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Becoming Steve Jobs biography: ‘Much of it was chutzpah and self delusion’

Nails the man, but leaves you nostalgic

By Adam Banks, 24 Mar 2015

Page File Hotly-trailed biography Becoming Steve Jobs is the first major book on the turtlenecked Apple godhead since Walter Isaacson’s authorised bio.

Written by US business journalist Brent Schlender with help from Fast Company editor Rick Tetzeli, primarily in the first person, it arrives strapped Major Kong-style to its own redlining bullshit meter – thanks to the kind of scorched-earth marketing blitz that even the Apple CEO would never have stooped to.

Steve Jobs and Chiat/Day's Lee Clow at an advertising awards show that honoured the Apple '1984' Superbowl ad.

Steve Jobs and Chiat/Day's Lee Clow at an advertising awards show that honoured the Apple '1984' Superbowl campaign. Image courtesy of Lee Clow

Stop me if you’ve already seen the most striking revelations buzzfed into scream heads on all your favourite techbait sites for the last three weeks, but the real surprise is that this turns out to be a Jobs book well worth your eyeballs. Not that it’ll make you think differently: as Schlender frankly admits, "Every cliché is built on some truth", including the cliché that "Steve Jobs was half genius, half asshole".

But rarely has anecdote and insight rotoscoped such a high-resolution model of the exact kind of genius, the exact kind of asshole.

As recounted to Schlender by philanthropist Larry Brilliant, Jobs visits a Californian hotel called the Garden of Allah – a notable image in itself given Jobs’ Syrian Arab parentage, although the name was not a direct reference to Islam, which he never followed – for a meeting of a charity board that includes Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Ram Dass, author of Hippie bible Be Here Now.

Gathering of the Seva Foundation in 1979

Gathering of the Seva Foundation in 1979 – Jobs (not pictured) donated $5,000 to the cause. His close friend Larry Brilliant is in the centre with his baby boy. Indian opthamologist Dr. Venkataswamy – whose operations to prevent blindness were funded by Seva – stands to left of Wavy Gravy (sitting with propeller hat). Ram Dass, author of besteller Be Here Now, squats to the far left. Image courtesy of the Seva Foundation.

Frustrated with the naïvety of the assembled do-gooders, Jobs starts explaining why they need to hire a marketing expert, and when they won’t listen he storms out – only to be found by Brilliant slumped in his open-top Mercedes, crying. It is 1979, and Steve Jobs is just 24 years old.

Six years later, his company has IPO’d – making Jobs a quarter of a billion dollars on paper – and then immediately implodes, partly due to his own bad choices, leaving him cashed out with $70m. Susan Barnes, one of the Apple pirates who jumped ship with him to form NeXT, recalls distant doors banging in the wind during a 1985 meeting. Jobs instinctively looks around the room for an employee he can blame for it. He can’t: they’re in his own home.

In a contemporary TV interview, he’s asked whether the 17,000 square foot mansion has curtains. He doesn’t know.

Pixar HQ in Emeryville

Pixar HQ in Emeryville nicknamed 'Steve's Movie' by the employees as he invested so much time in its creation – he was particularly proud of the wall ahead that had been meticulously arranged to appear as a random pattern – image courtesy of Brent Schlender

Ten years after the Garden of Allah, the author visits NeXT’s state-of-the-art Silicon Valley factory. The assembly robots – not the product, the machines that will build the product – are hand-finished in shades of grey specified by Jobs. There are enough of them to build 600 workstations a day. The factory will never make 600 a month: thanks to Jobs’ perfectionism, prices are twice what customers will pay.

"Chutzpah and self-delusion," summarises Schlender. But later he’s impressed by Pixar’s Emeryville studio, also designed under Jobs’ direction, down to the unique colouring of the bricks and the provenance of the girders, and thought through in terms of how people would cross each other’s paths during their days. "He was lovingly crafting a place to work in," explains Pixar’s Ed Catmull. Schlender’s editors decline to run a piece on the building because it isn’t showy enough.

Steve is such a product guy, driving with the top down in "his brand-new Mercedes-Benz 450SL", which "he loved the way he loved his Linn-Sondek audiophile turntable and his Ansel Adams platinum prints". He almost ruins Pixar trying to run it as a hardware maker. But the epiphany comes when he goes to SIGGRAPH 86 with director John Lasseter and sees the audience’s reaction to Lasseter’s demo film, Luxo Jr. "That immediate response" to the humanity of the story is what switches his focus from computers to movies – and ultimately makes his first billion.

