Becoming Steve Jobs searches for answers in Jobs’ wilderness years

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Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
Becoming Steve Jobs explores Steve Jobs' exile from Apple. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
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New biography Becoming Steve Jobs attempts to answer an important question: What happened to Steve Jobs during his wilderness years outside Apple that turned him from a gifted-but-impossible-to-work-with youngster into the seasoned digital emperor he would be following his return to the company he founded?

It’s a question that’s crucial to understanding Apple’s rise back to prominence from the late 1990s onward — but one that was ignored by previous Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson, whose 2011 book Steve Jobs sold a gajillion copies, but is now (perhaps unfairly) being recast as an unqualified failure.

In Isaacson’s book, these crucial years away from Apple take up just five chapters out of 42 — and that section also includes Jobs’ marriage to Laurene Powell and the birth of his children. In Becoming Steve Jobs, the lessons from that era permeate almost every page.

At this point I should get my disclosures out of the way. I am the author of The Apple Revolution, a semi-Steve Jobs biography that examines the links between Apple and the counterculture, epitomized by the famous Whole Earth Catalog, which Jobs referenced in his 2005 Stanford commencement address. I’ve also contributed to Fast Company, where Rick Tetzeli, one of  Becoming Steve Jobs’ authors, is executive editor.

But while Tetzeli clearly helped shape Becoming Steve Jobs, his co-author, Brent Schlender, really drives the narrative. With the exception of just a few other journalists, few writers enjoyed a closer relationship with Jobs, over such a sustained period of time, as Schlender. The book is written from his perspective.

Schlender first interviewed Jobs in April 1986 and questioned him dozens of times since then for publications such as Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. In the process, Jobs became a source for Schlender, and a kinda-sorta friendship developed between the two.

Meeting grounds

Schlender met the exiled Apple leader at a crucial time, when Jobs was more available to journalists than he would be after his return to Apple. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jobs was hurting, vulnerable, flailing, boastful and perfectionist — while learning all the lessons that would eventually make him great.

becoming-steve-jobs-coverThis is a great narrative through-line for a book, and the sections in which Schlender details his relationship with Jobs are Becoming Steve Jobs at its soaring best.

We hear firsthand how Jobs turned his first interview with Schlender on its head by quizzing him on his technology credentials. We get a glimpse at Jobs before the release of Toy Story, as he conducts market research with Schlender’s kids about an unfinished cut of the movie.

At the end, we hear the painful story about Jobs’ final interaction with Schlender, in which the journalist turns down a chance to have one final meeting with Jobs, when the ailing exec was far sicker than most people knew.

These stories are not only largely new to readers, but they also relate the kind of first-hand experiences that come from a lengthy relationship. They would have been impossible for Isaacson to reproduce in a short timeframe.

But Becoming Steve Jobs doesn’t just want to be the memoir of a man who knew Steve Jobs; it also wants to be the definitive Jobs biography.

Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter working on the Jobs movie scheduled for later this year, has noted that there was enough material in the Apple CEO’s life to make 10 movies instead of just one —- and the same challenge is true for any Jobs biographer. There are many facets of Jobs life: He was the product of a strange hippie-techno counterculture, a businessman, a creative visionary and a family man, just to name a few. Each “persona” could have its own book, and each naturally went through its own transitions during Jobs’ life.

Schlender and Tetzeli focus mostly on Jobs the businessman and Jobs’ personal life. There is more astute analysis of Apple’s changing strategies over the years than Isaacson attempted.

The book focuses on the way Jobs learned from the mistakes he made early in his career, and how he went on to assemble and learn from a group of talented individuals who stuck by him as he helped drive Apple back to the top of the heap. Other books (namely Randall Stross’ 1993 book  Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing) have covered the NeXT years, but none have attempted to so thoroughly extrapolate the lessons Jobs learned during this period.

Becoming Steve Jobs looks for answers in Jobs' forgotten years. Photo: Doug Menuez
Steve Jobs during his NeXT tenure. Photo: Doug Menuez
Photo: Doug Menuez

Selective history

But there are also omissions. Becoming Steve Jobs skips over many of the early stories from Apple’s life. For example, we’re spared yet another retelling of the Macintosh’s creation, a story that has already been told so well on numerous occasions. That’s generally a positive, although to presume that readers already know some stories speaks to the challenge of guessing exactly who this book’s readership is.

If you’ve read Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, or any of the other Jobs biographies, you’ll be pleased to hear that there are new details you won’t have read before. If you haven’t, you should be aware that several significant chapters of Jobs’ life are reduced to one- or two-line summaries.

The second half of the book is where the real meat lies. This was when Jobs’ lessons from NeXT and Pixar took hold, and where the authors have the opportunity to fashion a parable about how Jobs turned Apple around. That this is where our attention should lie is evidenced from the way the book is laid out: The first 40 years of Jobs’ life take up just 50 percent of the pages; the last 15 years take up the remaining half.

Many of the revelations from the latter half of the book have leaked out over the past few weeks, but readers will enjoy other neat insights. The book is helped by reflections from the likes of Tim Cook, Jony Ive, Eddy Cue and former CFO Fred Anderson — all of whom reveal details we’ve not heard before.

If there is a failing to this part of the book, it is one familiar to any biographers who gain ready access to the top people in the field they’re writing about. While Cook and pals certainly have valuable material to add, Schlender and Tetzeli can sometimes miss out on the opportunity to highlight unheard stories from people in the trenches. There are some fascinating anecdotes involving Bas Ording, the former UI designer behind the iPhone and iPad, but where are the other rank-and-file employees reflecting on life with Jobs?

Some potential readers are going to rankle at the idea that Becoming Steve Jobs is somehow the apologists’ Jobs biography. (“I’m sorry” are some of the first words attributed to Jobs on the book’s first page.) While Jobs’ negative traits aren’t ignored by the authors, they also aren’t dwelt upon. Stories of temper tantrums and bullying are few and far between.

This isn’t hagiography, but it’s easy to see why this more-palatable version of Jobs’ life gained Apple’s official endorsement.

Ultimately, I’d recommend it to readers — although not at the exclusion of other Jobs biographies. Becoming Steve Jobs exposes new aspects of Jobs’ character, but it doesn’t tell the whole picture on its own. It’s a valuable resource for anyone wanting another book about Steve Jobs, but it’s not the final word on the matter.

As Jobs was fond of saying, there’s always one more thing.