Book Review: After Steve: How Apple Became A Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul

“After Steve” by Tripp Mickle is about Apple and how it transformed after the death of Steve Jobs. The book shed light on what went on behind the scenes at arguably the most valuable company in the world through two main characters: Tim Cook and Jony Ive. With Cook, we see a then-lieutenant become the ultimate force and voice at Apple. Early in his tenure, Cook had to face investor doubt on whether he could fill the giant void that Jobs’ death left behind. How could he avoid that when his former boss was larger than life? He also had to deal with the precarious political storms both at home in the US and in China. The contrast in how he handled delicate political engagements and how Steve did before showed the difference between two men. There is also a challenge of managing Ive and the growing workforce which meant that the previous culture was no longer a fit. The once-influential Design team which colleagues jokingly referred to as Gods had to see their influence wane and give way for the Finance and Ops teams. Such a transition could only happen under Tim Cook’s watch. The financial results and market valuation of Apple is testament to the excellent job that Cook and his teams have done in the past 12 years. His appointment to CEO was the right call for Apple.

Regarding Jony, the talented artist craves creativity. However, even though he wanted to retain control over all things creative at Apple while not fully mourning Steve’s death, he felt suffocated by the corporate responsibilities, a barrage of meetings and internal fights with other teams. After Apple Watch and Apple Campus, Jony felt burned out and needed to turn a new chapter. Hence, he left the company where he spent most of his adult life. The author reported that after the departure of Jony, the Design team became liberated by not relying on Jony, who wasn’t fully present and committed in the last months of his time there. I do think it worked out for both Apple and Jony that he left. Jony is immensely talented and has world-class taste, but his lack of focus and commitment was detrimental to his teams and colleagues.

If you don’t follow Apple closely but are interested in the company, I think “After Steve” will be a good read. In addition to the evolution of the two characters and Apple itself, there are business lessons that one can take away. First, attention to detail.

Tim Cook is maniacal on details. Becoming a CEO doesn’t mean that he cares only about strategy. At work, I often see executives talk high-level without drilling into details. For me, details matter. They require careful investigation which leads to deep understanding and better decision-making. Here are a few examples:

“The operations team, hollowed out by departures after Jobs’s return, detailed the headway they had made as Cook peppered them with questions: “Why is that? What do you mean?”

“I saw grown men cry,” said Joe O’Sullivan, who was the acting head of operations when Cook arrived. “He went into a level of detail that was phenomenal.”

“Joe, how many units did we produce today?” Cook would ask. “It was ten thousand,” O’Sullivan would answer.

“What was the yield?” he asked, referring to the percentage of units that passed quality assurance before shipment. “Ninety-eight percent.” Unimpressed by the efficiency, Cook would probe deeper. “So how did the two percent fail?”

Excerpt From: Tripp Mickle. “After Steve.”

“He continued waking up each morning before 4:00 A.M. and reviewing sales data. He drilled down into small details, discovering through questions that one model of iPhone was outselling another in a small city in Georgia because the AT&T stores there were running different promotions from those being run in the rest of the state. He held a Friday meeting with operations and finance staff, which team members called “date night with Tim” because it would stretch for hours into the evening, when Cook seemed to have nowhere else to be.”

Excerpt From: Tripp Mickle. “After Steve.”

Another lesson is that a different business life stage cultivates changes in culture and culture fit is important. Under Steve, secrecy and “need-to-know” basis were prevalent. Steve made decisions based on his instinct and was the final voice on many things. Tim Cook, on the other hand, encouraged collaboration and deferred to his reports in areas where he is not strong at, such as creativity. If you work for Cook, you are expected to be able to think strategically and be detail-oriented. Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry, left Apple after 5 years because she was reportedly not a fit in Cook’s executive team. Others who are detail-oriented like Cook rose through the ranks like Deirdre O’Brien or Jeff Williams.

I was under impression that Apple’s leaders were excellent at thinking way ahead of time in terms of products or services. This book kinda changed my mind. There are several examples in which the company changed direction when they realized the initial strategy didn’t work. For example, Jony Ive insisted on positioning Apple Watch as a fashion accessory and making it exclusive to cultivate the luxury position. But it only took off when it was sold through normal sales channels and positioned as a fitness product. There was also the drama involving Apple Music and Taylor Swift. Taylor’s criticism forced Apple to change the compensation formula to artists. Otherwise, who knows what would have happened to the service? Last but definitely not least, nobody thought of Apple Watch or Airpods as significant sources of revenue for Apple. One look at the Wearables line item on Apple’s financial reports will tell you that they indeed are.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.

“Jobs had had a designer’s eye. He had once walked past a prototype of a forthcoming iPhone and barked, “What is this shit?” The curvature and polish of the prototype had been changed only slightly during manufacturing, but he had caught the differences with a glance and been repulsed. He had demanded that it be fixed. Without him, the team lost the feedback that fueled their work.”

“When the first prototype was finished, Ive exited his glass office and strolled to the table to review it. He twisted the shimmering silver camera in his hands and brushed his fingers across a toggle button on the rear of the unit that looked like a Nintendo controller. It was there to enable users to scroll through digital photographs on the camera’s display. But he didn’t like the buttons. They protruded too much. He told the team that he wanted the knobs to be as flush and smooth as the aluminum case itself.

It was a challenging ask. Keats spent days inserting 100-millimeter sheets of plastic film called Mylar on each side of the rear toggle, trying to raise the buttons the minimal amount necessary to make them discernible while keeping them practically flush with the exterior of the case.

The camera design took more than nine months and required 561 different models before Ive was satisfied. Apple estimated that fifty-five engineers had spent a combined 2,100 hours on it. The company reused some of the manufacturing techniques in future Apple products, including the laser-etching process for MacBook speakers. Keats did the final assembly by hand and traveled to Germany to have Leica’s engineers ensure that the camera worked”

“At various points over the years, the company’s leadership team had discussed the possibility of buying Disney, Netflix, or Time Warner, which owned HBO. But the rocky integration of Beats showed how difficult it could be to import companies into Apple’s rigid culture. Cook favored proceeding alone. His preference led to what became known inside Apple as Project North Star, a $1 billion bet that Apple could make its own Netflix.”

One thought on “Book Review: After Steve: How Apple Became A Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.