Valley politics

Of the few previous books about the man rather than the company, Jeffrey Young and William Simon’s iCon (2005) was written against its subject’s wishes, and ended up publicly vilified by Apple; Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (2011) was written with its subject’s full co-operation, and ended up publicly vilified by Apple.

Steve Jobs with OS X interface designers in 2001 shortly before the beta release

Steve Jobs with OS X interface designers in 2001 shortly before the beta release. Image: Brent Schlender

That vilification has been resurrected in praise of Schlender and Tetzeli, with the official iBooks account tweeting that "Becoming Steve Jobs is the only book about Steve recommended by the people who knew him best". More uroboric still, Jobs’ successor Tim Cook is quoted in the very pages of this book dissing Isaacson’s as "just a rehash of a bunch of stuff that had already been written".

This is awkward, because Becoming Steve Jobs, despite touting its authors’ access to Jobs (not something the official biographer lacked), also relies on a great deal of rehashing. This makes it a better book for anyone who only wants to read one book, but if you’ve read some of the others – Owen Linzmayer’s Apple Confidential 2.0, Steven Levy’s Insanely Great, Adam Lashinsky’s Inside Apple, Steve Wozniak’s iWoz, Michael Moritz’s The Little Kingdom – you’ll find a lot here that’s familiar, meticulously credited in the endnotes. And, yes, the book list includes Isaacson’s too.

Avie Tevanian joined NeXT from university and worked for Jobs for 16 years

Avie Tevanian joined NeXT from university and worked for Jobs for 16 years. A framed set of OS discs was given to him on his promotion to Chief Software Technical Office at Apple in 2003
Image courtesy of Weng-Yu Chan

What with the borrowing, the padding and the co-authoring, Becoming Steve Jobs feels haphazardly constructed in places – more Becoming Becoming Steve Jobs. Emerging from a chunk of narrative, you’re often led through a disquisition on its ramifications, and completing this is no guarantee you won’t find yourself looping back to the same storyline later, with further interpretation. Efforts to impose editorial order are still visible between uncorrected proof and final cut, including the replacement of evocative chapter titles with merely descriptive, as if the reader might stray without a signpost.

But Schlender’s incisive prose always brings enough reward to keep you going. He’s sound on the computer industry stuff, despite the occasional technical infelicity (Jobs didn’t see his first computer with a "bitmapped screen" for the first time at Xerox in 1979 – he was already selling one, the Apple II – and it’s not clear what’s meant by comparing 1985’s million-transistor memory chips with dies that hold "128 trillion discrete elements").

Steve Jobs presents the iPod to an audience of press and Apple employees

Steve Jobs presents the iPod to an audience of press and Apple employees at Apple's Town Hall on 23rd October 2001. Image: Brent Schlender

There’s depth and detail on the conception of the iPod user experience, the gestation of the iPad and iPhone, and the birth of the Apple Store. If there are times when his assessment of motivation or causation overreaches, he always finds a toehold in fact.

And he pulls no punches. Later, Cook defends Jobs’ participation – along with Catmull and others – in the Silicon Valley wage-fixing scandal. Schlender prints Cook’s defence: "I don’t think for a minute he thought he was doing anything bad." Then he points out that this "ignores the simple fact that making such an agreement... is illegal. Steve, apparently, couldn’t be bothered even with acknowledging those rules".

My biggest problem with Isaacson’s biography was staying awake. With Schlender’s, it was getting through a page without stopping to note something illuminating.

Brent Schlender with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs

Brent Schlender with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in 1991. Image courtesy of George Lange

Besides Jobs, Schlender is good on Bill Gates, again from personal experience: "Some young men and women are bred for corporate life – Bill Gates comes to mind. Steve was not." But just as Jobs, particularly in the early days, heartlessly punches down ("Steve didn’t know how to deal with people who didn’t have power," explains the more sensitive Catmull), Gates will snap at employees: "That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard."

Jobs, however, only gradually acquires Gates’ ability to disguise his contempt for people he needs to do business with. NeXT loses a lucrative IBM partnership because Jobs treats IBM’s people like dirt. Microsoft’s IBM deal falls apart for the more mundane reason that they can’t agree on what OS/2 is supposed to be.

Software chief Avie Tevanian with Steve Jobs

Software chief Avie Tevanian with Steve Jobs. Image: Brent Schlender

But Gates trounces Jobs in hardware by understanding that corporates want speed and reliability, not innovation, and the rising tide of Wintel capability will wash away the high-end workstation market to which Jobs, trying to make a virtue of an obligation not to compete with Apple, has hitched NeXT.

The personal touch

The irony, notes Schlender perceptively, is that in "tak[ing] the personal right out of computing", Gates "left an opening... for someone who preferred creating machines that delighted real people".

