Book Review: Tim Cook

Leander Kahney deserves credit for taking on the task of writing the first full-length biography of Tim Cook—an important figure who’s successful leadership of the world’s most influential corporation deserves study. Kahney found a similar niche by being the first to write a book on Jony Ive. Unfortunately, both books suffer from a lack of access and a significant amount of superficiliaty around their subjects’ time in leadership at Apple. While well researched (at least from public sources) and competently written, Kahney’s Cook biography delivers little new insight, and comes off largely as a superficial hagiography.

The first third of Kahney’s “Tim Cook” is the most interesting. Kahney was able to elucidate important details about Cook’s early life including his time growing up in Alabama, his time in college, and his early career at IBM. Whie I would have liked even more details, the profile that Kahney builds clearly sets the stage for the work ethic and social values that Tim Cook is so well known for possessing. The roughly middle third of the book about Cook’s rise at Apple is fairly interesting for two reasons: it clearly explains the inventory and supply-chain issues that Apple was suffering from prior to Cook’s arrival and how he went about fixing them from a business perspective, and it includes original interviews with high-level Apple executives about Tim (although these interviews do not provide as much insight as one would hope). The last third of the book is largely about social issues, such as Apple’s stance on the environment and diversity. Doubtless these are important issues to cover, and it’s good that Kahney covered them, but there is so much about Tim Cook as a person and as a manager that are left out. You would think these pages, about Tim Cook as CEO of Apple, would be the most interesting, but instead they are the least because Kahney’s writing is largely driven by well publicized speeches, interviews, and press releases, with little original reporting.

When I read a biography about a business-person, I expect to gain an understanding of how they conduct business. How does Tim Cook manage his team? What is it like to sit in a meeting with him? What is his philosophy on R & D spending? How is he as a negotiator with other companies? Very little of this is in the book. We do get a strong sense that Tim Cook’s social values drive some of his decision making at Apple, but that doesn’t tell us what it’s like to work for Tim Cook, or how Tim Cook behaves as a manager.

While we get some insight into Tim Cook’s early life, Kahney provides little information about Tim Cook’s personal life as an adult. When you read a biography of someone, you do expect to learn about their personal life, because someone’s work life is only half the story. I’m not saying I need to read gossipy lurid details in a biography, but I do want to know what someone’s friends think of them. I do want to know how they interact with their family. However, Kahney seems downright opposed to this sort of reporting (or maybe it’s an excuse for his lack of access). On page 188, Kahney writes: “While researching this book, I didn’t pry into his personal life at all. Cook keeps his private life private, and I’m happy to respect that.”

There are some minor factual errors in the book, that probably only someone like myself, deeply enmeshed in books about Apple, would catch. They don’t take away at all from the overall narrative. For example on page 217 Kahney refers to well known former Apple employee Don Melton as “Doug Melton.” I noticed other similarly small errors. They are not a reason to not buy the book, but they do speak to perhaps the book being a little rushed to market, where it could have used more research into Cook’s business and personal life. Perhaps that’s reading too much into them though.

The subtitle of Kahney’s Tim Cook is “The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level.” I really like Cook, and I gained an even greater respect for him from reading this biography. But, Kahney did not provide enough new insight to justify his subtitle calling Cook a “genius.” Perhaps Tim Cook is a genius, but I would’ve liked to have seen more evidence. What I did take away is that Tim Cook has an incredible work ethic. And that in of and itself is inspiring. That someone can achieve so much just through determination, very hard work, extreme competence, and good social values is a great message in and of itself. As for Tim Cook, though, he deserves a more thorough biography.

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I teach Computer Science to college students, develop software, podcast, and write books about programming including the Classic Computer Science Problems series. I'm the publisher of the hyper local newsletter BTV Daily.

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Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.