Inside Steve’s Brain: The Leander Kahney interview

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Inside Steve’s Brain: The Leander Kahney interview

 

In the May issue of Mac|Life, we interviewed Leander Kahney, managing editor of Wired News, contributer to the Cult of Mac blog, and author of the new book Inside Steve’s Brain (Portfolio, $23.95). The book, in bookstores now, is part management theory text, part history of Apple and technology, and part Steve Jobs biography—a lively, enthralling look into the people and processes behind the success of Apple, and a glimpse into the motivations and passions of the man who guides and controls the company like no other CEO in business today.

 

We spoke with Kahney to peek inside his brain and find out what it was like to write about the biggest personality in the computer industry. Here’s the full transcript.

 

Mac|Life: Apple is notoriously secretive -- its employees rarely speak to the media, even after they’ve left the company. Yet you scored interviews with some key players in the Apple story. How were you able to get people close to Steve Jobs to speak on the record?

 

Leander Kahney: It was tough. I met between 50 to 70 people for the book, and almost all of them turned me down. I approached people who were high up at Apple, and people who worked in the mid levels, people who knew people who worked at Apple, and nobody, nobody wanted to talk.

 

Silicon Valley is a small town. There are some pretty dire consequences if you fall out of favor. But I think also, people tend to be very loyal to [Steve].

 

More often than not, he doesn’t get good press. Almost everything that’s been written about him is negative, and that has a kind of chilling effect on people’s willingness to talk.

 

I managed to get guys who were pretty high up, who’ve known Steve for years, they have pretty good relationships and I assured them I wasn’t digging for dirt, it was more about what does he do right, how does Apple produce one great product after another?

 

I think they trusted me that I wasn’t interested in his personal life, the tantrums he throws, and I wasn’t going to mess up their relationship with Steve by getting them into an interview.

 

ML: Does Apple’s secretiveness comes from the development of the company itself, is it the nature of business in a fast-moving industry, or is it a manifestation of Job’s personality?

 

LK: [Laughs] It thinks it’s all three of those things. It’s the culture of Silicon Valley, it’s the land of the NDA, technology is the most important thing the company has, and to people outside the company they think the secrecy is a bit weird, and kind of unfriendly, but from the company inside, every one I talked to they think its foolish to be talking about what they are doing. They’re giving clues to their competitors, and they think its strange that anybody should think they should operate any other way.

 

But of course the customers are intensely curious and they want to gossip and they want to know what’s going on so there’s a tension there that will never be satisfactorily satisfied.

 

ML: Were you surprised by anything you learned -- about Jobs or about Apple?

 

LK: He’s not an asshole all the time. In fact it’s just a small amount of the time. It’s kind of like ‘Asshole Theater’ -- he sort of puts it on every now and again to scare the shit out of everybody, but he has these really long-term relationships and he’s part of this really deeply collaborative process.

 

I was impressed with the contributions that everyone else makes. He’s at once the least important element because everyone else is doing the work, but he’s also the most important element because he’s bringing it all together.

 

ML: Did you try to get Jobs to sit down for an interview?

 

LK: Yeah, yeah. They told me straightaway they wouldn’t be doing that.

 

ML: Apple’s success is so identified with Jobs, in his incarnation as co-founder and again as savior, do you think the company will succeed in the inevitable post-Jobs era?

 

LK: You could argue in a lot of ways the company will do just fine without him because as I spell out in the book, he’s put into place a lot of processes there, the regime of meetings and reviews, all the prototypes they make, the people he’s recruited to head up the different departments, they run those things independently. I think the company will thrive without him unless somebody steps in and wrecks it; if they follow his current methodology, the company would do OK.

 

ML: Can the company continue pushing the innovation envelope the way it has the last decade?

 

LK: I think they will definitely continue, in fact it kind of looks like they are just getting started. I’ve never seen a company that’s so very focused and very, very disciplined. They are making very, very clever use of their core technology and their core expertise.

 

ML: From the book’s title, one could get the impression it’s a Jobs biography. And while it’s got a good amount of personal history and personality detail, it’s really a history of Apple, and a history of the development of computer technology in America. Did you start out intending such a broad sweep?

