Grateful Geek

Sep 24 23

Grateful Geek

Paul Weinstein

Grateful Geek: 50 Years of Apple and Other Tech AdventuresGrateful Geek: 50 Years of Apple and Other Tech Adventures by Jean-Louis Gassee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jean-Louis Gassée has led a remarkable business life. For many, he is probably known best as an early executive at Apple, circa 1980s. For others, he is the co-founder of Be Inc. who’s BeOS almost became the next generation operating system for PCs and still lives on today as the free/open source Haiku OS. This past May, Gassée self-published his memoir, Grateful Geek.

Written with hard won self-awareness, the book interweaves professional and personal antidotes from his 50-year career in the tech industry. In an easy to read 200 pages, Gassée provides his first-person analysis of where he and his former employers succeed and failed at critical points during the PC, dot-com and mobile computing revolutions.  

First, the bad news. This is a self-published memoir, and it shows. Gassée has stated on his blog that he went the self-publish route because most publishers are interested in the ’Steve Jobs was an asshole’ or ‘Apple was lost at sea without it’s visionary co-founder’ narrative and that is not what he was interested in writing (nor has he). Unfortunately, the book defiantly shows a lack of focus in places because of this. 

Specifically, in terms of content, the book is more a collection of essays organized in chronological order, than a cohesive narrative. Gassée covers several topics, starting with his personal affinity for engineering and his early start at HP in France. For an autobiography, this is straight-forward enough. Later, after covering important aspects of his time at Apple and Be, Gassée includes his personal advice for founders and managers. Again, these insights are based on his personal experience and shouldn’t be dismissed. Yet their inclusion is disconnected from everything else. 

To put it another way, I’m sure Gassée could write a whole book on how venture capital in Silicon Valley works, but this is not that book. Scott Kapok’s Secrets of Sand Hill Road is that book and thus Gassée’s shared thoughts are somewhat superficial.[1] In my humble option, this book would have benefited focusing on a single topic. For example, how to be a better manager by referring to lessons learned at Apple. Or how to be a better founder and seek funding by citing his experience on both sides of the process, first at Be, then at a VC fund.

Now the good news. Gassée witnessed, firsthand, a unique time, when computers became personal and companies such as Apple and HP struggled in the marketplace to define what that meant. Alas, that also means, despite the choice to self-publish, most people will likely come to this book exactly because of his tenure at Apple during such a tumultuous time.

To give you an idea, Gassée’s career intersects with Steve Jobs at two key points. First, in 1985, after successfully launching, growing Apple’s business in France, Gassée has an opportunity to move to Cupertino and take over the Software Division at Apple for the newly launched Macintosh. To be successful, a deep, rich library of software is needed for the freshly launched computing platform. But after taking over the internal Macintosh project and shepherding it to market[2], Jobs sees everything related to the Mac as his personal domain. Gassée would have to report to “Apple’s mercurial visionary.” But, knowing Jobs’ management style and his own “limited control over my emotions [temper]”, Gassée sees an impasse. Shortly however, the stalemate is resolved, Apple’s CEO John Sculley dismisses Jobs[3] and Gassée soon finds himself VP of Product Development over Apple’s fractured computing platforms, the Apple II and the Macintosh.

But what if Sculley had never fired Jobs? Would the Apple we know now have come to be sooner? Or at all? Here is where, as witness of the people and events, Gassée comes into his own and offers an answer, no. No, Apple was better off parting ways with Jobs at that specific juncture. Both Apple and Steve Jobs had to spend the proverbial years wondering the desert to discover what had made Apple a success at the beginning. For Jobs that would mean learning how to build and run a business, with NeXT and Pixar[4], before returning to the promised land and resurrecting a dying company. Had Sculley not fired Jobs, mostly likely Apple would have continued to run through CEOs until one day it just was, another company from a foregone era, lost to the mists of time along with Commodore, Tandy, Packard Bell and Gateway.  

The second interaction happens a few years later. By the 90s, both Gassée and Jobs have left Apple. Jobs, at NeXT and in a similar path Gassée has co-founded his own computer company, Be. As a company, Apple is broken. Despite the promise of the Macintosh, its graphical user interface and its growing importance in the graphic design and desktop publishing industries, most business and engineering users view it as a toy. 

Worst, the original Macintosh operating system had collected a bunch of technical debt, engineering and design decisions that made sense with 1980s hardware but had imposed strict limitations on the platform running in 1990s hardware[5]. 1990s Apple needed a next generation operating system, one architected for more powerful personal computers and beyond. Having failed to deliver its own modern operating system, Apple’s CEO Gil Amelio goes shopping. One possible option, Be. 

Gassée sees a unique opportunity, as the popular story goes, and sets the purchase price for Be high. Amelio goes looking for a cheaper option and tries knocking on the door at NeXT. Jobs puts on a masterful presentation and, well as they say, the rest is history.

But what if Apple purchased Be? Here Gassée is silent, as if the very suggestion of such a thought would ever to occurred to him. Given how Steve Jobs’ return to Apple set in motion the key elements of Apple’s return to relevancy (and beyond) one can understand Gassée silence on the subject. However, Gassée still offers us his perspective on the success of “Apple 2.0” and even includes an alternative telling of the popular tale, that Jobs was in fact uninterested in the initial approach from Apple, having moved NeXT onto new business opportunities[6].

Jean-Louis Gassée, has led a rich and remarkable business life. His story deserves an equally rich and remarkable telling. Hopefully, this is only the first telling of that story.

[1] I’m sure Gassée will agree with me that Fred Brook’s classic, The Mythical Man-Month is the place to start for learning how to manage engineers and technical projects from Brook’s own firsthand, lived experience. 

[2] “Real artists ship” –Steve Jobs

[3] The key nugget here is Jean-Louis telling John Scully not to leave for a business trip overseas, else Jobs would implement a palace coup and Scully, not Jobs would be on the outs at Apple.

[4] It should be noted that Pixar, not Apple is what made Jobs a billionaire.

[5] Moore’s Law, “the number of transistors in an integrated circuit (IC) doubles about every two years”. Thus, a CPU in 1995 was 10x more powerful than one from 1985. 

[6] WebObjects, which was an object-oriented framework for building applications on the new computing frontier, the World-Wide Web.