JCL Blog

Book Review: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Despite the many tellings, this is still a great story. Even though we have all read about the people who brought computing to life and the people who made the most of it, Walter Isaacson tells the story again very well. Somehow he threads between the tedium of an often told tale, and the urge to skip the detail because it is an old story. He gives us all of the detail and then some and it does not seem tired at all.

All of the familiar names are there from Lovelace, Babbage, and Turing, to Gates, Allen, Jobs and Woz. In between he brings out some that we have not heard from as much including Atanasoff and Grace Hopper. While engrossed in this account of the coming of the information age, there were a couple of things that I wanted to remember:

  1. New things take a long time to happen: Zuckerberg is really just finishing a job that Stuart Brand started.
  2. Moore's Law is still going and makes yesterday's crazy idea possible tomorrow.
  3. AI is never going to happen, but that does not mean that computers will stop getting smarter, its just that they will not get smart in a human way.
  4. The new new thing becomes a thing when all of the parts have been invented.

For real professional reviews, here are the big names:

Washington Post

 Wall Street Journal

New York Times 

Sales Incentives, Can't Seem to Live With or Without Them

Steve Jobs talked about the balance between product design and sales/marketing (as recounted in the Walter Isaacson biography) where he describes the arc of company evolution from great product creation to an over dependence on sales and marketing.  The latter being the death of great technology companies like IBM and Xerox.  Jeff Bezos is famous for saying that advertising is for companies that don't have good products.  Of course neither sentiment is completely true.  Great products still need sales and marketing and advertising is often a necessary tool employed to drive demand for a great product. 

In my post Market Like an Engineer I proposed that people running marketing departments should encourage the virtues often found in an engineering culture in their marketing departments.  The desire to create something truly new, the open sharing of knowledge, and the pursuit of critical customer feedback is often missing in the sales and marketing culture.  These virtues suffer when the prevailing mindset is that salespeople are coin operated. 

Over compensating on revenue drives out collaboration and the pursuit of the truth.  Executives are forever tweaking compensation models to discourage these behaviors.  Nevertheless, we regularly see glowing departmental revenue reports that merely chronicle a shift in revenue recognition from one department to another, or the quarterly selection of the "good" numbers cherry picked from pools of mediocre performance.  It is just as common for the company to pay big bonuses the next quarter when this phantom revenue shows up in yet another department -- even though overall sales have not increased at all.  It is no wonder leaders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos want to spend as little as possible on sales and marketing.  Those crazy incentives seem like they always produce unintended consequences, but at the same time seem essential for creating action.

Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

In 1990 Michael Lewis wrote his now famous book: Liars Poker. His intent was to expose the bad behavior of people on Wall Street and help to bring an end to the steady stream of our best and brightest wasting their abilities in a parasitic business. To his surprise, his book just added fuel to the fire and all of these years later we still lose bright and motivated and capable minds to the pit of greed.

This 571 page book reads like a 200 page book because it is well researched and well written and the subject is familiar to all of us. I read it on my iPad -- a device I did not know I needed until after I got it and that I spend several hours a day with now. In fact, I am writing this review on my iPad.

It will be interesting to see how history views Walter Isaacson's latest master work: Steve Jobs. Of course everyone is talking about it and I have put some links to other reviews below. The common thread in the commentary about the book is to marvel at the fact that even though his own life was shaped by his adoption, Steve Jobs was still able to abandon his own daughter. The barefoot thing, the diet thing, and the personal hygiene thing also seemed to get a fair amount of attention.

To me the biggest question posed by the book is whether Steve Jobs was successful despite his narcissism, or because of it. This is the central question because a great many young entrepreneurs are right now reading the book and getting ready to emulate Steve Jobs. I hope they are learning to operate at the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology, and to have an uncompromising focus on design and quality. I fear they may be encouraged to put themselves in the absolute center of their universe and make everyone else feel less than adequate. Will this book encourage the next generation to belittle co-workers, send food back at restaurants, and put themselves before their own children?

I have said before that I believe Steve Jobs was the best CEO we have ever seen. There is no question that he created amazing products and a company that will not only survive, but will thrive for years -- just by coasting on the lead he built before is death.
The pain he inflicted on those that loved him was also of epic scale. At the end, he knew he was dying, and even then, he could not connect with his daughters. I hope that legacy is forgotten.

Here are my take aways from the book:

  1. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is real and Steve Jobs had it.
  2. A passion for simplicity and quality has to start at the top.
  3. Leadership makes a big difference.

Here are other reviews of the book:

I hope that 20 years from now we look back and find many companies built by young people that were inspired by Steve's passion for great products and design. It would be even better if they learned how to do that by building up the people around them.