Writing a biography can be a balancing act, for it requires the author to present the subject in a fair and impartial manner, without being fulsome. But what happens when you are writing about someone like Tim Cook, the dynamic and innovative CEO of tech firm Apple Inc., a trillion-dollar business?
Leander Kahney’s Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple To The Next Level, runs the risk of bordering on sycophancy, especially with the title proclaiming Cook to be a genius. But Kahney is, for the most part, careful, sticking to factually documenting how Cook has led Apple to astronomical success after the death of Steve Jobs in 2011.
What works in Kahney’s favour is the fact that he has already written four books centred on the subculture surrounding Apple and its products. He is knowledgeable about the company, its technology and products, and has a repository of detail others may find difficult to access.
The book is divided into 12 chapters, each documenting the story of how one man transformed Apple’s operations with his deep understanding of every aspect of the business.
Kahney starts with the premise that things at Apple couldn’t be better. It became the world’s first trillion-dollar company in 2018, making it the most valuable corporation in the world. According to the book, its stock nearly tripled in 2018, and its cash reserves have quadrupled to a record $267.2 billion (around ₹1.8 trillion), despite it spending nearly $220 billion in stock buybacks and dividends.
This is a huge contrast from the time Cook was named CEO of Apple Inc. on 24 August 2011. Experts believed that the Cupertino-headquartered company would soon lose its magic wand, given that its charismatic co-founder Jobs was suffering from pancreatic cancer. When Jobs lost the battle with cancer barely six weeks after Cook walked into the corner office, the perception grew stronger. Jobs had been an iconic leader; filling his shoes was not easy. There was also the issue of rising competition from Android and uncertainty about future products.
Cook had his work cut out.
Kahney tracks down Cook’s roots in Robertsdale, a small town in southern US, and how that laid the foundation for a modest, high-achieving student who showed good business acumen at an early age. He joined Apple in March 1998 as senior vice-president for worldwide operations. Kahney writes that it was obvious from the outset that Cook was exceptional at operations and this is corroborated by the Apple veterans Kahney spoke to.
Back then, Cook was more of a strategist and a guru, credited with the turnaround of the company’s supply chain, rather than someone like Jobs, who could inspire people to stand in a queue all night long to earn the first-buyer tag for an Apple product, especially the iPhone.
Kahney contrasts the working styles and personalities of Jobs and Cook to drive home the point that Cook has indeed been the CEO that Apple needed. He writes: “Modern Apple needs someone like Cook—steady, analytical, great at delegating and running a big, complex ship. Whereas Jobs was competitive and mercurial, Cook is great at cooperation and coordination, which are the skills necessary to run a giant, diverse, complex operation like Apple."
Kahney also spends time detailing Cook’s environmental efforts, and explaining why Apple is one of the greenest companies in the tech industry, his efforts at ensuring user privacy, and his keenness to promote diversity.
Yet the fact that Kahney did not get access to Cook and had to base his book on research and interviews with a few Apple executives dulls some of its lustre—there is nothing radically new here. What works, however, is the fact that it is a well-chronicled, exhaustive tome.
Kahney remains gung ho about the company’s future and the last chapter of the book is titled, perhaps suitably enough, “Apple’s Best CEO?" In Kahney’s mind, there is no doubt that Cook is indeed the best man for the job. A master innovator who not only continues to produce world-dominating products like the iPhone, but has taken innovation to areas like Apply Pay and the Apple Watch. “He has made Apple a better company and the world a better place," ends Kahney.