Ed Catmull is, for those who don't recognise the name, one of the founders of Pixar and it's current president. Initially a computer scientist, he was pretty famous within the graphics and comp. sci. community long before he became involved in the film industry. Indeed Pixar itself grew up out of producing rendering software and hardware for Lucasfilm and later Disney. Of course, things changed.
Pixar is justifiably famous for it's technological innovation, and Dr Catmull, as the primary developer for the Renderman software, is owed a good part of that reputation. But that's not what this book is about. In fact, I'm not sure Renderman is even mentioned by name.
Instead what this book is about, is how a scientist, fresh out of a academic research, found himself managing a company. And not just a company, but a creative company full of people with wildly different competencies far outside his own. Another thing Pixar is famous for is that it is a fabulous place to work, perhaps the dream employer for anyone involved in animation or movies. Despite the managements inexperience in the beginning, clearly they got it right, building a company with a unique and identifiable culture that manages to keep the shareholders satisfied, the customers delighted and the employees dedicated. In fact they got it so right that when Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, they put the Catmull/Lasseter team in charge of Disney's other animation studios as well.
As such, this is a cross between a management manual, a managers memoir and a biography of a company, and surprisingly enough, it manages all three, with caveats.
As a management manual, this is descriptive not prescriptive. Catmull is happy to dissect the failures as well as the successes, and does so in detail in a few places. He is open about some of the times that the company, or a division of it, went wildly wrong, and why he thinks that happened. He's equally happy to look at the things they do that worked, and why. What's more he does so without the hubris of assuming all the good bits were his ideas, and all the bad bits someone elses, and not only gives credit where due, but dedicates an entire section to the very idea of luck and happenstance. With cites!
As a memoir, it tracks Catmull's development from terrified fresh-out-of-grad-school beginner manager, to finally president of a major company. He talks about how he got things wrong initially because he followed advice from people who he thought knew better, but didn't understand why it didn't apply to his situation. He discusses how he got things wrong by following prescriptive management manuals, and sometimes just by making bad decisions because he didn't know better. He also talks about the things he got right purely because he didn't know better, making decisions that seemed to go against the general wisdom.
And of course, it tracks the history of the company itself, from a small divison of Lucasfilm, to a failing hardware company keeping the doors open by doing animation for TV advertisements, through to the heights of Toy Story and Finding Nemo, and eventually the merger with Disney.
The writing is crisp, clear and straightforward. You can clearly see Catmull's academic background: When he says something is scientifically proven, he goes ahead and provides citations and when he talks about management theories, for good or bad, he briefly outlines the history and progenitors of them. Yet it's always eminently readable perhaps the co-writer, Amy Wallace can have the credit for that, I'm not sure.
So the rest of this review is pretty quote heavy, I hope it gives you a sense of the writing style.
"Your employees are smart; that’s why you hired them."
"When managers explain what their plan is without giving the reasons for it, people wonder what the “real” agenda is. There may be no hidden agenda, but you’ve succeeded in implying that there is one. Discussing the thought processes behind solutions aims the focus on the solutions, not on second-guessing."
Catmull mentions devouring management guru books in his early days, only later realising how generic they are.
"These books were stocked with catchy phrases like “Dare to fail!” or “Follow people and people will follow you!” or “Focus, focus, focus!” (This last one was a particular favorite piece of nonadvice."
He has a lot to say on how creative endeavours can go wildly off course before they get to where they're going. There are many anecdotes, and a lot of analysis of just why and how things can go off the rails, and how to get them back on track, but I particularly like this one (This movie later became "Bolt", which I actually liked very much, although I may be alone in that):
"It happened after a fairly awful screening of American Dog, a film structured around a famous and pampered canine actor (think Rin Tin Tin) who believed that he was the superhero character he played on TV. When he found himself stranded in the desert, he had to face for the first time how his tidy, scripted life had not prepared him for reality—that he, in fact, had no special powers. That was all well and good, but somewhere along the way, the plot had also come to include a radioactive, cookie-selling Girl Scout zombie serial killer. I’m all for quirky ideas, but this one had metastasized."
And he's not afraid to acknowledge that they have gotten things wrong: For instance Disney marketing tried to get Pixar to change the name of the movie "The Princess and the Frog", because mentioning a princess in the title virtually guaranteed it would be considered a movie "only for girls". Pixar demurred, believing that pushing the idea of a return to traditional animation and a smart marketing campaign would overcome that perception, and went with the princess name anyway, a move that Catmull openly admits "Turns out, it was our own version of a stupid pill."
Finally of course, you can't write about Pixar without writing about Steve Jobs, but it would also be easy to get distracted into a kind of "Jobs, the Pixar view" semi-biography of the man, rather than the company. Instead, while he is a constant presence throughout the book, Catmull wisely dedicates an epilogue to Jobs specifically, allowing him to be one of the larger cast throughout the rest of the book. Catmull describes their first meeting with "To be honest, I was uneasy about Steve. He had a forceful personality, whereas I do not, and I felt threatened by him." But later after 26 years of actually working with the man, he says "I’ve been frustrated that the stories about him tend to focus so narrowly on his extreme traits and the negative, difficult aspects of his personality." Incidentally, this is one of the major complaints I've seen about the movie "Jobs": That Jobs years at Next and Pixar, between his ousting from Apple and his subsequent return, turned him from a genius wunderkind into a true leader. Yet the movie spends less than a minute on this period, and doesn't even mention Pixar. This book gives a much more balanced view from someone who knew and worked alongside him successfully for many years, and although not shy of discussing how difficult he could be, there is ample evidence of his positive traits on display too (and not just his marketing or design genius). If you're interested in Jobs from a non-apple-centric point of view, I can highly recommend Creativity Inc. from this perspective too.
Rounding out the book itself, is a list of the major management aphorisms that Catmull has come up with over his 26 years with Pixar. He is very clear that he considers them starting points, indeed that is the name of the epilogue, not prescriptive commands to be slavishly followed, and not generic non-advice.
Personally, having read more than my share of academic organisational psychology textbooks over the past couple of years, I found this book to be a distillation of how, in practice, all the very things that current OP best practices recommend really can become reality. In fact, it could have pretty much replaced some of those textbooks, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.