Armen Chakmakjian

What happened when I read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs…

In Random on November 13, 2011 at 6:21 am

So some time has passed since Steve moved on.  I’ve been reading the official biography by Walter Isaacson on my kindle dx.  I live in a world of irony, and the irony of having Jobs’ face look up at me from a kindle in black, gray and white was not lost on me.  I will admit I read a chapter or two on my iPhone today (and only today) as I was sitting in the car waiting for my wife to come out of stores.  I hadn’t brought the kindle with me but I wanted to get through it.  So for all intents and purposes, I read 95% of it on my Kindle.  The whole book was a reminiscence for me….I kept going, I remember that…I remember that…oh yeah that’s what happened.

I really enjoyed how Isaacson told the story from both Jobs’ perspective as well as the key players – protagonists, antagonists, or victims…or all of the above – that made up the history of the last 35 years of computing.  Really.  I touched my first computer in January of 1979, during a mini-course in between semesters at Fairfield prep.  I took the same course the following year, and then my junior and senior years, I taught the class.   A personal computer in those days could have been a TRS-80 from Radio Shack.  Actually my best friend growing up went off and bought one, and we intermittently collaborated on writing basic programs on it.  I was mostly concentrating on APL programs on Fairfield university’s IBM 370/1500.  Then I went to college at RIT and saw my first Apple II, the first Gigi terminal connected to a VAX11/780 and…finally I saw a Mac in 1985 while I was a co-op at digital.  That was about the same time as I saw Tron.  The two Steve’s were famous by then, and when Jobs’ got fired from Apple, I was still on a co-op assignment at DEC. We all sat around and were amazed that a founder could be pushed out like that.  Just after that, I almost bought an Apple II GS that had the special WOZ chip in it and his signature on the bezel, and stopped when I figured out that I would have used all the money I saved for the next semester’s tuition.

I did convince my father to buy my little sister an Apple IIc in 1987, and she’s still an apple user to this day.  I didn’t buy a computer for myself (since I worked at a computer company) until 1996.  Didn’t see the need.  Used them once in a while, and they were clunky PC’s…which I spent more time playing Mahjongg on while doing serious computing on a VAX or Alpha workstation.

That was a time where Steve Jobs was in his desert years.   Around 1989 while I was working on the first alpha personal workstations (aka you could switch os’s from VMS to OSF to NT and then pull out the cpu and plop in a pentium and run windows), one of the product managers had procured a NEXT box.  IT was sooooo cool looking.  You’d click on a little icon and the picture of the developer of the app would appear with some bio info.  We were all fascinated by the black box, and looked at it askance.   Our machines were better, were integrated fully into DECnet and the world was good…and the Mac was pretty much nowhere to be found, like apple and steve.  Issacson’s account of the NeXT and Pixar years were great.  Jobs really did a great job there, and it seemed like he was chastened.   Toy story was awesome.

Then I started working at Teradyne.  as I said I bought my wife a floor model pentium 120 in 1996 and spent a week retrofitting it with SCSI and network cards and doing all kinds of things to it.  She thought I was nuts.  Until I popped in a 40M drive SCSI drive that I had procured that had a version of old version of microsoft office on it and it just worked (hey guys remember when there was NO registry…you just ran apps)

Anyway, while during this time, I got to touch a mac powerbook.  We were a Solaris shop and we borrowed Joe’s mac (our director) when we were doing work from home or if we were traveling.  The powerbook had a version of office on it, and I could transfer files to this mac emulator on the sun machines to then get the office file over to a PC so I could print them.  What a mess.  But I did it.

