhat maniacal, desire to give those smart enough to be Apple customers the world's best customer experience.

If you've read any of the previous Jobs biographies, or articles about him, much of Inside Steve's Brain will feel familiar to you. Yet, Kahney's approach to the subject matter is refreshing and provides new context to what has previously been presented as mere business fact.

By delving into the intellect and the thought processes behind Jobs--including his approach to hiring, firing, product development, marketing, and such things--Kahney gives readers a way to draw lessons from the storied career of Jobs.

In fact, most of the book's seven chapters conclude with a bullet-pointed cheat sheet of "Lessons from Steve."

For example, at the end of the chapter titled, "Elitism: Hire Only A Players, Fire the Bozos," Kahney culls these lessons: "Work in small teams. Jobs doesn't like teams of more than 100 members, lest they become unfocused and unmanageable; don't listen to yes men. Argument and debate foster creative thinking. Jobs wants partners who challenge his ideas; engage in intellectual combat. Jobs makes decisions by fighting about ideas. It's hard and demanding, but rigorous and effective."

Some of the lessons may be hard for anyone other than Jobs to employ with any effect. Those include: "It's OK to be an a--hole, as long as you're passionate about it. Jobs screams and shouts, but it comes from his drive to change the world; use the carrot and the stick to get great work. Jobs praises and punishes as everyone rides the hero/a--hole rollercoaster; become a great intimidatr. Inspire through fear and a desire to please."

I came away from those lessons wondering if the benefits of behaving like that is worth the downside. It's true that Jobs is one of the most respected people in business, but then again, how many people want to punch his lights out? Probably more than just a few.

Still, the point of Inside Steve's Brain is to give students of the technology business an--albeit unauthorized--insider's view of how Jobs and Apple have risen to the top of the heap. Some might argue that Apple isn't really at the top, given that its computers are still far outsold by Windows machines, but few could argue that Apple has not achieved amazing successes in business in the last few years or that with its digital lifestyle strategy it is not years ahead of everyone else and laying the path that other companies will follow.

And for anyone who wants to understand how that happened, this book paints a pretty good picture of the intellect and intellectual processes that got Jobs, Apple, and the many top-flight people who work there where they are.

I do feel that Kahney's publisher let him down a little bit with less-than-stellar editing. As someone who has written a book myself, I know that authors depend on editors to make sure that things appear just right on the printed page. And throughout Inside Steve's Brain, readers come across many sets of facts or anecdotes multiple times, something that will slightly annoy the alert reader. These kinds of things are the printed page equivalent, as a professor of mine once declared, of seeing a microphone boom sticking out of the top of the screen in a movie. And Kahney's editors should have done more to help avoid this.

But in the end, I found the book to be enjoyable, well-written, very informative and, most important, up to date. Jobs will no doubt always be a source of fascination to many people, and it's a treat to get a volume like this, with a unique approach, about him, from someone as steeped in Apple's culture and history as Kahney.

 

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