Cover image of "Becoming Steve Jobs," a Steve Jobs biography

This book follows by four years Walter Isaacson‘s authorized, best-selling biography, Steve Jobs, which was released just months after Jobs’ death in 2011. Three principal facts highlight the differences between the two books.

First, the coauthors of Becoming Steve Jobs are journalists who covered the Apple co-founder from 1986 through his death in 2011, while Isaacson, though unquestionably a masterful biographer, was named as authorized biographer only in 2009.

Second, though I have no way of knowing for sure, I believe that Becoming Steve Jobs was written in reaction to Isaacson’s bestselling book. As the principal author, Brent Schlender, a reporter and editor for Fortune, asserts in the Source Notes following the text, “we are trying to achieve with this book . . . a deeper understanding of Steve Jobs’ ever-evolving arsenal of entrepreneurial skills and capabilities, and the deepening of his almost messianic drive to have an impact on his world.” (Deeper than what, I ask? Or whom?)

Steve Jobs had grew up a lot

In other words, despite his notoriously bad behavior during his earlier stint running the company, he had grown up a lot, learned a great deal about management, and come to understand better both his capabilities and his limitations. Doubtless, the diagnosis of the cancer he lived with from 2004 to 2011 also helped sharpen his attention on those things that were most important to him.

Third, in a way the most attention-getting, Becoming Steve Jobs has been enthusiastically received by the people who knew him best: those he worked with at Apple and Pixar, and his peers in Silicon Valley. By contrast, the reception in the Valley for Isaacson’s book was mixed at best, despite the rave reviews it received in all the right places (The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and so forth). I loved it, too. But I didn’t know the man.

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli ★★★★★

Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, his co-author, elaborate on the reality that helps explain all three factors. During the nine years he ran Apple before his ouster in 1985, “at his childish worst Steve Jobs was really nothing more than a spoiled brat.” Later, however, as they write, “While away from Apple [from 1985 to 1997], Steve Jobs had started to learn how to make the most of his strengths, and how to temper somewhat his perilous weaknesses.

This reality runs counter to the common myths about Steve. In the popular imagination, he is a tyrant savant with a golden touch for picking products and equally a stubborn son of a bitch with no friends, no patience, and no morals; he lived and died as he was born — half genius and half asshole.” If that had been the full picture, they insist, Jobs could never have “pulled off one of the greatest business comebacks ever.”

Schlender and Tetzeli emphasize the role of other remarkable individuals in the education of Steve Jobs. First was Regis McKenna, the legendary marketing guru of Silicon Valley, who led the effort to develop the Apple brand. For a time, John Sculley played that role — a short time. Then came the pair of geniuses Jobs saved from oblivion when he bought George Lucas’ animation unit and created Pixar: the brilliant animator and storyteller, John Lasseter, and the company’s outstanding manager, Ed Catmull.

The men and a woman who influenced him most

No doubt he also learned a lot from his archrival, Bill Gates. (At least, he learned how not to design products.) Among his coworkers, though, his deepest and most productive relationship was with the English designer, Jony Ive, who ran Apple’s design shop in close collaboration with Jobs during his second stint at the company. Obviously, however, his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, must deserve a lot of the credit for rounding off his sharp edges.

For anyone capable of empathy and with experience running a business, how Steve Jobs turned around Apple has to seem shocking. The company was on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1990s, victim to the bad judgment of a series of incompetent CEOs and a passive board. Shortly after reassuming the top role at the company, Jobs went so far as to bulldoze “tens of thousands of unsold Macs into a landfill in early 1998.” He ruthlessly slashed a product line of dozens down to a “quadrant” of just four products. And he cut tens of thousands of jobs. From either a humane or an environmental perspective, these changes were hardly admirable. But they did the trick. By the middle of the decade of the 2000s, Apple was back again, beginning its short journey to become the world’s most valuable business.

Becoming Steve Jobs is based not only on a quarter-century of reporting on the company but on interviews with huge numbers of the people who knew the man. It’s a monumental achievement.

This is one of the Best books about innovation reviewed here and of My 10 favorite books about business history.

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