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Review

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader

– Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

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He has always been defined to me as an abusive, irascible employer with a bloated ego – in other words, an ars—ole. He denied paternity of his own daughter, Lisa and when even DNA tests proved him to be her father, he was unrelenting. In spite of being a multi-millionaire by then, he was reported to be a cheapskate, affording Lisa’s mother only $350 a month as support.

At the slightest perception of a slight, he was known to harbor a grudge and act vindictively, not only against those he considered his adversaries but with friends and colleagues as well. This is even though he himself had turned slighting others into an art form. An insomniac, he phoned colleagues at all odd hours, sometimes to just bounce an idea off them, that could have easily waited till the next morning. Except for a select one or two, the rest had to endure this pervasive control over even their private lives.

He made arriving late for a meeting a habit, sometimes keeping captains of Silicon Valley waiting for an hour and then strolling in wearing nothing but a dirty T-shirt, torn jeans and flip-flops. Once when Bill Gates, by then already a billionaire and without doubt the most eminent personality in the IT world, arrived for a meeting, he was kept waiting for an hour before our man showed up – barefoot.

He formed an impression of others pretty quickly, sometimes within the first few minutes of introduction. If he felt that you wouldn’t be able to bring anything to the table, he dismissed you, refusing to even acknowledge your presence, making it clear he had no time for you, referring to you later as a ‘bozo’ or a ‘doperino’.

Even CEOs weren’t spared. Once during a heated phone conversation, he famously shouted at Bob Iger’s predecessor, the CEO of Disney – Michael Eisner,’ Go f–k yourself, Bozo!’

Repeatedly in the initial years, he proved that he had atrocious business sense. The company he founded had a wrong business model, addressing the wrong market segment and sure enough, it went into a tailspin. He was sacked by the board, which prompted him to start a new company, NeXT, which bombed too.

The greatest precept of success in business – developing market research tools to identify a growing consumer need and then filling that demand – escaped him. Instead, his philosophy was to create a need – to make products that had never existed before and which consumers didn’t even know they needed.

Unlike other captains of the industry, he had neither a bachelors or any other advanced degree, nor had he studied business management as a post-graduate diploma. The term ‘Ivy League’ meant nothing to him. He based all his decisions, not on business models but on raw gut instincts.

He did not have even a single personality trait that a good man manager or a successful businessman needed to have in order to succeed, if one went by what business schools taught and yet, by the time he died of pancreatic cancer in 2011 at the age of 56, the company he had created would become the world’s most valuable business entity, with assets worth over $230 billion and cash reserves totaling more than $180 billion. Today, you can be a millionaire by owning just 7000 shares of Apple.

He was known to be an intemperate egotist and a very difficult boss to work with and yet when he was cancer-stricken and stuck in a limbo on California’s waiting list for liver transplants, an employee (who later became his successor – Tim Cook) made an astonishing offer – to donate a part of his own liver to him. He refused the offer.

There never was and probably never will be another man like Steve Jobs.

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Becoming Steve Jobs is not the only biography of the Apple founder. Three weeks after he passed on in 2011, the first one (Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson), believed to have been commissioned by Jobs himself, was published. It is the only other biography of Steve Jobs available so far.

Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs followed it’s subject from his beginnings as an anti-social teenage engineer to his life as CEO of the world’s most valuable company. Jobs himself is said to have had an active role in its writing, insisting on offering Isaacson hours of interviews, claiming that he didn’t have ‘any skeletons in my closet that can’t be allowed out’ and urging business rivals and colleagues, as well as friends and even former girlfriends, to cooperate with author’s queries. I don’t know if this exhortation on his part to ‘let the chips fall where they will’ is the reason why the Isaacson biography has turned out to be more unflattering than otherwise.

Isaacson’s book presented an exhaustive account of Jobs – not just as a visionary who brought an artist’s imagination to the world of technology, but also as an appalling jerk who was charm itself one minute and a high-handed, vengeful bully the next, leaving the negatives seeming more pronounced than his virtues. Cool, I tried reading it but somehow I couldn’t find the enthusiasm to finish it. 

Becoming Steve Jobs, in comparison, is a page-turner. One feels compelled to turn night into day and read on right till the end. Jobs himself might have commissioned Isaacson’s version but I find ‘Becoming…’ a far racier and smoother read.  It seems more like a memoir and a story, than a biography. At the post-Jobs Apple Inc., it’s CEO (Jobs’ successor Tim Cook) and most Apple insiders feel the same way too.