Technical hitch: rehearsals for MacWorld Tokyo 2001 – Jobs with Phil Schiller

Technical hitch: rehearsals for MacWorld Tokyo 2001 – Jobs with Phil Schiller. Image: Brent Schlender

Real people haven’t been Jobs’ strong point in many work-based portrayals. Schlender, who met him and his family over a span of many years, bluntly acknowledges the social failings, but also captures a relatable side. What first manifests itself as a slightly creepy interest in others’ personal lives emerges as what marketing guru and mentor Regis McKenna identifies as a yearning for "the family thing".

The same "spoiled brat" whose favourite management technique, multiple employees attest here, was "yelling and screaming" "used to come over and just sit at the kitchen table with me and my wife", recalls McKenna. Later he would organise family picnics with volleyball and burgers. In a photo taken at one of these with the author and his young daughter, Jobs is barefoot, as he often is throughout the book, not just in his globe-trotting, acid-tripping 1970s.

Steve Jobs at MacWorld Tokyo on 22nd February 2001 – he wears a suit for this audience

A suited Steve Jobs at MacWorld Tokyo on 22nd February 2001. Image: Brent Schlender

"I kept losing my train of thought, and started feeling a little giddy," Jobs tells Schlender, recalling the first time he saw his wife Laurene, at a Stanford talk he was delivering. Within a year, he’d proposed. Both having achieved success from modest middle-class beginnings, they brought up their kids as "normal" rather than rich, in a regular-sized home that Lasseter called the "Hansel and Gretel house". They expanded the plot only to extend their flower and vegetable garden. Another photo shows Steve, Laurene and their kids goofing around in swimsuits. It almost feels too much, like interrupting a private moment.

The same could have been true of the extensive coverage of Jobs’ illness, which includes new details, including Tim Cook’s offer – related in his own words – of donating part of his liver for a transplant, having had tests that suggested a rare match. But this is well handled, informative and poignant.

Katie Cotton, Head of communications at Apple for 18 years decided who got to talk to Steve. She probably made sure The Reg stopped getting invited to events too

Katie Cotton, Head of communications at Apple for 18 years retired in 2014. She decided who got to talk to Steve. She probably made sure The Reg stopped getting invited to events too. Image: Brent Schlender

On the day he’s due to close the $7.4bn sale of Pixar with Disney’s Bob Iger, Jobs takes Iger aside and admits his cancer is back. "They tell me I’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of living five years... My kids don’t know. Not even the Apple board knows... and you can’t tell anybody. I’m telling you because I’m giving you a chance to back out of the deal."

Becoming Steve Jobs, book cover

Telling the tale to Schlender, Iger recalls that this was in a post-Enron world of tightly scrutinised corporate responsibility, "and I’m now being asked to bury a secret. Basically, thanks." Yet he comes up with a legal rationalisation and goes ahead – largely because of his personal relationship with Jobs. Schlender, whose own serious illness brought the two men closer, is put on the spot himself when Jobs has to cancel a painstakingly arranged round table with Gates, Intel’s Andy Grove and Michael Dell, but doesn’t want to tell them he’s ill. "Just tell them I’m being an asshole," he advises. "That’s what they’ll be thinking anyway."

In reality, Gates has a more nuanced view of a sparring partner who, in their previous joint interview, made a point of denying reports that he didn’t consider him a friend. "So many of the people who want to be like Steve have the asshole side down," he tells Schlender. "What they’re missing is the genius part."

Steve Jobs with Andy Grove at Stanford University in 2007

Steve Jobs with Andy Grove at Stanford University in 2007. Grove, former CEO of Intel was a significant behind the scenes advisor to Jobs. However, back in 1997 when Jobs phoned for advice on becoming iCEO of Apple, Grove growled, "Steve, I don't give a shit about Apple." Image courtesy of Denise Amantea

But it’s the third element, the human, that Schlender and Tetzeli have managed to bottle, and it’s the focus on "becoming" that nails it. The "adolescent rock star" who thought he knew everything succeeded in the end not by imposing his will, but by "learning to manage himself". Setting up the recurring theme of Jobs’ inveterate self-mythologising, the book’s prologue concludes lyrically with him standing on the porch of the new NeXT headquarters, then adds a kicker:

"As I drove away, he was lingering there still, staring at his hundred-grand logo. He knew in his bones, as he would say, that he was about to do something great. In reality, of course, he had no idea what was ahead of him." ®

Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, Becoming Steve Jobs book coverAuthor Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli
Title Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader
Publisher Sceptre
Price £25 (Hardback)
More info Publication web site

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