Would Steve Jobs Have Liked the New Biography? I Don’t Think So

From my days at Apple, I knew Steve pretty well. Here’s my take on the Schlender-Tetzeli bio.

I suspect that Steve Jobs would not be thrilled with Becoming Steve Jobs, a new business biography by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. While it’s a worthwhile book filled with previously unheard stories and insightful industry analysis, Steve would have disliked it because of the persistent negative spin it applies to the first half of his career. That’s why it’s puzzling to see Apple throw their considerable weight behind it.

There have been dozens of books already written about Steve Jobs, including Walter Isaacson’s best-selling, magisterial biography, which is based on over 40 exclusive interviews with the man himself. Becoming Steve Jobs distinguishes itself by emphasizing a narrative of growth and change, depicting “the evolution of a reckless upstart into a visionary leader.” Unfortunately, the authors attempt to bolster their case by exaggerating flaws and missteps in the first half of Steve’s career while diminishing them after his return to Apple in 1997.

I was surprised and chagrined by the negative tone pervading the description of Steve’s first tenure at Apple, which is somehow both a “management mess” and the fastest growing company ever. Mike Markkula is an early mentor “for better or worse.” When Steve, inspired by his visit to Xerox PARC, decides to attempt to bring the graphical user interface to the masses, he has to “deliver on this promise within the gnawing confines of Apple.”

Jobs and Hertzfeld at Steve Wozniak’s wedding, 1981. Photo courtesy Andy Hertzfeld.

Huh? In the early days of Apple, Steve helped instigate the personal computer industry with the Apple II, starting from scratch, and then revolutionized it again with the Macintosh, achievements which would be the most significant of a lifetime for practically anyone else. The authors hardly interviewed any Apple employees from the early days, so there’s no new reporting here to justify their negativity; they seem to be trashing Steve’s early career simply to accentuate the contrast with his later one.

At this point I should confess my bias, because I was an early Apple employee who had the privilege of working closely with Steve Jobs on the original Macintosh (and also wrote a book about the experience, Revolution in the Valley, available for free here), so perhaps I’m unduly sensitive. I adore the early Apple Computer that Brent and Rick belittle, so I’m writing this piece to defend it.

The most scathing remarks are reserved for Steve’s time at NeXT. The following brutally honest passage would have been courageous to write if Steve was still around:

“Steve was in fact slave to so much else: to his celebrity, to his unbalanced and obsessive desire for perfection in the most innocuous of details, to his managerial flightiness and imperiousness, to his shortcomings as an analyst of his own industry, to his burning need for revenge, and to his own blindness to these faults. He was immature and adolescent in so many ways — egocentric, unrealistically idealistic, and unable to manage the ups and downs of real relationships.”

The agenda flips after Steve returns to Apple a few years later. Now it’s time to obscure problems instead of waxing lyrical about them. The main strategy is to simply ignore unpleasant episodes, or to sweep them into a single chapter near the end, entitled “Blind Spots, Grudges, and Sharp Elbows,” so they don’t have to tarnish the main chronological account.

In my opinion, their central thesis is simplistic and trite. A reckless upstart can be a visionary leader — in fact, they’re usually the best kind. Of course Steve matured and gained wisdom and insight as he grew older — most people do. “Visionary leader,” the thing he purportedly became, is an apt description of his role on the Mac team in 1981. Ed Catmull suggests that Steve learned to value teamwork by observing the incredible team at Pixar, but in truth his entire career was built on deep collaborations, starting with Steve Wozniak and the Apple II and then with the original Mac team, where he participated in an intense collaboration with more than a dozen passionate colleagues.

Other factors underlying Steve’s remarkable late career success are barely considered. I wish the authors had spent more time looking at the effect of Steve’s illness on his work or explored how Steve’s knack for provoking exquisite design became more valuable in the 21st century as individuals supplanted companies at the center of the tech industry.

Even so, Becoming Steve Jobs is worth reading, because it’s packed with interesting stories that haven’t been told before, including Brent’s personal encounters with Steve and his family and thoughtful observations from crucial collaborators like Jony Ive, John Lasseter, Regis McKenna, Eddie Cue and others; John Lasseter’s story of his final visit with Steve almost made me cry. It isn’t nearly as comprehensive as the Isaacson book, but it doesn’t have to be.

Apple CEO Tim Cook makes a dramatic appearance in the book’s final chapter, recounting how he offered an ailing Steve part of his liver in early 2009. He interprets Steve’s immediate, vehement refusal as evidence that Steve wasn’t selfish, but it’s more likely that he didn’t want to endanger his successor.

But then Tim proceeds to gratuitously disparage Walter Isaacson’s book, declaring “I thought the Isaacson book did Steve a tremendous disservice. It was just a rehash of a bunch of stuff that had already been written, and focused on small parts of his personality.”

That’s a rather strange remark, because Walter’s book is brimming with a huge trove of never before revealed, intimate details of Steve’s life. But instead of challenging Tim’s obviously erroneous claim, the authors exacerbate it, mentioning that Tim “echoed the feelings of many of Steve’s close friends.” Jony Ive, in a recent New Yorker profile, joined the chorus, saying his regard for the Isaacson book “couldn’t be any lower.”

What’s going on here? This sentiment is obviously extremely convenient for Brent and Rick, since it provides a raison d’etre for their book, but that doesn’t explain why Apple is going out of their way to promote it, especially given the sour treatment of early Apple and NeXT. My regard for Tim Cook and Jony Ive couldn’t be any higher, so I think they are somehow trying to do what they think is best for Steve’s legacy and family.

Steve Jobs got the biography that he wanted and deserved: a best selling, well written, unbiased, comprehensive account of his life and work by the biographer of Einstein and Franklin. As much as he valued simplicity, Steve was a complicated man, full of contradictions, so there’s plenty of room for many different takes on his life and legacy. Despite its flaws, Becoming Steve Jobs is another worthwhile, but by no means definitive, addition to the canon.

Cover photo by Tom Munnecke/Getty

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