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Review: Creative Selection

Within two chapters, I realized that I may not be the right audience for Creative Selection.

A book written by a software engineer at Apple through its revival of the Mac and introduction of the iPhone, it goes through—in excruciating detail at times—the author’s own contributions to two major Apple products: Safari for the Mac, and the software keyboard for the original iPhone. That, along with the other 15+ years of experience at the company, informed the author of its obsessive style of product development, though the results obviously speak for themselves.

In a style reminiscent of renowned theoretical physicists, the author spends a considerable amount of their ink on explaining technical subjects with everyday analogies. It was about when the book was drawing comparisons between cooking recipes and cross-platform C++ compilation, that I knew that the author had intended to talk to non-engineers, but much of the nuance and noteworthy aspects of their work would be lost on non-technical folks without hefty primers on what it all meant. I will say, as someone who still kind of knows what he’s talking about on technical terms, that many of the examples were flimsy.

Since the author is simply recounting the arc of a company from their own perspective on the ground, we get a better sense of some of the nitty-gritty details, but in doing so lose some aspects of the overall landscape and decision-making that executive memoirs and autobiographies usually provide. It reminds me a bit of Chaos Monkeys, in the sense that the author kept on having to name-drop more famous Apple employees so they can share some of the status and celebrity1. In fact, this became annoying after a while; it seemed like the all the author was working towards was to show a demo to an executive for 5 minutes to get a thumbs up.

The most annoying aspect of the book, however, is really how self-important the author sounds in their writing. They spent 15+ years at the company, but chose to only really highlight 2 projects—the aforementioned web browser port and iPhone keyboard—put up to be macrocosms of successful product development and technological excellence. The name of the book, Creative Selection, is termed by the author on the way that they and the iPhone software team iterated and dogfood tested their keyboard; it sounds and feels like pretty standard software engineering best practice to me.

At one point, the iPhone team got stuck trying to make the iPhone’s virtual keyboard work, and their manager put the entire team to work on prototyping solutions to just that problem. As you may guess, the author won that derby and thus became the virtual keyboard maestro, but they wanted to hammer home that fact, so much so that adjective “derby-winning” appears in the book 24 times. Lest you, the reader, forget who won that competition.

Or maybe I’m just too close and familiar with how the sausage is made to enjoy this type of retelling. For those fans of Apple products but are further-removed from how software works, Creative Selection is the perfect insider story into a place notorious for keeping to itself.

  1. Apple’s famous keynotes have made its executives into B-list celebrities for Apple fanboys.

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