Book Review: Becoming Steve Jobs

Updated October 14th, 2020.

Becoming Steve Jobs:
The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader.

By Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli.

In Becoming Steve Jobs, tech journalists Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli document Steve Jobs’ growth and development as a person and consequently as a better leader of companies. It’s a far more humanizing book than Walter Isaacson’s flat portrayal of Jobs as half jerk, half genius in his 2011 authorized biography, Steve Jobs, though Isaacson’s book covers more ground. I found Becoming Steve Jobs to be an interesting contrast to Isaacson’s book, and I recommend reading them both.

Becoming Steve Jobs tells several well-known (and some not-so-well-known) stories about Steve Jobs, but with a twist: the stories are used to describe Jobs’ mindset and maturity at various stages of his career rather than provide a chronicle of milestones and dates. It describes the young Steve Jobs’ immaturity and lack of tact when dealing with others, the lessons learned by being demoted at his own company, the insights gained from Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, and finally the older, wiser, gentler, grown-up version of Jobs, the one whose second go-round at Apple led to the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. The authors make a case for Jobs maturing significantly during the ten “wilderness years” between his disgraced exit from Apple and his return when Apple purchased Jobs’ new company, appropriately named “NeXT.” They do a good job of that, and it an easy argument to accept.

Maturation did not strip Jobs of idealism, nor of his desire to do great work. Nor did it turn him into someone all sweet and cuddly. But maturation– and Jobs’ experiences with NeXT and Pixar– did show Jobs that sometimes patience is rewarded. It also showed him that one can’t do everything by oneself. Toward the end of the book, when his cancer comes back and he knows his time is short, Jobs prunes away distractions until his life is work, family, and friendships– with everything else left in the hands of trusted, capable people.

Interestingly, though this is a story of growth and maturity, it never paints Jobs as egomaniacal or even selfish. Even his return to Apple was not about him, not about a second chance for Jobs. That experience, according to the authors, was strictly about saving the company that Jobs had never stopped believing in– or loving. Jobs was careful to not make it “about him,” to the point of not wanting to narrate the “Think Different” TV ad (the voice-over was by Richard Dreyfuss).

Bonus: here is the same ad, narrated by Steve Jobs. It never aired in this version, at Jobs’ request.

Becoming Steve Jobs does an excellent job of explaining how luck played a significant role in Jobs’ successes. For example:

Jobs bought the Computer Graphics Division of LucasFilm from George Lucas (of “Star Wars” fame) for its 3D computer graphics technology and expertise. The CG Division was known at the time for its “Renderman” software that made realistic-looking 3D surfaces, and it was being used to provide computer-generated imagery (CGI) for George Lucas’ movies. Jobs, intrigued and impressed by the realism that Renderman produced, wanted the software and the talented people who made it, so he bought it from Lucas and renamed it Pixar. Unbeknownst to Jobs, though, Pixar’s super-smart, super-creative people didn’t just want to make software and do CGI for other people’s films. What they really, really, really wanted to do was make full-length animated movies themselves. The eventual result? Toy Story, a deal with Disney, several more movies, and eventually a sale to Disney that made Steve Jobs Disney’s biggest shareholder.

Speaking of luck, it’s pure luck that LucasFilms’ Computer Graphics Division was for sale in the first place. It was 1986, and George Lucas needed money. He and his wife had divorced in 1983, and he didn’t have ready money for his payments, so he had to sell a few things to generate cash. Without the divorce, LucasFilms’ Computer Graphics Division mightn’t have been for sale, and there might never have been a Pixar. Steve Jobs should have written the ex-Mrs. Lucas a thank-you note.

Another lucky move had to do with NeXT, the company that Jobs started after leaving Apple in 1985. The company was supposed to make “the next great computer” but it was overpriced and never found a market. By 1993 NeXT was down to making software, not machines. NeXT was running out of money and would probably have failed in another few years– unless they managed to get someone else to buy them. Incredibly, NeXT found a buyer in Apple. The story there is Apple needed an operating system that didn’t crash, (with features to match Microsoft’s Windows) and was looking outside its walls after years of trying to write an operating system in-house. Jean-Louis Gassee, a former Apple Vice President, had started a company called “Be” and its BeOS was thought to be Apple’s Number One choice– but Gassee over-played his hand, and Apple looked elsewhere. Under tremendous pressure to get a deal done as Apple was about to go under itself, Apple bought NeXT for more than $400 million in 1996. Suddenly, Jobs’ failing NeXT company had a buyer, and Jobs had a new job as a “Special Advisor” to Apple CEO Gil Amelio. It wasn’t long before the Board fired Amelio and asked Jobs to take his place.

