I had heard about Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs when it first came out. Those of my friends who read it gave it rave reviews but I didn’t think I wanted to read a 571 page book about a tech titan . Recently ,however, my nephew gave me his copy to read and I quickly found myself hooked . Steve Jobs was a fascinating character and this book is an in-depth look at the man , warts and all.
The biographer , Walter Isaacson, is a respected journalist who served as editor of TIME magazine and has previously written biographies of Benjamin Franklin , Einstein and Kissinger but this life of Jobs must rank as his masterpiece. Jobs had approached him about writing this biography but , it was only in 2009 when Jobs’ cancer had spread , that Isaacson took up the project.
Jobs promised full co-operation, pledged not to interfere , and did not seek any control over what was written . In writing this book , Isaacson had unlimited access to Jobs and extensively interviewed his colleagues , competitors , friends and adversaries . What emerges ia a picture of a driven man with the single-minded focus to create a company at the crossroads of humanities and science which would live on after him. In the pursuit of his vision , Jobs drove his employees relentlessly and was ruthless in his business dealings . It is not a flattering picture.
Prior to reading this book , all I knew about Jobs was that along, with Steve Wozniak , he had created Apple , been fired , started NeXT Computer , hit a home-run with Pixar , re-joined Apple and led it to a string of successes that included the iPod, iMac , iPhone and iPad. I also knew that Jobs and Apple were at loggerheads with Bill Gates and Microsoft and that Apple was the rebel upstart challenging Microsoft’s dominance of the computer market . These are only the bare bones of the Jobs story and Isaacson’s book fleshed them out admirably.
The book begins with Jobs’ parents adopting a baby boy born to Joanne Scieble and Abdulfattah ” John ” Jandali , two grad students at the University of Wisconsin. It goes on to describe his childhood love of electronics , his friendship with electronics whiz-kid Steve Wozniak and their early escapades . It details how Jobs dropped out of Reed College , traveled to India to meet his guru, then came back to start Apple I with Wozniak. Then follow Apple II , Jobs’ expulsion from the company he co-founded, the years in the wilderness , the triumphant return and Apple’s ascent to the pinnacle of success.
All of this is hugely interesting but what is fascinating is the picture of Steven Jobs that emerges. Jobs was a supreme visionary whose mantras were ” Simplicity of design ” and ” User friendly”. To achieve this goal , he bullied his employees and colleagues , hired and fired at will , and was nasty in his dealings with everyone , often unnecessarily so. He forced out Steve Wozniak and , for the flimsiest of reasons, refused stock options to another of his friends , Daniel Kottke, who had been with him since the early days. With his girlfriends ,and later with his family , he was for the most part distant and neglectful ; only after his cancer had been detected did he mellow a little. He was mean , foul-mouthed, selfish, contrary,had no regard for the feelings of others, often took credit for the discoveries and ideas of his employees and , in general , seemed to believe that the rules did not apply to him . An example : Stopped by a traffic policeman for going 100 mph in a 55 mph zone , he sassed the officer, was warned that a the next speeding infraction would result in jail time ,but waited until the officer was out of sight and zoomed away at 100 mph.
It is astonishing that he was forgiven by his victims and commanded their unstinting loyalty in spite of his despicable behavior . They seem to have recognized his underlying genius and admired him for his single-minded focus and the way he drove them to greater and greater heights.
Jobs was a creature of contradictions . Though deeply influenced by Eastern religions , particularly Zen Buddhism , his behavior was far different from the calm , detached demeanor that one would expect. He does not seem to have been money hungry but yet asked for and exacted large payouts , sometimes after refusing any payments at all. Frightening cold and unforgiving , he was highly emotional and ,not infrequently, burst into tears . Decisive in his actions in the workplace , he dithered for years over furnishing his home because his pursuit of perfection would not allow him to settle for anything less. He didn’t care what others thought of his actions but , late in life , initiated this biography so that others would get the complete picture.
Some of his idiosyncrasies seem to be rooted in the fact that his natural parents gave him up for adoption . He never forgave his biological father for this abandonment and refused to meet him . There is a delicious story about how his natural father was proud of the fact that Steve Jobs had once eaten in the restaurant that he managed , unaware that Jobs was his son .
Another factor might be that his adoptive parents were quick to realize that he was special , a gifted child whom they indulged even at great cost to themselves . One can only speculate that this might have something to do with Jobs tantrums in later life , his insistence on control and his determination to get his own way. Before reading this book , I used to think of Bill Gates as the villain in his dealings with Apple . Now , I think Gates was much more likable than the obnoxious Jobs .
This is not to deny Jobs achievements . As Isaacson puts it , Jobs “.. didn’t invent many things outright , but he was a master at putting together ideas, art and technology in ways that invented the future…. Some leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture. Others do so by mastering details . Jobs did both , relentlessly. “ This was a man who pioneered personal computers but transformed several other industries including animated movies, the music industry and marketing. What emerges is the picture of a complex , driven man , repellent in his behavior but who attained unimaginable successes in his short life .
This book is a much more than a biography . It offers a capsule history of Apple and its inner workings and accomplishments . Along the way , we meet a host of interesting characters : Wozniak , Larry Ellison , John Sculley , Lee Clow, Michael Eisner, Bob Dylan, Jonathan Ive , John Lasseter and others . Some make cameo appearances while others play more important parts in the story of Apple . We also get a glimpse of how much hard work is behind the devices that we use every day and take for granted. Isaacson’s book is a tour de force that deserves to be read by anyone that uses these devices and wants to know how they evolved and the part that Steve Jobs played in their invention.
Steven Jobs . by Walter Isaacson . Simon and Schuster( 2011)