Delimited Options


Highlights from Becoming Steve Jobs (Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli)

Mar 23, 2022

Like memoirs, most business biographies aren’t worth reading. This is doubly true of biographies of the recently deceased or the still living: the authors are generally psychophants who can’t adequately assess the flaws of their subject, or otherwise are convinced of their subject’s innate badness, and view normal human failings as evidence of malice. Because he was both a great businesman and a difficult person, Steve Jobs has attracted both of these types of biographers. I put off reading any biographies of Jobs for a long time because of this, but Becoming Steve Jobs is well worth the time spent reading it and gives a great overview of Jobs’s genius, his flaws, and the ways in which he shaped and was shaped by the events and society surrounding him. Below are my highlights from the book along with some brief commentary.

A major theme of the book is that Jobs was immature during his first stint as Apple’s CEO. It wasn’t until he had experience with other companies and managers that he learned to channel his talents and personality in a more productive way.

Without the lessons he learned at Pixar, there would have been no great second act at Apple.

More important for Steve Jobs, overseeing this motley crew had turned Catmull into an expert, imaginative manager of creative people. For years Catmull found himself occasionally regretting his decision to abandon his dream of being an animator. But as he steered this odd and talented group past one crisis after another, he started treating management itself as a kind of art, and accepted that this was how he could best contribute. Later in his life, he would come to be recognized as one of the most extraordinary managers in the world; in 2014, he published a brilliant business bestseller, Creativity, Inc., about what it takes to lead a company of creative people. In fact, the quiet bearded man with a measured, professorial demeanor knows more about managing and motivating creative people than anyone I’ve ever met, including Sony’s Akio Morita, Intel’s Andy Grove, Bill Gates, Jeffrey Katzenburg, and Southwest Airlines’ Herb Kelleher, among others. His success would prove a powerful example for Steve.

Complaining about Bay Area housing prices is nothing new (quote is from Mike Slade, a former Apple exec describing videos that Apple execs made to demo new video editing software that Apple released).

“Tim Cook made one about trying to buy a house in Palo Alto, and how overpriced they were. I thought Ruby’s was the best, though. He had been on a business trip to Dallas on his birthday that week, so he made this totally deadpan movie of the highlights of his day, where he had scenes sitting alone in his hotel room, and in conference rooms, and other boring places showing himself saying ’Happy Birthday, Jon. Woohoo!’ everywhere he went. And Sina made a beautiful one about his kids playing with their pets and jumping on the bed to a Green Day song.” (That’s the one Steve chose for MacWorld.)

Jobs brought a new, stripped down focus to Apple when he returned.

Tamaddon’s applications division, which had learned a lot from the development of iMovie, moved with speed and a minimum of fuss. The SoundJam team was integrated in seamlessly. Its developers worked directly with Avie and Sina to improve some attributes of the old program, including Steve’s favorite—a psychedelic “visualizer” feature that generated trippy, colorful, abstract moving full-screen images derived from whatever music was playing. More important, they simplified the software, eliminating options and complexity whenever they could. This, too, it turns out, would become a hallmark of the new Apple that Steve was creating. Saying no—to software features, new projects, new hires, boondoggle conferences, all kinds of press queries, even to Wall Street’s desire for better guidance on future earnings, and anything else deemed extraneous or distracting. Above all, saying no became a crucial way of keeping everyone, including himself, focused on what really mattered. The sheer simplicity of the quadrant strategy had laid the foundation for an organization that would say no again and again—until it said yes, at which point it would attack the new project with fierce determination.

Apple had a problem with microtransactions (the book goes into more detail about how they managed/solved it but it is too long to excerpt here).

The more significant challenge facing the store’s developers was billing. This seemingly simple problem was profound—existing billing systems might have cost music purveyors more for each transaction than the proft they could earn. This was in large part because of an issue that was becoming as vexing to the industry as piracy—namely, that online buyers were showing a preference for buying individual singles rather than higher-priced albums.

Nearly every time Gates is interviewed he comes across as extremely shrewd and very business focused.