None of that happens without Apple flopping around for years, trying– and failing– to make an operating system themselves. None of that happens without Jean-Louis Gassee failing to close the deal with Apple. None of that happens without NeXT being eager to be purchased because it was itself failing. Three things had to fail, and all at the same time, for Jobs to get back to Apple– and it did. Jobs came out smelling like a rose. You can’t make this stuff up.

Becoming Steve Jobs describes some of Jobs’ failures, and these help dispel the notion of Jobs having the Midas Touch. He was smart enough to buy Pixar but didn’t know what he had until years down the line. He assembled a great team at NeXT but couldn’t build a successful business with it. (He also brought us the original Macintosh computer, but ground-breaking as it was he couldn’t get it done at a price that would make it a hit. The Apple III, another Jobs project, was also an expensive flop.) Becoming Steve Jobs is the first book I’ve read that debunks the rather simplistic notion of Jobs being able to see around corners, to know what the future would bring, to know what people wanted before they knew it themselves. This does nothing to lessen Jobs’ accomplishments, while significantly adding dimension and a certain “real life” aspect to our understanding of the person.

Interesting as Jobs’ growth journey is, the things that don’t change are just as interesting, and serve as a foundation upon which the rest of Jobs’ story plays out. Jobs wanted to do great work, wanted to surround himself with people who thought the same way, and believed that financial success was a by-product of a great product and not the goal itself. These are constants in Becoming Steve Jobs, from beginning to end.

I found Becoming Steve Jobs a very enjoyable and well-rounded book (it includes several pages of photographs, all previously unknown to me, as a nice bonus). One of the authors, Brent Schlender, knew and interviewed Jobs multiple times over a 25-year period as a writer for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine. His interviews, plus more recent ones with those who knew Jobs best (his widow, Laurene Powell Jobs; Apple CEO Tim Cook; Apple’s Senior Vice President of Design, Jony Ive; former head of hardware at NeXT and Apple, Jon Rubinstein; President of Pixar Studios, Ed Catmull, and many many others) inform the bulk of the book. The passage of time may have generated more reflective thoughts than might have been given in the weeks immediately following Steve Jobs’ death; in particular, Tim Cook’s remarks are thoughtful, extensive, and poignant.

Struck down at the height of Apple’s success (while still on an uphill path), Jobs’ impending death looms large as one approaches the end of the book. Jobs ran out of time, and I wanted Becoming Steve Jobs to have another chapter– as if additional pages would prolong not just the story, but the life.

I recommend this book.

Note: My friend, the late great Tom Negrino, a Mac guy from way back, pointed out that Becoming Steve Jobs has more than a few factual errors, which made him wonder whether there are other errors that we don’t know about. For example: The book describes the old-time Apple logo as having five stripes, but anyone who looks at it can see it has six. There’s a reason they say that old-time Apple guys “bleed in six colors.” It’s sort of a rallying cry.

Old Apple Computer Logo

The book is wrong about the date of Gil Amelio’s droning, wandering Macworld Expo keynote speech (the one that was rescued for a few moments by bringing Steve Jobs onto the stage as a massive surprise). It’s wrong by ten years! The year was 1997– I was in the audience. The book says “1987.” This should have been caught in editing.

(Try to watch this video of Gil Amelio’s speech without cringing. It is just awful. I’ve heard that Amelio was stalling as he knew Jobs was on his way, but stuck in traffic. Jobs finally arrives, comes out on the stage, and the room comes to life– and then it’s back to Amelio and a shockingly-bad demo of the 20th Anniversary Mac.)

The book mentions Jobs’ daughter Lisa, whom Jobs denied fathering, and Apple’s first graphical user interface computer– also named Lisa– but nothing is said about whether there’s a connection (even though they both appear in the same chapter, within a few pages of each other). Same with Jobs’ college– Reed– and his son– also Reed. Coincidences? Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe no one knows. But wouldn’t you think the authors would at least pose the questions?

The point is, this book has some out-and-out mistakes, and some rather dangling questions, and it’s not as if the authors had to rush to get it done. The problem for me– and for Tom– is “if they messed up on these little things, maybe they messed up on some bigger things too.” Stuff that we have to take their word for.

That said, Becoming Steve Jobs remains an interesting book, but hardly “the only Steve Jobs book you’ll ever need” (to paraphrase some other reviewers). There’s a lot of good in Becoming Steve Jobs— but it would have been better with better editing. It’s not good to have long-time Mac guys like me and Tom Negrino wondering how much else they got wrong.

Becoming Steve Jobs is available at Amazon in Kindle, hard-cover, soft-cover, Audible, and as an audio CD. It is also available on Apple’s iBooks store as a book* and as an audiobook.*

Copyright 2008-2023 Christian Boyce. All rights reserved.

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