The question is, do we really need another biography of Steve Jobs? After all, when Jobs learned he was dying, he decided to commission an ‘official biography’ of himself. And the person he selected was Walter Isaacson, who had earlier written a biography of Albert Einstein, which Jobs evidently considered appropriate credentials for the task.
Isaacson produced a biography of Jobs, which was highly acclaimed, even called ‘magisterial’. It was essentially a play in two acts. Act I: An odious but very talented jerk revolutionises the world of computers, becomes rich and famous in the process, but finally gets slung out of his own company for being totally obnoxious. Act II: Ten years later, odious but talented jerk is invited back by the company to save it from extinction. He turns it around, and then goes on to give us a succession of dazzling products that transform the worlds of computing, music, telephony and publishing, respectively, making the company humongously successful in the process. He, however, continues to be totally obnoxious, but because he’s so successful, that’s okay now.
Isaacson’s biography was a bestseller, but Apple insiders hated it. Tim Cook said the book “did (Jobs) a tremendous disservice”; Jony Ives added, “My regard (for the book) couldn’t be any lower”. It perhaps all comes down to the issue of Steve Jobs’s legacy and its effect on Apple’s corporate brand. And the result is this new biography by Schendler (a self-confessed Jobs admirer) and Tetzeli, who reportedly got unprecedented corporate support from Apple for the book.
The way Schendler and Tetzeli tell it, there was a vital chapter missing in Isaacson’s narrative, in between Act I and Act II. Let us, for convenience’s sake, call it Act I, Scene II, that is, the part after Jobs got slung out of Apple in 1985, when he was running Next Computers and Pixar. And this, according to the authors, was the crucial transformatory phase in Jobs’s life, which they therefore focus on in some detail.
Thus we read about how Jobs started out at Next Computers in his typical enfant terrible style, spending ridiculous amounts of time and money on irrelevant details like the factory’s aesthetic detailing. But it was when he bought Pixar that adulthood began to set in, belatedly. The reason, essentially, was Pixar’s team, led by Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, who were creative heavyweights in their own right, more experienced in the field than Jobs, and therefore possessed of a robust self-confidence. They generally did what they thought was right, without letting themselves get shoved around by Jobs. (Let’s not forget Jobs’s original vision for Pixar was for it to be a graphics technology player, not unlike Silicon Graphics, the cult company of that era, which subsequently went bankrupt).
It was Jobs’s interactions with this seasoned team of creative stars over that ten-year period that apparently brought about the transformation, from insufferable corporate brat to mature corporate visionary. It was from this experience that “he really learned, albeit slowly and reluctantly, and against his natural instincts, that sometimes the best management technique is to forego micro-management and give good talented people the room they need to succeed”. The result, Schendler and Tetzeli tell us, was that the Steve Jobs who went back to resuscitate Apple in 1997 was a very different person from the tantrum-throwing a**hole who got kicked out in 1985. After all, as Apple CEO Tim Cook explains, if Jobs had continued to be an a**hole in this new avatar, Cook himself would not have stuck around at Apple, life being too short for that.
So who was the real Steve Jobs of the later years? Was he Isaacson’s odious but very talented jerk—older now, but no wiser? Or was he, indeed, Schendler and Tetzeli’s mellowed, empathetic, supportive, enlightened—and almost cuddly—leader of creative cohorts?
Perhaps, as is usually the case, the truth lies midway between these positions (although even Schendler and Tetzeli find it necessary to slip in a chapter, titled Blind Spots, Grudges and Sharp Elbows). I, perhaps perversely, find Isaacson’s version infinitely more appealing: Steve Jobs, the nasty human being, who humiliates underlings, steals other people’s ideas, and drives colleagues to nervous collapse, yet is, at the same time, a genius who transforms the world with his brilliant products, and builds the most successful corporation of our times. Somehow, that magnificent contradiction makes Jobs so much more interesting a personality, regardless of what Apple’s management may want me to think.