Becoming Steve Jobs: A Unique Perspective on Steve Jobs
This column is not a book review. I will leave that to the professional book reviewers. This is my personal observations after reading Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzili’s book about Steve Jobs. It comes from a prism of following Apple since 1981 and includes some of my own dealings with Jobs during that time.
I met one of the authors of this book, Brent Schlender, only a few days after he got a job at the Wall Street Journal and was assigned to cover Apple. Like Wall Street reporters before and after him, I have been on a list of key analysts who know Apple well and have often been called by these and other reporters for comment and analysis about the company. Brent and I often discussed Steve Jobs and his company and I shared what I could with him during many phases of Jobs’ life and gave him my thoughts about the Apple I had been covering since 1981. On one occasion, he rode with me to an event at Universal Studios to hear Jean-Louis Gassée introduce Apple’s first laptop.
As the book points out, Brent had a unique relationship with Steve Jobs and was one of only a few journalists Steve had a personal relationship with. He was even introduced by Steve as his friend at an event and would often go to Steve’s house and talk to him there and interact with his family. This book chronicles the life of Steve Jobs from Schlender’s unique viewpoint and it gives what I think is a solid view of the good and bad of Steve’s life while humanizing him in ways that only friends could see given his tendency to keep everyone else out of his life.
I was very impressed with how he explains how various things in Steve’s early life impacted his nature and persona and especially shaped his first stint at Apple. From his search for enlightenment to his interest in gadgets, the early part of the book covers in detail the early life of Jobs and explains how these events and people he met influenced him in those early days of Apple. It was during those days I met Steve and often got to see him operate up close and personal.
In fact, I got to see many sides of Steve’s character. When I first met him, he was pompous and amazingly arrogant but, at the same time, charming and highly focused. Even then I knew he was a very complex individual and it was difficult for me to figure out what made him so successful. Sure, the Apple II had been a big hit but when I met him IBM had just entered the PC market and I remember him telling me it would be a flop. He had no clue how the business world worked and how something like the IBM PC could even be a threat to his beloved Apple II.
I got to see his explosive nature a few months after the Mac was introduced in 1984 and John Sculley had been on the job for a short time. I was asked to come and meet with Steve and John to discuss an idea that would eventually become their desktop publishing program. In 1983, I had written a report about laser printers and had seen Canon’s very small laser jet engine earlier that year. In that report I suggested I could imagine, some day, people publishing documents at their desktop. Apple had seen that report and wanted to know if I thought the concept of Desktop Publishing had legs. As Steve, John and I were discussing this issue, there was a knock at the door and a junior engineer asked to come in and ask Steve a question. He proceeded to tell Steve something about a project and before he could finish, Steve started yelling at him. He told the guy he was an idiot and did not know what he was talking about and just kept berating him until he finally told the guy to leave. Sculley and I looked at each other and I could see he was embarrassed. I remember leaving that meeting wondering if John understood what he had gotten himself into.
The authors tell many stories like this in the book and do not sugarcoat this part of Steve’s business sense, or lack thereof, and make an important point of how Steve discovered that, by being forceful, argumentative and often just plain rude and uncivil, he could get his way. As you may know, this part of his character served him well at first but led to his downfall once Sculley and the board realized he had become a disruptive force in the company and decided he should leave. I was over at Apple a lot during that time and heard many stories from people inside Apple about what happened and the book is extremely accurate in chronicling the downfall of Steve and how it affected and finally drove him to compete with Apple when he created NeXT.
The chapters on Jobs and NeXT, also called by some Jobs’ wilderness years, are highly enlightening. I was banned from dealing with Jobs and NeXT as Jobs felt I was too PC centric and would not understand the workstations they were creating even though I had come from covering mini-computers and workstations before I was assigned PCs. Although I knew key players he hired away from Apple, I was never given access to them either and had to watch Job’s NeXT venture from the sidelines. But this part of Jobs’ life is very important because it was during this time he discovered things would not always go his way and, as we all know, NeXT was a failure in the end. However, during this time, Steve got married and had kids and, as Brent points out, he somewhat mellowed during those years.
I had many encounters with Jobs over the years, some cordial, some involving heated discussions and once he called me an idiot and suggested I had no clue what I was talking about. The idiot comment came after I wrote IBM was going to be very successful with their PC. I met with Jobs the second day he was back at Apple and I was extremely surprised to see the changes in him from the time I dealt with him during his early Apple days. In that meeting he was contrite and had a very humble posture and acknowledged that saving Apple would be a huge task. At first I thought this was all show but soon realized he had slightly mellowed and was at least chastened by the NeXT experience. The book points out Jobs was actually quite worried about being able to save Apple. Many inside Apple have told me that, once Jobs returned in 1997, he was a bit more subdued and not quite as confrontational. That does not mean he was a saint by any means. But I think the bullying Jobs of the past had given way to at least more civil confrontations and less yelling the second time around.
The latter part of the book deals with Jobs after he returns and tells a lot of great stories about how he and Jony Ive came to like each other and make design a key element of Apple’s products and the important role Tim Cook played in helping him shape the Apple we know today. Brent gets key ex-Apple execs to go on the record about their dealings with Jobs. During the last phase of their research for the book they got four current Apple execs to comment on their relationship with Steve and help Brent and Rick understand what drove Steve once he came back to Apple and why he is now considered one of the great business minds of the last 50 years. I won’t give away too much more about the book, as it needs to be read to get this first person perspective of Jobs. I will say that, given my own dealing with Jobs and Apple over a 34 year period, it is by far the best telling of what drove Steve Jobs to what he was in the three key periods of his life and how all of them helped create the Apple we know today.
I know there is some controversy about the fact Apple is commenting on this book and, in a roundabout way, supporting it. Several media outlets have asked me about this. They want to know why Apple is publicly knocking a documentary about Jobs and why they are now making what appears to be negative statements about Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. The documentary is very one sided and only shows the extreme negative side of Jobs, which is a very unbalanced story. As for Isaacson’s book, I too had trouble with so much of it being secondhand information and know that some of the things did not resonate with me personally, given my own intense coverage of Apple over the years. I think the reason Apple is more positive about Brent and Rick’s book is because it is told in the first person with real firsthand knowledge of what made Jobs tick. I also believe the book humanizes Jobs in the way Cook, Ive and current execs knew him, flaws and all and they believe this book tells a more accurate story from those inside Apple that knew him best.
Although some reviewers have called the book sympathetic to Jobs, I felt that it was a very honest portrayal about Jobs the enfant terrible and Jobs the charmer and visionary. For me it was informational, entertaining and, in my opinion, the most accurate portrayal of Steve Jobs written to date. Anyone interested in Steve Jobs should find it gives an important perspective on his life and how he made Apple the powerhouse tech company it is today.