Mar 15

Becoming Steve Jobs: the authors speak

Yesterday, the authors of Becoming Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, had a little sit-down at the Soho Apple Store — with surprise guest host John Gruber.

It was a rare opportunity to get a sense of the authors’ personalities and motivations — since we normally hear of such things only through articles written by people who color the facts with their own point of view.

Kudos to Gruber for asking some probing questions and making the event run smoothly.

The truth is, any book about Steve Jobs will have a polarizing effect similar to the one generated by Steve himself. So now we have the battle of the biographies. It’s Becoming Steve Jobs (Schlender and Tetzeli) vs. Steve Jobs (Isaacson).

A few observations:

First, I love the title Becoming Steve Jobs. A book title, like the headline of an ad, is hugely important, and this one so perfectly captures the concept. Steve accomplished what he did only because of the journey that brought him back to Apple in 1997.

Few will remember at this point, but the original title for Isaacson’s book as announced was iSteve. What a horribly cute title that would have been for a life so important. While the author gets credit for changing course (at Steve’s request, we understand), he gets more demerits for considering it in the first place. It says something about the man’s sensibilities.

My interest in the new book was heightened when I saw this headline linking to a Fast Company article: The Steve Jobs you didn’t know: kind, patient, and human.

For me, it echoed what is often the first question I get from people: “What was it really like to work with Steve?”

My answer has always been “Not nearly as toxic as the Isaacson biography makes him out to be.” The truth is, everyone who worked with Steve had a unique experience, and that’s why there are so many opinions out there. Isaacson seemed to give more air time to those with bad things to say.

Taken out of context, of course, that Fast Company headline is totally false. No question, there was a good Steve and a naughty Steve. But, for me, this article was a welcome relief. For the first time, attention was being given to a side of Steve that was always there, but was never as newsworthy as his explosive side.

My experience with Steve? He was difficult, intimidating, impatient and temperamental. But he was also brilliant, charismatic, inspirational and had a great sense of humor. He was all of these things — not one or the other.

Another difference between the two books is that Isaacson is not a computer industry expert. To those who live and breathe this stuff, that was fairly apparent. I was surprised that he didn’t even refer to the NeXT Computer correctly, failing to capitalize the C.

Schlender and Tetzeli have long focused on the industry and Steve Jobs. So the foundation of their book is a deep understanding. However, they too fail to capitalize the damn C. (Look it up, guys!)

The most important difference between the books is the emphasis Schlender and Tetzeli place on NeXT and Pixar in Steve’s evolution. I can’t stress this part enough.

On several occasions, I have disagreed with John Sculley’s lament that Apple should never have driven Steve away, and that they should have kept him on in a product development role. Had that happened, there would have been no “becoming” Steve Jobs.

Steve was run out of town because he was polarizing, tempestuous, and fast depleting the company’s resources. It was by being thrust into the real world, by suffering the humiliation of being cast out of his own company, by building NeXT and Pixar, by learning to become an effective leader and businessman, that the revolutionary Steve evolved into the legendary Steve.

Both Steve Jobs and Becoming Steve Jobs share many of the same facts. But, like any two essays on the same topic, what one chooses to emphasize makes all the difference. By focusing more on Steve’s “wilderness years,” and acknowledging the man’s human side, Becoming Steve Jobs offers a deeper explanation of Steve’s evolution.

Should we be concerned that Apple itself seems to be blasting away at Isaacson’s work and praising that of Schlender and Tetzeli? Are they just biased, and trying to whitewash the record?

If you tend to see the dark side in people, perhaps.

The truth is, there is no financial motivation for Apple to do this. The masses will not buy or decline Apple products, now or in the future, based on any revelations about what made Steve Jobs tick. There can be only one motivation: to help people understand what Steve was really like.

They — like many — didn’t feel like Isaacson captured the real Steve, and that the new book is a better portrait of Steve as a complete human being. I agree.

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  • “However, they too fail to capitalize the damn C. (Look it up, guys!)” They also keep referring to “MacWorld”. That’s incorrect too.

    “Hello, my name is Shawn and I’m often pedantic.” HELLO SHAWN!


  • Gary Deezy

    Been there (in AppleWorld), and haven’t read the second of the books. But, I put a lot of stock in who Steve picked to tell his story. Just sayin…

  • Andriba

    Gary makes a good point – Isaacson was Steve Jobs’ choice to write the biography, so if corrections are needed was that choice a mistake? My reaction when I read Isaacon’s book was ‘the writer does not understand technology”, which is slightly different from “Isaacson is not a computer industry expert”. Expert or not, Isaacson is not alone in failing to appreciate the “SIGNIFICANCE” of the work done by Steve Jobs.

  • Brian Devereaux

    No mention of Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine? I imagine there’s some kind of push from Apple to support a positive Jobs narrative in Becoming Steve Jobs compared to the documentary that portrays him in a fairly bad light.

  • darlaj

    I have to imagine Steve would would have been disappointed. The the finished product is tedious, pedestrian and soporific. Isaacson managed to turn one of the most fascinating personalities and narratives of our time into something as compelling as my 10th grade history book.

  • Gary Deezy

    I don’t understand why Apple thinks it even needs to have a dog in this fight. Neither book is a direct reflection on the state of the current company, and neither one seems to harm Steve’s image in any serious way. Hosting a live talk with the authors in an Apple Store just seems odd.

    Steve picked Walter to write his story, even though he had known the other two guys for years, as well. To me, that says something in itself.

  • Gary Deezy

    I had to look up ‘soporific’.

  • Art S.

    It seems to me that this thing is way too much being seen as a competition. Like you wrote, a ‘battle of the biographies’. Like Samsung vs Apple.

    But to me its – like everything that seems substantial that I read on the web in addition to the Isaacson biography – just an addition to the knowledge that I have about this inspirational man. Instead of thinking about which is better, I rather think about how great a book it would have been if these two would have collaborated. In my mind I like to combine the two.

    Sometimes its better to forget – like the unassuming costumer – that there are two people, companies, or whatever, trying to gain a certain market share or profit, and just to let the two books be companions, trying, in there own way, to get the story across.

    Personally I don’t think that the new book is even in the least as detailed as the Isaacson book. Its rather a filler. And thats exactly my point: the person that wants to get the most out of this extraordinary person should read BOTH biographies – without thinking that one is better than the other, but rather that one complements the other.

  • ksegall

    I agree. Except that I’d expand on that, and say that anyone wishing to understand what Steve Jobs was all about should read all the things that have been written about him. The truth is out there—i’s just not all in one place.

    I’ve met people who have loathed working in a place where I loved working. It all depends on personal experience. Similarly, everyone who knew Steve or worked with him has their own perspective.

    So, yeah — the two books complement each other. And the tons of other things we’ve read should not be discounted either. Like a good juror, we should all make our judgment based on the “preponderance of the evidence.”

  • dcar

    It is just not possible for someone to write a book or make
    a film that could even put a dent in my admiration for Steve.
    He was a brilliant, arrogant, complicated man. I believe
    his need to be the best stems from his early life, his parents
    gave him away! He had wonderful adoptive parents but
    can you ever get pass the fact, your parents gave you
    away. Teenage girls have their rock stars. Steve and
    Bill Gates are my rock stars. Could not count the ways
    those two have enriched my life. When Steve died, it was
    like a death in my family. Life is just not as interesting
    without Steve!