In the run-up to publication, the company’s head designer, Sir Jony Ive, told a journalist that his regard “couldn’t be lower” for the Isaacson book. Tim Cook was openly critical of it, accusing Isaacson of making Jobs look like a man ‘I would never have wanted to work with over all this time’. The message from the company was clear – Schlender and Tetzeli’s Becoming Steve Jobs was the version of it’s founder’s life that Apple wanted you to read. Apple called it the ‘only book about Steve recommended by the people who knew him best’.

I suspect that, with his direct access to Jobs during the writing of the bio, Isaacson may have pissed off Cook and the other brass.  On the other hand, Schlender had literally grown up with Jobs, being approximately the same age and having known him for more than three decades during which time he was careful to cultivate Cook and other honchos and even developed a warm and personal rapport with his wife, Laurene.

As for me, since I didn’t finish the Isaacson book (and I don’t intend to – no one particular man fascinates me that much), I shall refrain from pursuing a similar exhortation.

However if I can make a further comparison between the two books, based upon only the portion of Isaacson’s book that I read, I would say that the Schlender biography (Becoming Steve Jobs) is a tremendously entertaining overview of the genesis and the growth of the personal computing industry, while the Isaacson version is a more detailed and personal biography.

If you haven’t followed the story of Apple before, Becoming Steve Jobs contains many useful insights and revelations that will help you understand where the company came from, how it almost collapsed and how critical Jobs was to its transformation into a smartphone and tablet colossus.

Becoming Steve Jobs however does end up looking like a concerted attempt at rehabilitating Steve Jobs’ arrogant and irascible personality and making him look more human.

Though Schlender says that he could never call himself a personal friend of Jobs, he did spend three decades as a Fortune tech columnist who kept bumping into the Apple founder, at openings and galas, inaugurals and launches, parties and conferences, the first meeting being an interview when he was with the WSJ, in 1986.

The two men developed a rapport that lasted well into the new millennium but Schlender describes it as a ‘long and complicated’ interaction, in which both remained on friendly terms even though ‘there was never a minute where the basic terms of our relationship weren’t clear – I was the reporter, he was the source and subject’.

When they first met for the 1986 interview, Jobs had been fired from Apple a year prior and had started what he liked to tout as the computer industry’s ‘next big thing’ – a company called NeXT which wanted to produce powerful machines that would bring 3-D modelling and advanced graphics to universities and scientific establishments. He had also bought the embryonic animation company, Pixar, from the Star Wars/Indiana Jones wizard, George Lucas. Becoming Steve Jobs begins with that first meeting.

Subsequently, Schlender was the only journalist ever, who could bring the two joint-founders (and bitter rivals) of the personal computing industry in America, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, together for an interview – an interesting get-together that Schlender has written at length about in his book. In the process he offers up a fascinating comparison of their individual styles of doing business.

NeXT turned out to be a disaster and only because Jobs had a business model that was doomed – his target customer base, the universities and research labs, survived on the government and private grants and endowments which in turn ebbed and flowed on vagaries of available funding and could not always find the dough to be able to buy the expensive NeXT computing system. Secondly, when it was launched the NeXT had multiple bugs in it, not the least of which was a weak processor.

In comparison, Steve Jobs’ rival, Bill Gates, went in the other direction – the far larger consumer market. Immensely helped by the economies of scale, Gates ended up becoming richer than most third-world nations.

Becoming Steve Jobs is a very interesting read, with some new titbits on his life that I hadn’t come across before. However, it does have one thing in common with the Isaacson version – it does not bring any closure, nor any unified theory on the baffling question of how an arrogant, intemperate, imperious, self- absorbed egomaniac who chose to work with all the wrong business models, could succeed in creating the most successful and admired company on the planet, changing the everyday lives of billions of people from varied socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures.

This book (and the Isaacson version too) does the reader one service though – It encourages us to realize that business models and timing may be important but perhaps there is something else that you must have to be if you want to go down in history as a pioneering genius – a jerk.

I could be that. Becoming Steve Jobs has given me renewed hope.

So, if we bump into each other and I tell you to ‘go f—k yourself, Bozo’, I hope you’ll understand.