Like many other, Bill Gates was astounded by what Steve had been able to negotiate. “When he has the upper hand, he’s good at using time,” says Gates. “You know, he would wait people out. Just look at how much of the resulting company ends up being owned by this fairly small—and yes, very high tech, very brilliant—animation studio. They end up owning a very substantial percentage of the entire Disney-ABC-ESPN entity. It’s owned by a little animation studio! That took three rounds of negotiations, and by the time the acquisition is being done, Disney is just flat on its back saying, ‘Take me.’ Because of the political dynamics of Disney at the time, they needed that win, and Steve knew they needed it.”

Jobs applied the same focus he brought to Apple to his life.

Steve was deeply focused during these years. He had pared his life down so that he could be as expansive as possible in very specific aspects of his work. The dividing lines were clear. Family mattered. A small group of friends mattered. Work mattered, and the people who mattered most at work were the ones who could abet, rather than stifle, his single-minded pursuit of what he defined as the company’s mission. Nothing else mattered.

Andreesen was a little optimistic on the timeline, but his prediction is beginning to come true.

“The scale economics are gigantic, since these are being sold in such volume,” says Andreessen, whose shaved head looks like an artillery shell, and who talks like a machine gun spraying clipped, staccato bursts of forward-thinking analysis. “We’re talking eventually billions of these things. As a result of that, the smartphone supply chain is becoming the supply chain for the entire computing industry. So the components going into the iPhone [like Corning’s Gorilla Glass, and especially the cellular microprocessors based on a design by ARM Holdings, a British firm] are going to take over computing. By end of decade, even servers will be ARM-based, because the scale economics will be so great that anything else will not be able to compete.”

Gates on why Apple succeeded and why not every company should emulate it.

“Steve created a management approach that worked for the type of product he had been thinking about,” Bill Gates told me after Steve’s death. “You know, if you were going to do hardware and software together, and you’re going to do a few super, super nice designs, and you’re going to do it end-to-end where partnerships aren’t the key thing, where you control the experience totally. He maanged a great organization that was purpose-fit to that.” We had been chatting about why so many books had been written promising to reveal how to do business “the Apple way,” or “the Steve Jobs way.” Bill was describing why Steve is a unique managerial case, someone whose model has limited applications. “maybe you should call your book Don’t Try This at Home,” he said, only half joking. “So many people who want to be like Steve have the asshole side down. What they’re missing is the genius part.” One downside to the Steve Jobs way of running a company, he opined, is that “This is not an organization with checks and controls.”

Jobs on who the important people in the computing industry are.

Despite having no interest in working with me on magazine articles, Steve seemed genuinely curious about the book idea. He and I had discussed the project a few times, and in the spring of 2008 I told him I wanted to set up a roundtable discussion of around eight founders, as the centerpiece of my reporting. “That’s way too many people,” he snorted. “Everybody will want their camera time, and nobody will say much of anything honest or real.” Instead, he suggested, “Focus your book ont he emergence of the PC. There are four of us, really. Me, Bill, Andy [Grove], and Michael [Dell]. Get us together and we’ll have a good discussion. It will be more focused. We know each other’s weakness and strengths. It will make a much better story for you to tell, and we’ll all have to be more honest.”

Tim Cook offered to donate part of his liver to Jobs.

One afternoon, Cook left the house feeling so upset that he had his own blood tested. He found out that he too had a rare blood type, and made the assumption that it might be the same as Steve’s. He started doing research, and learned that it is possible to transfer a portion of a living person’s liver to someone in need of a transplant. About six thousand living-donor transplants are performed every year in the United States, and the rate of success for both donor and recipient is high. The liver is a regenerative organ. The portion transplanted into the recipient will grow to a functional size, and the portion of the liver that the donor gives up will also grow back.

Cook decided to undergo a battery of tests that determine if someone is healthy enough to be a living donor. “I thought he was going to die,” Cook explains. He went to a hospital far from the Bay Area, since he didn’t want to be recognized. The day after he returned from the trip, he went to visit Steve. And there, sitting alone with him in the bedroom of the Palo Alto house, Tim began to offer his liver to Steve. “I really wanted him to do it,” he remembers. “He cut me off at the legs, almost before the words were out of my mouth. ’No,’ he said. ’I’ll never let you do that. I’ll never do that!”

