There have been many stories about Steve Jobs lately. Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography Steve Jobs came out this week and is now the #1 bestselling book. Isaacson has hit the talk show circuit hard—I must have heard essentially the same interview at least four times this week.
Through Isaacson, here is what we are learning about Steve Jobs:
Isaacson (like everybody else) is in a state of wonderment as to how this all managed to work out so well. All this worked out because, against the odds, Jobs was usually right.
I’ve seen other managers attempt to do similar things, and the results are consistently disastrous. For example, endlessly obsessing over colors might put you on everybody’s “A list,” but probably not the A list you have in mind. Being an arrogant, cruel, humiliating, self-absorbed, perfectionist jerk isn’t normally the road to success. It would a tragedy if this turned out to be Steve Jobs management legacy. Steve Jobs wasn’t successful because of these characteristics, but in spite of them. Not just anybody could have pulled this off—Steve Jobs himself was just barely able to be Steve Jobs. I fear that we are in for a generation of Steve Jobs wannabes screwing up every project they touch.
“You aren’t Steve Jobs, so don’t act like him.”
Let’s consider one example. When Isaacson describes Jobs’ famous reality distortion field, he explains how the Macintosh team said a project would take three months to complete. Jobs insisted that they do it in only two weeks, and lo and behold, they amazingly got the project done in two weeks.
This is pure BS. The reality distortion field here is that Steve Jobs deluded himself into thinking that is what actually happened. In the real world, when a team of talented software developers say a project will take three months to complete, it will probably take a bit more at best. People rarely overestimate. If they worked double time, perhaps they could get a week and half’s worth of work done in a week’s time. It is simply not possible for a team to deliver three months of real work in a couple weeks.
My experience is that if a project manager insists on doing a project in less time than the shortest estimate, the project will end up taking more time than the longest estimate. I can’t prove this, but Steve McConnell comes awfully close in Rapid Development: Taming Wild Software Schedules.
In the section Overly Optimistic Scheduling, McConnell tells the story of Microsoft Word for Windows 1.0. Based on metrics, McConnell estimates the optimal schedule to be 460 days. The shortest estimate the team gave was 395 days. Bill Gates insisted that it be done in 365 days. How many days did it actually take? Try 1887—5 times longer than planned! Why? Because cutting all the corners required to pretend that the product could be done in a year meant that the resulting code was poor quality crap that all had to be redone (or “stabilized”). This is how ignoring your team’s estimates usually works out, and I doubt that Jobs’ results were any different.
I think that Steve Jobs was absolutely brilliant visionary and project leader. But the brilliant part isn’t the story being told by Isaacson—those are mostly character flaws. Here’s my summary of the brilliant part:
These are the right lessons—the part of Steve Jobs’ life that you should aspire to emulate.
If you do only one thing: Remember that Steve Jobs’ vision, focus, and high standards are what made Apple great, not his personal character flaws.