I was not a fan of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. So, I was very pleased to learn of a new biography, Becoming Steve Jobs, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. The book promised to show a fuller picture of the man and his work, with the cooperation of many of the people with whom Jobs worked closely. I finished the book last night and thought I’d write a few thoughts about it.
What I liked
The authors seem to have a much better understanding of Steve Job’s actual work. They didn’t rely on quasi-supernatural “reality distortion fields” to explain his persuasive gifts or motivational powers. They instead focus on his understanding of the motivations and needs of those with whom he negotiated, and the intense drive that focused his teammates, and cast off those who couldn’t keep up.
They did not give short shrift to Steve’s years after leaving Apple, when he served as CEO of NeXT and Pixar. In fact, these years serve as the central crux to their whole thesis. Namely, that Steve Jobs was a spoiled, yet gifted tyrant with little regard for anyone around him until he became closely associated with gifted creative leaders and managers in Ed Catmull and John Lasseter at Pixar. The authors are explicit in their point of view, sometimes to a fault, but I think they correctly understand that those “wilderness” years were key to the success of Steve’s second act at Apple.
The story is mainly told from Brent Schlender’s perspective, a journalist who had a lot of contact with Jobs, on and off the record. His grasp of the business side of Silicon Valley pays off and drives the narrative, and makes up for his slight hand waving at some technological aspects of Apple’s work.
What I didn’t like
The authors are business journalists and it shows. When NeXT and Apple were not doing well financially, especially in comparison to Microsoft, the authors clearly regard them as complete failures. There is too little appreciation given to what these companies did well and the reason there was a fairly rabid fan base upon Steve’s return to help propel Apple’s renewal by evangelizing the brand. Regardless of the confusion in Apple’s leadership, those of us who used Macs in the 90s regarded them as far superior to anything Microsoft produced. In addition to this loyal fan base, the technical excellence of NeXT’s software served as the foundation for everything Apple has been able to do over the last 16 years. The authors seemed to disregard what was going right in these companies because they didn’t overpower Microsoft immediately, although their modern incarnations arguably have.
The authors also fell into the same trap that Isaacson did regarding Jobs’ animosity toward Adobe. While Isaacson saw evidence of resentment playing out in Apple’s introduction of iPhoto, Schlender and Tetzeli see it in Steve’s policy on Flash on iOS. Steve may have harbored a grudge against Adobe, but here’s the thing in the case of Flash, he was absolutely right. Flash is pretty terrible in a few ways that would’ve been very important to Jobs and the success of Apple’s products. It had terrible performance and quickly drained battery on mobile devices, and often on desktops as well. The rightness of the course has been borne out by Android abandoning Flash as well, despite the fact that it was a differentiating selling point against iOS. Steve may have been gleeful to not cater to Adobe, but it was the right decision.
One minor issue I have is placing Apple’s run-in with anti-trust law with ebook sellers next to the Silicon Valley wage fixing scandal. The wage fixing scandal seems to have been a case of outright abuse of authority, with little regard for the effect on the livelihoods of people below the top levels of the companies involved. It is rightly seen as an abuse of power. The ebook scandal, on the other hand, can be best understood as the real monopoly player, Amazon, lobbying to have a threat to its dominance squashed by regulators. A recognition of the murkiness of this case, compared to the relative straight forward nature of the wage-fixing scandal, would have been appreciated.
One thing that occurred to me in the book is that it has a much more applicable message for those trying to learn from Steve Job’s life than the Isaacson book. The authors quote Jobs as saying, “I am who I am,” as an excuse for bad behavior. However, their narrative demonstrates that Steve Jobs became who he was be honing his individual gifts over his lifetime until he could put them to their best use. Jobs became a better and better version of himself. If readers take away the message that they can become the best version of themselves by identifying their gifts and sanding down their rough edges, then they will realize that they don’t have to try to be like this one renowned individual. That would be something worth remembering.