How much do you know about Steve Jobs? You recognise the custom-made black turtle necks. You probably know that, as well as co-founding Apple, he also founded NeXT and co-founded Pixar. And you may remember his death from pancreatic cancer in 2011.
The authorised biography by Walter Isaacson, published the same year, gave a fact-heavy birds-eye view of Jobs. But tomorrow, a new biography will hit bookshelves across the world: Becoming Steve Jobs. Via numerous interviews with his family, friends and colleagues, journalists Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli present a highly intimate portrait of the visionary we so closely associate with Apple (despite the fact he didn’t work there between 1985 and 1997). The former arguably knew Jobs better than any other journalist: during their 25-year relationship, they became personal friends.
Schlender and Tetzeli reveal how and why Jobs changed as a businessman. But they also demonstrate the deeply meaningful personal life he had. Jobs, says Tetzeli, “has often been portrayed as icy or irascible or difficult, and at times he truly was all those things. But he was also a deeply caring, attentive father. And he was a caring friend.” I spoke to the authors to find out more about the kind of man their book uncovers.
Can you talk through the approach you had for the book?
Tetzeli: We started out with the idea that Steve Jobs had changed over time. He has often been portrayed as a static half-genius half-jerk, as if he was born that way. In that view of his life, his success in his later years is attributable to the exact talents he had when he was a young man at Apple his first time around. But that young man -- who basically got exiled from the company he founded – could never have been successful his second go-round at Apple. That young man had too much to learn.
So we set out to document just how he had changed -- who were his mentors, what he was learning and who was he learning from. What made the reporting challenging was that Steve himself would never look back at his own life. He always preferred to look forward. He was introspective, but not retrospective. So we had to find the influences ourselves, rather than rely on any guidance he’d provided while he was alive.
Can you tell us a bit more about Steve’s softer side?
Tetzeli: Steve was a good friend to a small inner circle. He cared deeply about his family and close friends. You’d see this in little ways: staying home for dinner rather than travelling as much as other executives do; adding a little weekly bonus to John Lasseter’s [of Pixar] paycheck when he realised Lasseter needed a new car.
And you’d see it in big ways as well: he helped several people diagnosed with cancer with spreadsheets analysing which doctors might be best for them, what kind of treatments they should consider. I wouldn’t call him “soft,” except for his odd penchant for sentimental movies like “Remember the Titans,” which he watched with Tim Cook the Friday before he died.
How would you sum up the Steve you first met and the Steve you last met?
Schlender: For one thing, when he was in his 20s and 30s, he had more hair. He also groomed and dressed with greater variety. The most dramatic changes in his personality came during those “wilderness years” between stints at Apple, and especially after marrying Laurene Powell and starting a family. You could sense his priorities shifting because it was clear he genuinely wanted to be close to home as much as he could, even before his long illness.
Finally, it was clear that he had matured emotionally, and become more realistic about how everyone needed balance in their lives. Some things never changed, however – his piercing intellect, his autodidactic nature, his ability to focus on a challenge at hand, and his uncanny EQ – emotional quotient – which made it possible for him to quickly empathise, or detect fear, nervousness, or weakness in negotiating situations. As he became older, he didn’t lose his intensity, but he did become wiser.
Lots of people don’t know that Steve was adopted. You cover it at length in the book, but what did that mean to him?
Schlender: Steve had great admiration and love for his parents, even though he had been a very challenging child to rear. Contrary to what many people might think, he didn’t dwell much on having been adopted. He respected his parents because they followed through on the promise they made to his birth-mother, to provide a good education all the way through college. This despite the fact that neither of them had attended college themselves.
They moved to a better school district when it became clear that Steve was extraordinarily intelligent, and when one of his teachers recommended that he be moved ahead a year, they were supportive and even helped him transfer to another school within the district to make it easier for him to fit in socially. You could say he was indulged by them, but he recognised that when he was older, and was grateful for the unusual freedom they allowed him.
For many of us, Steve embodies passion in a way quite unlike anyone else. What did that make interacting with him like?
Schlender: Passion is a complex emotion and motivation and it manifested itself in complex ways in Steve. It made him a great interview, at least for me, because I knew he would always speak his mind. There was a bracing clarity to conversations with Steve.
