Becoming Steve Jobs

Late last year I finished reading Becoming Steve Jobs, the unauthorized biography of Steve Jobs, written by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. For those keeping track of Jobs biographies, this was the book publicly endorsed by current Apple leadership, with input from Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, and his closest friends. Though there are two authors, the narrative is written from the perspective of Schlender, who lends credibility to the book with his twenty-five year professional and at times personal relationship with Jobs. Admittedly, I never got around to reading the official biography by Walter Isaacson, partly because enough people I respected decried the book and it's author for not understanding Jobs' technological achievements. With Schlender, I didn't have those same concerns, because he spent his career covering Jobs as a tech writer for the Wall Street Journal and Fortune.

I wasn't particularly interested in Apple growing up. In fact, I didn't own my first Mac until after I interned at Apple. For someone like me, who was too young to have witnessed or wasn't paying attention to most of Jobs' career, it's easy to lionize Jobs. It's easy to view Jobs as this fully-formed genius, who was born with the right tools to achieve greatness. As Becoming Steve Jobs shows, this was not at all the case. Jobs matured into the innovative leader he's remembered as, through trial and error. He failed, a lot. But he never allowed those failures to cause him to question his own judgement. Too often, instead of listening to my gut and inner voice, I seek the opinions of others to validate my decisions. One of the things I admire about Jobs is how strongly he believed in himself.

Jobs' ouster from Apple is depicted as the best thing to have happened to his career. I expected the narrative to focus on Jobs founding NeXT and how that led to his triumphant return to Apple. But the authors don't look favorably on this venture. At NeXT we see that Jobs is making the same mistakes that marked the end of his first stint at Apple, building an unfocused product without a market. Instead, the authors credit Jobs' purchase of Pixar as having taught him to be a great leader. It's at Pixar that Jobs learns how to manage creative people, through his friendships with Ed Catmull1, President, and John Lassetter, Chief Creative Officer. Sure, Jobs had the foresight to purchase Pixar, and not give up on the company. He also negotiated Disney's acquisition of Pixar to secure its future. Largely though, credit is given to Catmull for effectively managing Jobs into allowing Pixar to operate autonomously. Providing these depictions and insights is where the book shines.

That said, I have a few criticisms. Contributions from those who best knew Jobs vary in effectiveness. When used to bring the narrative to life, the resulting exposition is among the best the book has to offer. My favorite chapter, for example, tells the story of the day Jobs delivered his great commencement speech at Stanford University, from the perspective of Laurene. I don't want to spoil the story, but it's funny, highlights a lesser-known side of Jobs, and reflects the level of effort he gave to his work. Similarly, Eddy Cue and Jony Ive's anecdotes about their first days working with Jobs are enjoyable to read.

In contrast, Tim Cook's quotes have an agenda that feels out of place. Cook uses the book as a platform to defend his friend against Isaacson's portrayal. In fact, there are two full pages of consecutive quotes that read like a soliloquy, without narrative structure. A curious moment also occurs when Cook explains Jobs' part in the lawsuit against Silicon Valley companies, for their secret and illegal agreement not to poach senior employees from one another. Cook says in part "...I don't think he was thinking about saving any money. He was just very protective of his employees." I was surprised to hear such a patriarchal sentiment from the CEO of Apple. I get that he's defending his friend, but Jobs' actions were illegal, so the defense comes off tone-deaf.

I also thought some of Jobs' flaws were glossed over. A single page was devoted to the strained relationship Jobs had with his first daughter Lisa, after initially denying paternity. Given what I already knew, and the book's admission that "when people debate whether Steve was a 'good' or 'bad' man, this is the strongest indictment against him," I expected more insight to be provided.

Finally, the pronoun "he" is used throughout the book to describe a hypothetical person or the reader. I greatly prefer when authors choose to evenly switch between pronouns. The singular use of "he" took me out of the reading, like a constant reminder that I'm not a part of the intended audience for the book.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Becoming Steve Jobs. In Silicon Valley, successful young co-founders are put on a pedestal, which makes it easy to view these people as born leaders. By his 20s, Jobs' early success made him a celebrity, but in the book we find out that he wasn't a great leader until his return to Apple in his 40s. A thread of growth connects the book from beginning to end. And so now I view Jobs less like a folklore hero, and more like a deeply flawed person who became a visionary leader.

1. I'm really looking forward to reading Ed Catmull's Creativity, Inc.. His quotes are among the most insightful in the book.

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