“Somebody that’s selfish,” Cook continues, “doesn’t reply like that. I mean, here’s a guy he’s dying, he’s very close to death because of his liver issue, and here’s someone healthy offering a way out. I said, ’Steve, I’m perfectly healthy, I’ve been checked out. Here’s the medical report. I can do this and I’m not putting myself at risk, I’ll be fine.’ And he doesn’t even think about it. I twas not, ’Arey ou sure you want to do this?’ It was not, ’I’ll think about it.’ It was not, ’Oh the condition I’m in ...’ It was, ’No, I’m not doing that!’ He kind of popped up in bed and said that. And this was during a time when things were just terrible. Steve only yelled at me four or five times during the thirteen years I knew him, and this was oen of them.”

“This picture of him isn’t understood,” says Cook. “I thought the [Walter] Isaacson book did him a tremendous disservice. It was just a rehash of a bunch of stuff that had already been written, and focused on small parts of his personality. You get the feeling that [Steve’s] a greedy, selfish egomaniac. It didn’t capture the person. The person I read about there is somebody I would never have wanted to work with over all this time. Life is too short.” In saying this, Cook echoed the feeling of many of Steve’s close friends—in interview after interview, they complained that very little of what has been published offers any sense of why they would have worked so long and so hard for Steve. Those former employees share another common thread, too: the idea that they did the very best work of their lives for Steve.

“Steve cared,” Cook continues. “He cared deeply about things. Yes, he was very passionate about things, and he wanted things to be perfect. And that was what was great about him. He wanted everyone to do their best work. He believed that small teams were better than large teams, because you could get a lot more done. And he believed that picking the right person was a hundred times better than picking somebody who was a little short of being right. All of those things are really true. A lot of people mistook that passion for arrogance. He wasn’t a saint. I’m not saying that. None of us are. But it’s emphatically untrue that he wasn’t a great human being, and that is totally not understood.”

Job's influence on Disney.

Steve also helped with Disney’s retail business. In 2008, the company had bought back its stores, after having licensed them to outside operators for years. When the new head of retail first pitched the board on his plans, Steve, who always sat next to Iger, grew restless and started rolling his eyes. At one point during the presentation he just burst out, muttering “Bullshit!” in a way that everyone could hear. Iger kicked him in the shins to try to get him to muzzle himself. Once the presentation had ended, Steve asked the executive two simple questions: “What message are you sending to your customer when they walk through the door? What statement are you making?”

“The guy couldn’t answer the questions,” remembers Iger. “There was silence in the room.” Afterward, Steve told Iger he should fire the executive immediately. But Iger didn’t. “Steve was quick to judge people. That was a fault,” says Iger. “If he got better on that, it wasn’t something I saw. I always found that a shortcoming. I’d say to him, ’First of all, I haven’t decided about the person, so you’ve got to give me a chance to form my own opinion.’ Or I’d tell him, ’You’re just flat-out wrong about this person.’ In some cases he was proved right, and in others I was. Either way, I never got an ’I told you so’ from him.”

A few weeks later, Iger brought the retail chief and a couple of others up to Cupertino for a daylong brainstorming session with Steve and Apple retail chief Ron Johnson. “He didn’t redesign our stores,” says Iger. “He didn’t even set foot in them, as far as I know. But he did give us a full day of his time, and they helped us come up with a guiding statement about the stores: This is going to be the best twenty or thirty minutes of your kid’s day.”

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the ones Bill Gates is involved in. While Jobs had vision that few could match, Gates’s unique talents lie in his business ability. This is a more humanizing anecdote about him. I hope that Schlender and Tetzeli eventually do a similar book about Gates.

“When Bill had gone to visit Steve at his house in May,” says Slade, “he got to know Steve’s youngest daughter, Evie, because both she and Bill’s daughter, Jennifer, do horse showing. After we got to this reception I kind of ditched Bill because I knew more people there than he does. I kind of felt bad, but I was like, oh, whatever, he’s a big boy. Half an hour goes by and I’ve lost track of him. So I want to find him. In the middle of the sculpture garden they had set up these really long couches in a rectangle where the family was. Laurene was there, and the kids were there. And that’s where Bill was, over the couch, talking to Evie about horses. He just sat there and had been talking to her for a half an hour. He didn’t talk to anyone else.”