And just because he spoke with intensity didn’t mean he didn’t listen carefully to what others had to say. In meeting situations, however, conversation can all too easily drift and Steve could not abide that. He wanted them to result in something – a decision, an agreement, and ultimately improvement in an approach to a problem or product. His intensity helped crystallise the issues.
You call the 2007 iPhone unveiling a “high wire act” – there were still hardware issues and the handset wasn’t ready to ship. Yet Steve pulled it off. Was he always a consummate performer?
Tetzeli: Steve understood showmanship. You had to start with a great product, of course. And over the course of his life, the products became better and better. But Steve also understood how marketing, events, press and advertising could create a lusty desire for products. On-stage, he had a showman’s sense of the timing needed to make a product seem truly dazzling. And he loved it. He loved being able to present something he was proud of in a way that made it seem even cooler than it truly was.
We’re all used to the “micromanager” narrative, but the book underscores that Steve was both a superb manager and leader. What does he teach us about doing both well?
Tetzeli: It’s always dangerous to look to Steve for lessons, because he’s such a unique individual. As Bill Gates told us, “You should call your book ‘Don’t Try This at Home,’ because that’s the degree of difficulty of what Steve pulled off.”
To understand how Steve was able to combine micromanagement and long-term success, you have to understand what and how he micromanaged. In certain cases, Steve trusted his managers to do pretty much what they wanted. He trusted people like chief financial officer Fred Anderson deeply, and he knew he didn’t know nearly as much as they did about their field.
After his cancer, he became even less of a micromanager, backing off from almost everything other than marketing and design. And with design, it wasn’t so much micromanagement as an intense, neverending conversation with Jony Ive.
Steve was relentless. The grammar in an advert; the head of a nail inside an iPhone; the background colour of a screen – he wanted all these things done perfectly. But he knew how to get to a great finished product even when the details weren’t perfect.
Jony Ive talks about how the learning from a product is almost as important as the product itself. When Steve returned to Apple, he developed the patience to understand this, to understand that, if he was playing the long game, he would have to temper his most aggressive behaviour.
The “who was the real genius” Steve/Jony debate seems interminable. Can you shed any light on it?
Tetzeli: It’s a ridiculous exercise. They were a great, complementary pair. Steve used to talk about how good management is like the Beatles – people made up for each other’s weaknesses and drew greatness out of each other’s strengths. Steve and Jony worked together in a unique way, but Steve could have done wonderful things at Apple without Jony, and Jony could do wonderful things without Apple.
How did Steve deal with failure?
Schlender: He hated to fail. But he didn’t let failure break him. As the management expert Jim Collins told us, Steve was extremely resilient, much like Winston Churchill was. Failing at Apple and at NeXT only intensified his desire to succeed. And because he was such a good self-teacher, he learned from his mistakes.
Can anybody – even Steve – really stand for an entire company?
Schlender: In the early stages at Apple, Steve’s unique energy and passion infused the entire organisation – even after he and Woz [Steve Wozniak] had hired experienced “adults” to actually manage the growing company.
Over time, it is physically impossible for a leader to personally influence every nook and cranny, so the leader then leads by example or by coming to symbolise key aspects of the enterprise.
But some unusually effective leaders like Steve embody the entire gestalt of the company in ways that cannot be replicated by another leader. Walt Disney was like that, too. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways for the organisation itself to grow and evolve to be more self-sustaining, and Steve was very aware of the need for Apple to do that, especially after he learned that he had cancer.
What did being an entrepreneur mean for Steve?
Schlender: Steve didn’t particularly like the startup phase of building a business. He once told me that the only reason he started companies was to marshall what it took to make a “cool product.”
But toward the end of his life, he came to appreciate the creative power and human beauty of a modern corporation, and he wanted to find a way to help Apple design itself in such a way that it could perpetuate itself as a consistent maker of beautiful, useful, and even lovable personal technology products. I think he first came to realise this while watching Pixar come into its own.
That was a company filled with artists, and craftsmen, and technologists, and musicians, and other creative professionals and it could be a joyous place to work day in, day out. He wanted the same thing for Apple.
We are starting to see that he might, in fact, have accomplished that on a much larger scale than at Pixar. If it turns out to be so, that would be his greatest product of all.
Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli is published by Sceptre and is out tomorrow.