Book Review: Becoming Steve Jobs

Becoming steve jobs coverBecoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

It’s on page 392 that the penny drops. Tim Cook is quoted as saying:

“I thought the [Walter] Isaacson book did him 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. You get the feeling that [Steve’s] a greedy, selfish, egomaniac. It didn’t capture the person. The person I read about there is somebody I would never have wanted to work with over all this time.”

Much has been written, since the publication of Becoming Steve Jobs, about the way Apple’s senior executives not only disliked the Isaacson book – the only authorized biography of Jobs, by an author that Jobs chose himself, and with whom he gave more than forty interviews – and how much they stand behind this new book. The Isaacson book does, indeed, portray a Steve Jobs that I would not want to have worked with. I read much of the Isaacson book, but skipped over large parts of it, because the picture it painted was so negative.

Yet perhaps this is who Steve Jobs was. In Becoming Steve Jobs, the authors point out that they wanted to show the Steve Jobs 2.0, to explain how he became a better person after going through the many events between the founding of Apple and his return to the company. Yet they say, “Of course, he could be a difficult man, even late in his life. For some people, he was hellish to work for.” But they later say that “The cliché that Steve Jobs was half genius, half asshole is based largely on his actions during the nine years that constituted his first tenure at Apple.”

Skip ahead a couple of chapters. “Steve was as erratic and verbally abusive at NeXT as he was anywhere else during his career.” So that “cliché” wasn’t just based on the first nine years? Throughout the book, this thread is omnipresent, at Apple, then at NeXT, and again at Apple.

I found it perplexing to read this sentence: “Among other things, Buddhism made him feel justified in constantly demanding nothing less than what he deemed to be ‘perfection’ from others, from the products he would create, and from himself.” As one who has practiced Buddhist meditation for some 25 years, there is nothing in Buddhist teachings that justifies demanding perfection from others; quite the contrary. Buddhism teaches a “middle way,” where one learns to find the balance between too much and too little, too harsh and too lenient. While he claims to have practiced Buddhist meditation, and even had a regular teacher, nothing in Steve Jobs’ attitude fits with anything that could be called Buddhist.

But is that all one should take away from Steve Jobs’ life? He was a man with a singular vision, and the ability to hypnotize people into believing him; the famous “reality distortion field.” He ushered in three major revolutions: the first personal computers, the iPod, which changed the way people listen to music, and the iTunes Store, which changed the way the music industry works. Add to that his success at Pixar, and Jobs is certainly one of the defining people of the past fifty years.

The book is thorough, and covers all of Jobs’ professional life, but is riddled with small errors. MacWorld is not spelled like that (it’s Macworld). Microsoft’s little paper clip assistant was called Clippy, not Clippit. Jobs didn’t banish Flash from iPhones because of a grudge (at least not entirely), but because it was unstable and a memory hog. And Microsoft Excel was not “designed from the bottom up to work with MS-DOS and then Windows,” it was first designed as a Mac app. I stopped marking errors about halfway through the book, but anyone in the business, and especially those who follow Apple, will have found quite a few others. I’ve also been told that the audiobook narrator pronounces OS X as “O S ex.”

This biography suffers from an excessive amount of chumminess. One of the authors – Brent Schlender – had a long relationship with Jobs, both as a journalist, but later as a friend. As such, he calls his subject “Steve” throughout the book, not Jobs. He includes a number of personal anecdotes, which sometimes seem like this is more a memoir than an objective biography.

And there is one important thing missing from this book. Steve Jobs is known for the objects that he helped create, and that his companies marketed. There are no pictures of any of them. Most people know what recent Macs look like, but not as many have seen an Apple 1, a NeXT computer, the first iPod, or the old candy-colored iBooks. I think this book should be full of pictures – if only black and white line graphics – to illustrate what Jobs was working on over the years, as well as other products that are mentioned in the book like the eMate and Newton.

I found this to be an easy read, if not a page-turner. For those who don’t know much about Jobs’ career, this book is be full of interesting details. It explains how Jobs was instrumental in changing the computer industry, and gives a glimpse into the evolution of personal computers.

As to whether we need another biography of Steve Jobs so soon, that all goes back to the quote on page 392 that I cited above. I wonder if this project was initiated by Apple, and not by the authors. The picture this book paints of Steve Jobs may be honest and accurate, but it’s not that much better than what Isaacson wrote. Jobs remains a man who was demanding, yet difficult, who was undoubtedly hard to work with for all but a few of his top executives. He was a complex main, who made great products.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Becoming Steve Jobs

  1. Not sure why you’d want a pic of the Newton, a product pushed by Sculley after Jobs was forced out of Apple. Jobs was responsible for killing it 11 years later, but by that time it was effectively dead anyway. Still have my MessagePad kicking around somewhere!

  2. I’m 3/4 through the book and feel much the same way, if not even more negative. I picked up the same errors (Clippit; really?) and felt the Isaacson book was much more thorough and less biased (it was still biased, but attempted in good faith to be as unbiased as possible). The whole thesis of the book is that SJ was not the demon that has been portrayed elsewhere, but there is so much of his life that is not found in the new book. It focuses on the business aspects of Jobs’ life, not surprisingly, and reads like a business case study. Several pages (at least in the Kindle edition) were wasted with the verbatim Stanford commencement speech. It was an amazing speech, but that seemed like padding the book, to me, and is so much better when taken in through the video of the actual speech.

    • Yes, it’s more a biography of Apple under Steve Jobs (other than the parts about Pixar and NeXT. You don’t get much of a feel for who he was as a person, outside of his work.

  3. Haven’t read this new book, but I did read the Walter Isaacson bio and liked it. I’ve wondered about the story, come message, in the blogs that Apple is anti Issacson/pro this new book. They were quick to sell Issacson via iBooks. How come, then, this lauded change of heart? Are we moving from the 1st Jobs approved biography into a latter-day Apple approved hagiography of the founding father? Everything I’ve read from those who knew him points to Steve Jobs being a tangential thinker, creative inventor, top salesman and a tough, moody, sometimes erratic and demanding boss. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s who he was. His products and patents are his ‘runs’ on the scoreboard, and ensue his memory and contribution will continue to be valued.

  4. I haven’t read either book, and I probably won’t, but I know Steve Jobs was an asshole without the read.

    He was the mastermind behind a conspiracy to steal wages from his own employees and others. That plot affected the salaries of a LOT of people (far more than the members of the class action suit).

    Any honest biography would cover that crime in as much detail as his accomplishments.

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