Literary Review

Flawed genius

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader; Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli  

Silicon Valley has never been short of geniuses or jerks. So, it’s no wonder that the man who started it all was a bit of both. William Shockley started his career at Bell Labs, publishing papers and filed patents in solid state physics. During World War II, he took a break from Bell to work on radars to help the American troops and designed one of the world’s first nuclear reactors. Back in Bell, he led the two-member team that invented the transistor — which won him a Nobel Prize — and invented a version of it himself. He set up a company to manufacture transistors near Stanford University, which led to the creation of Silicon Valley. He gave the valley its name.

He was also a jerk. Arrogant, suspicious and unwilling to listen, he alienated the people he worked with. He taped his official meetings so he could later look for hints of insubordination. Once he insisted his employees take a lie-detector test because he suspected some of them were sabotaging the firm. At Bell, the duo that shared Nobel with him refused to work with him after a point. At Shockley, some of the best people he brought together left him to found their own companies — making fortunes that eluded Shockley. He died a lonely man, remembered for his regressive views on race, than for his accomplishments.

Shockley’s name is mentioned just once in Becoming Steve Jobs, a book by journalists Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. They mention it in the context of Robert Noyce, an ex-colleague of Shockley, founder of Fairchild Semiconductors and Intel, and Steve Jobs’s mentor. Jobs’s own life had uncanny parallels to Shockley’s. Like Shockley, he was considered a genius (even though his lay in design and marketing). Like Shockley, Jobs was considered a jerk. He was arrogant, unwilling to listen to others, and humiliated the people he worked with. In his personal life, Jobs refused to acknowledge his daughter for a long time (And Shockley left his first wife when she was recovering from cancer). Like Shockley, Jobs died of cancer.

Yet, unlike Shockley, Jobs created a wildly successful institution. On his death, people changed their Facebook profile pictures, lit candles and shed tears. His team continues to roll out hit products. Today, Apple is the most valued company with a market cap of over $700 billion. What explains the success of this flawed genius?

The book’s core argument is that Jobs evolved. He was a bad manager during his first innings at Apple. But, when he came back in the 1990s, he was not the same man. He was a better man and a better manager. “He had developed some discipline as he salvaged NeXT and negotiated a deal and an IPO for Pixar. He had learned the value of patience and had absorbed from Ed Catmull some proven managerial principles for leading a company loaded with creative talent,” write the authors. The book’s subtitle reads: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader.

Becoming Steve Jobs is not as exhaustive as Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography, which hit the stands soon after Jobs’ death. Schlender and Tetzeli seem to have consciously skipped details. Yet, it doesn’t lack for anecdotes that bring Jobs to life: A young Jobs hunching over the steering wheel of his Mercedes, sobbing after making a fool of himself at a meeting of philanthropists; Jobs interrogating Schlender the first time the latter went to interview him; Jobs leaping out from his bed to vehemently refuse an offer from Tim Cook (the present CEO of Apple) to donate a part his liver -- something that could have extended his life, with little risk to Cook. (“Somebody that’s selfish doesn’t reply like that.” Cook says). The authors try to bring these scenes, nuggets, anecdotes, arguments and analysis together to give a Hollywoodian narrative of reinvention — an inconsistent, inconsiderate, rash and wrong-headed Steve Jobs 1.0 transforming into a venerated Steve Jobs 2.0.

But how convincing is this narrative? Not much. Reading it, despite all that’s known about his early days, one gets a feeling that Jobs couldn’t have been that bad. After all, Apple was a hugely admired company even during Jobs’s first innings (before its dramatic fall.) And some of the accounts of those early days don’t paint such a bad picture.

Again, despite a number of heartwarming episodes, the overall picture one gets of Jobs is that he is not a nice man to know. Even as late as 2008, Jobs continued to park his Mercedes SL55 in the space for the handicapped at Apple. A Fortune cover story, again from 2008, warned that “the same traits that make him a great CEO drive him to put his company, and his investors, at risk.” That was before the launch of iPad, and before iPhone’s phenomenal success became undoubtedly clear.

Which brings us to this question: how much of the goodness we see in Jobs is because of Apple’s financial success? In other words, if Shockley Semiconductor Labs had been financially successful, would we have been singing William Shockley’s praise today?

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader; Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, Hodder and Stoughton, Rs.699.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 5:06:38 PM |

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