College of LAS « Illinois

Alumni Profile

What Did Steve Do?

U of I grad takes readers Inside Apple in his bestselling corporate profile.

Apple

Adam Lashinsky (AB ’89, political science and history) chuckles when he recalls his skepticism toward Apple Inc. when he arrived in northern California in 1997 as a technology reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. Apple was the darling of Silicon Valley even though the company was near bankruptcy and Steve Jobs, its eventual savior, had only just returned to the company he had founded.

“As a business writer focused on finance, I didn’t understand the big deal.”

Of course, no one really did, not for another decade. Jobs was about to launch 15 of the most remarkable years in corporate history. He’d help raise Apple from the dead, inject it with start-up mojo, and inspire a stream of blockbuster products. Apple would become one of the world’s most successful companies.

How Jobs achieved this corporate miracle, however, largely remained a matter of speculation until last January. Lashinsky, who was by then a senior editor at Fortune magazine and an Apple convert, released Inside Apple, a fast-paced corporate profile that revealed how Jobs worked his magic. Begun in 2010 as an article for Fortune magazine, the book breached Apple’s heretofore impenetrable walls of secrecy and offered a candid glimpse of how Apple does business. It included, for instance, Jobs’s rebuke of conventional management mantras and his gift for creating consumer-product bonds.

Though timed to follow the release of Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Jobs, Lashinsky’s book was written without Job’s blessing and consequently required some backdoor reporting—a skill Lashinsky had honed while reporting on Apple for two earlier articles in Fortune magazine. In fact, his first Apple story was a 2008 profile of Apple’s then-chief operating officer and now CEO, Tim Cook. In it he scored such scoops as the Apple organizational chart, which Apple had never publicly released. He also bucked popular wisdom by predicting Cook’s ascendency to CEO-ship despite his un-Jobs-like demeanor.

Cracking Apple’s super secrecy was, according to Paul Merrion (AB ’74, English), the Washington bureau chief for Crain’s Chicago Business and the editor who gave Lashinsky his first reporting job, “akin to getting inside the Kremlin.” Lashinsky attritubes it to good-old-fashioned reporting, calling upon sources he’d developed across the industry as well as dozens of mostly former Apple employees at all levels of the company. Jobs declined an interview.

Lashinsky has been declining a few interviews himself now that the book is a bestseller and he is in demand on the talk-show circuit—its a pleasant predicament for someone who once imagined himself as a history professor. Lashinsky discovered the rush of journalism at U of I’s Daily Illini during his senior year and never turned back. He loves the “hurly-burly,” he says, which his coverage of Apple has certainly provided.

Here are a few highlights from Lashinsky’s book.

Lashinsky

“Fun comes and goes.”

In pulling back the curtain on Apple, Lashinsky showed that, like in Oz, perception doesn’t match reality. Apple the company was anything but cool. Much like its products, it is, “cool on the outside, but an object of beauty that is the result of extreme precision and attention to detail.” Similar to Disney, a corporation Jobs admired, the reality of what goes on behind the scenes is the opposite of its carefree public persona.

Secrecy is also practiced to the extreme. An employee can walk into work on a Monday, says Lashinsky, and find shaded glass where it used to be transparent—a clear sign, he says, you aren’t involved in whatever is going on behind that door. And you don’t inquire. This secret agent atmosphere squashes office politicking—except at the highest levels, people don’t have enough information to bargain with it.

“Simplicity breeds clarity.

Jobs’s obsessive attention to detail was combined with a penchant for simplicity. And simplicity meant saying no, something that Jobs was ruthless in doing if an idea didn’t fit within his company’s vision.

This insistence on simplicity permeates everything, says Lashinsky. Multitasking is out; focus is in. The corporate structure is streamlined. “Even marketing messages are honed to the point that everyone, from the media to consumers, can repeat them verbatim,” says Lashinsky.

“I’ll tell them what they need.”

Among the practices at Apple that Lashinsky places into the category of “don’t try this at home” includes the company’s uncharacteristic approach to consumer research, which was not to. Designs and concepts were based on Jobs’s concept of cool, and were proposed not for their profit potential but for their “awesomeness.” Before he launched the iPad, Jobs famously quipped: “It’s hard for [consumers] to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”

Of course, this implication of divine inspiration wasn’t entirely true. Apple seldom was first with a product. “What Apple did was re-envision them with an almost insane attention to detail, particularly in design,” says Lashinsky.

As for the future of Apple, Lashinsky avoids making forecasts. Ever the pragmatist, he observes that “even if Steve Jobs was still around, it’s doubtful the company could have another 15 years like it had...I don’t think any company can be insanely great for 30 years.”

By Holly Korab
Summer 2012