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Published: August 1, 2014
 / Autumn 2014 / Issue 76

 
 

Genius Is a Team Effort

Michael Schrage reviews two notable books by veteran Silicon Valley journalists that seek to explain collaborative charisma.

The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company

by Michael S. Malone, Harper Business, 2014

Haunted Empire: Apple after Steve Jobs

by Yukari Iwatani Kane, Harper Business, 2014

As business clichés go, the charismatic entrepreneurial genius can’t be beat. This trope asserts that biography is destiny. Talent does what it can, but genius does what it must. From Edison, Ford, and Rockefeller to Jobs, Bezos, and Zuckerberg—genius changes the world.

But whose genius? In reality, the most innovative enterprises are seldom the lengthened shadow of one person. More often, they’re wrought from a collaborative genius that depends on complementary talents and character traits. Could Steve Jobs have become Steve Jobs without the design brilliance of Jony Ive and the supply chain savvy of Tim Cook? Would Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove be as celebrated if they had been solo acts?

In reality, the most innovative enterprises are seldom the lengthened shadow of one person.

Explaining collaborative charisma is a tougher rhetorical task than explaining the singular kind. But two notable new books by veteran Silicon Valley journalists, Michael S. Malone’s The Intel Trinity and Yukari Iwatani Kane’s Haunted Empire, take on this narrative challenge, albeit with radically different sensibilities.

In both books, the substance and illusion of charismatic genius is central to the story, but the essential tensions and conflicts emerge from each company’s dueling collaborators. For Malone, Intel’s founding trinity of Noyce, Moore, and Grove collaboratively created “the world’s most important company”—so labeled by the author for its ability to transform markets through technology better than any other enterprise.

For Kane, Apple’s prowess at innovation is in postmortem decay because the ghost of genius past doesn’t inspire creative collaboration; it simply spooks the living. Apple post–Steve Jobs might as well be Disney post–Walt Disney or Polaroid post–Edwin Land—the situation isn’t hopeless, but it has less hope. “We conducted the experiment,” Kane quotes Oracle founder and Jobs friend Larry Ellison saying. “I mean, it’s been done. We saw Apple with Steve Jobs. We saw Apple without Steve Jobs. We saw Apple with Steve Jobs.... Okay, I’ll say it publicly…they will not be nearly so successful because he’s gone.”

The reportage in both books is impressively comprehensive. But Malone delivers insight with a style and intensity that Kane never quite matches. The reasons are revealing: First, Malone seems to understand and respect his protagonists, their technologies, and their company in ways that Kane does not. So, where he sounds edgy, she sounds cynical. Second, and more importantly, Malone grasps how and why Intel’s superiority transcends its separate parts. Kane, by contrast, treats every slice of her Apple thoroughly, but individually. She gives a polite nod to the Jobs–Ive design ethos and solidly tells stories spanning Apple’s fraught Foxconn relationship and Tim Cook’s assiduously cultivated low profile, but it’s the reader who must put them together.

Malone’s The Intel Trinity aspires to be as definitive, entrepreneurial, energetic, technical, and, yes, brash as the company it chronicles. And it largely succeeds. You cannot read this sweeping and detailed history without coming away with a better grasp of what it takes to successfully achieve capital-intensive innovation on a global basis.

Intel becomes as much a character in the book as its leaders—a rhetorical feat that Kane, alas, can’t match. Intel’s rigor, relentlessness, and ruthlessness are exhaustive and exhausting—there’s no soulless corporation here. This is an enterprise that is culturally committed to constantly reinventing itself and the silicon circuitry that digitally defines postmodern life.

Did Intel make mistakes? Yes, and they could be huge—technically, strategically, and organizationally. But Malone documents a collective leadership approach that, in the finest tradition of the software its products enable, has learned how to turn a bug into a feature. “That Intel has survived all of these decades and stayed at the top of the most complex and dynamic industry imaginable is testament to this remarkable ability—by a singular combination of ferocious competitiveness, uncompromising management, and seemingly bottomless reservoirs of employee commitment and energy—to not only recover from mistakes but capitalize on them,” he writes. “Intel, more than any [Silicon] Valley company before or since, had learned to learn.”

 
 
 
 
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