The accepted narrative about Steve Jobs has been that he was half genius, half jerk.
But Rick Tetzeli and Brent Schlender, authors of the new biography “Becoming Steve Jobs,” argue that Jobs’ character is more multidimensional than that, and that Jobs indeed softened during his later years and proved he was capable of growth and change.
I read the book with that thought in mind, and looked for a preponderance of evidence to support that claim page by page. I got the chance to ask Tetzeli for that evidence in person when I interviewed him during a podcast earlier this week.
He answered my question directly. He gave a concrete example of how Jobs changed from the early years of Apple, to his storied “second act” at the same company years later.
Tetzeli told me that in the early days of Apple, Jobs had to have his hands in everything. “He really believed that he could do everybody’s job better than they could,” he told me. Jobs wanted to be involved in the engineering of the hardware and software, in the product design, in the marketing, in the public relations, everything.
During Jobs’ second run as CEO of Apple, when the company made a stunning shift from being just a computer company to being a connected consumer devices company, Tetzeli says that Jobs was able to let go of many of the things he would have tried to micromanage earlier in his life.
Thing is, I noticed that in almost all Jobs stories, there’s always a “but” somewhere in there — some kind of qualifier at the end about some seemingly human thing Jobs did. And I found it here too.
When Apple was moving into music players and phones, Jobs had to quickly become an expert in the creation and marketing of these new product categories. He may have been forced to let go of some control. But even then, Tetzeli said, Jobs was never able to give up product design, marketing, and public relations. He’d always have his fingers in those pies. And the super-talented people who worked in those areas at Apple were forced to follow his lead.
Some long-time Apple people would later say that in the early days, they felt energized by working with Jobs, but during Jobs’ second (admittedly amazing) stint, it felt more like they were working for him.
There was more evidence that Jobs never really softened around the edges later in life.
He had long been recognized as someone who could fire up small teams of people, spurring them on to create great things. But even in the later years of his life, Jobs demanded almost unconditional commitment from team members, and often pitted one team member against another to see whose ideas would prevail.
He could never forgive Neil Young for publicly criticizing the iPod and the poor sound quality of digital music. When Jobs got sick, Young wanted to make peace. He wanted to send Jobs a whole set of his records that had just been remastered. But Jobs refused them.
In 2008, The New York Times’ Joe Nocera reported on Jobs’ illness, a subject Jobs had gone to great effort to keep secret. When Nocera’s story appeared, Jobs called him “a slime bucket that usually gets his facts wrong.”
In fact, Jobs’ anger and vindictiveness became a public relations problem for Apple. Apple wanted very much to project an image of cool, creativity, and friendliness. His actions put that image in jeopardy.
After reading the book — which I thought was fascinating and full of great anecdotes — I walked away with a conception of Jobs that’s more like the genius/jerk thing. I had a much, much fuller picture of Jobs’ persona. But after you boil it all down, removing the various accounts that contradict and cancel each other out, it still comes down to roughly the same thing.
Jobs was a very charming control freak. His whole identity and self-worth came from his work. His brain was always working on the vision, on “the mission.” So of course he understood it better than anyone else in the room. And he better understood the context within which everyone’s work fit.
The problem was, in Jobs’ mind, the work always came before the people, even toward the end of his life.