Just about that time, Gil Amelio took over Apple after time at National Semi.   I was working in the semiconductor industry.  That move made me remember that the guy who essentially subverted and killed DEC was a chip guy (Robert Palmer) not an integrated systems guy.  I looked at it as a joke…another vaunted company will go down the tubes…chip guys don’t know how to run computer companies.  They run semi companies…like Andy Grove.   Steve Jobs came back from the desert and rejoined apple in 1997.  I sat there scratching my head. Apple was dead meat.  I wanted the company to succeed, but it was dead.   But then suddenly Jobs was back.  He really did bring hope…

I read those passages in Isaacson book and all the memories flooded back.  I lived my whole scholastic and professional career on a parallel path.  East coast vs west coast.  Mainframes and Workstations vs Personal computers.   Then the iMac came.  My mother-in-law got a cherry red one.  Then my sister the apple IIc user got a green one.   Then the iPod came.  The description in the book about how the first iPod with the Track Wheel was pure magic.  How they flew out to japan to get the first small hard drives.  I bought an iPod photo, actually 2 40G iPod photos…I still was using a Palm for my data and calendars. I had a text pager.  Then as I left Teradyne, actually between my goodbye lunch and drinks I ordered a 15″ Powerbook G4 on the apple store.  It showed up a week later.   Apple TV’s and iPod touches and iPhones later, I was in the reality distortion zone.

I watched all the product announcements on the internet.  I was fascinated by his presentation.    and in the book Isaacson does make me relive every one.  One that Isaacson fails to mention was the week that Gates was at CES doing an on stage interview with Conan O’Brien and tried a demo of the Windows Media Center that died…Conan joked mercilessly.   Same week Jobs is showing the new 20″ iMac and his demo dies.  He switches over to his other machines and looks at the audience  with an impish grin and says that’s why we have backups and continues without a hitch.  The dichotomy between the two events was stark.

This was all a lot of fun, reminiscing.  However, I have drawn one major conclusion from reading this book.  And it was because every couple hundred words, Jobs would have a tantrum, yell out that something was “Shit” or “Sucked”  and I thought, well…

He was truly a jerk.  Bill Gates (another jerk in his heyday…now a philanthropist), summed up Jobs’ success in the book…which I will paraphrase here. Steve Jobs proved that you could succeed with a vertically integrated company and that open wasn’t the only way…as long as Steve was running the company.  Jobs’ response that you obviously could, like Gates did, build a company on a open-ecosystem.  (but he ended that by saying that you could make a lot of money but your product would “suck”).

So while I agree that he changed the world and had a unique way of getting geniuses to create great things while he mercilessly beat on their psyches, I draw the conclusion that there have been a lot of geniuses in the world who have changed the world and might have been jerks from time to time (Einstein was a philanderer, Ford was a jerk, Edison signed his name on his employees ideas, Zuck seems to be a jerk, or at least the movie portrayed him that way)  that Jobs took it to another level, a level that no one should emulate…even with the possibility of creating some magical thing.  He beat people up to get them to do things…and people have created great things around that same era without that same aura and aroma.

Anyway I want to thank Walter Isaacson for his very excellent, balanced truthful and entertaining biography of Steve Jobs.  I even thank Steve Jobs for the helping create things or means that allow me to do things that I enjoy doing (making movies of myself making tuna casserole on my mac and posting them on youtube, or playing movie trailers on my HDTV from my apple TV, or using my macbook air to write this on my thunderbolt display).   However, I do not feel that after reading that, that I would advise people to emulate him.  He was probably singular, and that’s the way it should remain.  He did something unique, but he left a long trail of destruction behind him.   John Lasseter, Jony Ive and the Woz deserve a lot of credit for Steve Jobs success.  But should we teach people to emulate him or them?

What would the world have been like if George Washington had been described as having the demeanor of Steve Jobs?  “The french suck and this continental congress is Shit.”   Can you imagine the steve jobs subduing the officers rebellion in Newburgh NY?

Would the world have been better off if Gandhi had told everyone that the British “sucked” and cried when Jinnah disagreed with him?

What if Neil Armstrong had said, “This is one giant leap for mankind and proves the russian space program is *shit*”

Even Jack Welch…can you imagine if Jack Welch ran GE in its heyday with Job’s personality?

It seems to me that there are other ways to change the world that are as effective as having tantrums and throwing around scatological barbs.

So Requiscat in Pace, Steve Jobs.  You were unique, did some great stuff and deserve accolades.  Thank you Walter Isaacson for a wonderfully entertaining biography.  It was neither $#!+ nor did it suck.  In fact I’m going to go back and work on the Franklin Biography I was given (in print) and then move onto the Einstein biography after that.




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