Review: Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda

I read this book in January 2019, and owned the original iPhone which Kocienda worked on.

This book contains some quite interesting glimpses into the software decision process at Apple during Jobs’s tenure, which was — as you might expect — highly autocratic. Jobs called the shots, using gut instinct rather than any form of experience, training or knowledge. He seemed to ignore his employee’s suggestions. It’s to their credit that Apple’s products turned out as well as they did, coming from the software equivalent of the North Korea dictatorship.

Kocienda treats Jobs as a god figure, breathlessly telling us every last word of The Great Leader on the few occasions when he was ushered in to demo his software in His presence. The Great Leader rewards Kocienda by not giving a shit who he is at a presentation. All hail The Great Leader.

The book is about twice as long as it needs be — going into microscopic detail about meetings and demos, and then retelling them straight afterwards to show how good and helpful this one sentence that The Great Leader uttered was, and how grateful he was to hear His Words, before The Great Leader rudely took another telephone call and shooed them out of the room.

“As he shouted ‘Thanks, whoever the fuck you were’ at me through the swiftly closing door after he dismissed me, my heart jumped. Steve had said thank you to me. Me! He had placed the emphasis on the ‘Thank’, and for that I will forever be eternally grateful, since Steve had thanked me, even after dismissing my work as not being something he wanted for some reason. I will dwell on the reasons later, over many weeks, before I will ask my boss what he meant. It is Steve who, through his laser focus and selflessness, has led my team to where we are today.” (This isn’t a real quote, but frankly, it could be).

That’s not to take away from the interesting story of how the iPhone keyboard was built and the issues the team had at the time. The iPhone had a surprisingly small software team: and perhaps that’s one reason why the original turned out as good as it did. Smaller teams, my experience tells me, always do a better and more focused job than larger ones.

It’s an interesting comparison between producing something with “art”, as Kocienda claims, as well as data. Until the past few years, Google has more obviously relied on data, rather than art. Now, you sense that both companies are at par — Apple’s shine now diminished, and Google seems to at last be beginning to understand how to make something that looks as good as it works.

I have often held that if design aims to “delight the customer”, then revenue and profits will come. But if design is ever built to put the company first, rather than the customer, then you’ve already lost. Microsoft, to a degree, shows that. Apple, in most cases, doesn’t. Even their recent announcement that they’re allowing the iTunes store onto Samsung TVs is clear that they aim to delight the customer, whatever hardware they want to use: and that’s a good thing. This book is excellent at showing that.

As a glimpse into Apple’s development practices at the time, then, this is a decent enough read — as long as you try to skip past The Veneration Of The Great Leader.