 

LK: The original idea was to do a management book in the mold of a Jack Welch-type, management secrets: how Jack Welch resurrected GE, or drove it to success -- the same thing was how Steve Jobs saved Apple.

 

It was supposed to be a critical look at how Jobs drives the company’s success from a management experience approach, and it kind of turned into a personal biography as a secondary thing.

 

I was originally going to tackle it as a critical analysis of how does the company mange to do these things so well – design, marketing, and intuitive software -- but then I realized Jobs’ influence and control of that company is pretty singular… There aren’t many other CEOs who allow their personality to be expressed so closely through the company, so it occurred to me that you could look at the company through the lens of different aspects of his personality. It seemed to be a perfect way to segment the story.

 

As I got into it, I got a lot of information about the completely different tack they take to things like innovation, and I got a bit of the process in there, and what I was hoping was that you could look at Apple’s process and other people could learn from it and apply it to their own situations.

 

One of the problems with Steve Jobs is that he’s so singular, a lot of what he does is so contrary to a lot of management advice, I found myself advising people to behave like Jobs when so few can get away with that.

 

ML: As the company grows, do you think it will be able to continue hiring A players, or will it have to take on a few bozos?

 

LK: [Laughs] Well, I think they are going to stick with the tried and true and try to avoid the bozos. You look at the Apple Store, there was an interesting statistic that said they reject more applicants than Stanford does. It’s definitely not like going to Circuit City, where you’re being served by some kid who hasn’t got a clue what he’s talking about.

 

ML: Because technology moves so fast and book publishing is a slow moving beast, are there developments at Apple you think the book missed or that you wish you’d have explored more?

 

LK: There’s a ton of stuff I left out. The whole thing with writing is it’s a learning process. The big thing I was freaking out about was the iPhone, of course.

 

I tried really, really hard to get the iPhone story and got nowhere.

 

As a writer, it’s a kind of a self-defeating subject because you’re trying to write about a company that is so obsessively secretive, you’re bound to come up frustrated. It’s worse than writing about the CIA.

 

ML: What do you think of iPhone 2.0, coming in June, and its integration with Microsoft Exchange server?

 

LK: It was a surprise for me, but I guess it’s the same position that Palm found itself in when they launched the Palm Pilot, that was initially a device for consumers but they quickly realized a lot of CIOs and business people were picking these things up and using them for work, so the next order of business was to make these things corporate friendly.

 

For them the exclusive contract with AT&T is not a big impediment. Corporations would quite happily buy millions of iPhones and pay the contracts if it has this kind of business capability, so, there’s clearly a big opportunity there for [Apple] moneywise.

 

ML: What will be the good and bad outcomes to the SDK release for the iPhone?

 

LK: It means Apple can concentrate on consumer friendly applications like iPhoto or whatever, and leave the business stuff to third party developers.

 

The good is that this thing is a little mini computer that is always connected to the Internet so you can do some really cool things with that. There should be some really cool apps that will affect gaming, and there is a lot of really interesting experimentation that can be done with exceleramotism with a touch interface, so there can be some really, really cool apps.

 

The downside…[Pause] Uh…that you’d spend half your paycheck on these things?

 

ML: Has Jobs put a ding in the universe?

 

LK: Oh yeah. From the very get-go.

 

The guy is a fascinating guy and he’s become one of the most powerful industrialists, capitalists, his influence is astonishing, it’s not just in business it’s in culture, and he’s sort of reinvented all these different industries.

 

Look at the Apple II. That was the first packaged personal computer for consumers. That was the first real PC.

 

That alone should have sealed his place in the history books.

 

We are a completely computerized society. The computer has managed to mediate everything we do -- live, work, play -- and even though most of them are Windows machines, that is essentially a Macintosh interface they are using.

 

And now you’ve got these new consumer devices that are little mini computers, the Internet appliances, the iPod, the iPhone the Apple TV, I think the next decade is going to be Apple’s to own.

 

 

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