Since Steve Jobs' death, and even before, we thought we knew all about the icon's persona, but new, just released tapes from Fast Company's Brent Schlender reveal a more complex version of Jobs. Jerk, visionary, perfectionist, design genius -- these are the words most often used to describe the late Apple CEO's personality. And, countless articles, including his recently released FBI file, have served to bolster this characterization (caricarature?) of the man who invented the iLife. But, Jobs, like all humans, was more complex than that.
The tapes come to us from Schlender, who covered Jobs from 1985 up to his death for Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. The writer only just discovered these interviews because they come to us from a not much talked about time in Jobs' life, a time Schlender calls the "Wilderness" phase, when he built up and led both NexT and Pixar. Schlender believes it was during this time that Jobs learned all those skills he would use to make Apple a beloved and successful place. It's through these moments, however, that we get a more complex picture of what drove Jobs, leading him to his later success.
We still see hints of the "jerky" reputation Jobs had gotten himself and hints of the spite he had toward Apple, saying the new management has "poisoned the culture":
"Right now it's like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz: 'I'm melting. I'm melting,' ... The jig is up. They can't seem to come out with a great computer to save their lives. They need to spend big on industrial design, reintroduce the hipness factor. But no, they hire [Gil] Amelio [as CEO]. It's as if Nike hired the guy that ran Kinney shoes."
But, beyond his disdain for Apple, he learned to cull his jerkiness into something a little less irreverent. Later, Schlender describes Jobs' budding relationship with the heads of Disney, whom he didn't fully respect. Here we see he doesn't outright hate on their misunderstanding of technology, seeing what they have to offer him. Writes Schlender:
Jobs was candid about the two Disney execs, telling me that both "make the mistake of not appreciating technology. They just assume that they can throw money at things and fix them. They don't have a clue." Once upon a time, he would have been enraged by the ignorance he perceived. When I asked him what had soured an earlier partnership between IBM and NeXT, he ranted: "The people at the top of IBM knew nothing about computers. Nothing. Nothing. The people at the top of Disney," on the other hand, "know a lot about what a really good film is and what is not."
For all of Jobs jerkiness, though, he made up for it with his genius. These tapes don't do anything to tarnish his intellect, they only show he had more talents than just spotting good design, for which he's best known. While running Pixar, he understood that company's very different strengths:
"And it's the same with Toy Story. The audience isn't gonna care about the Pixar animation system, they're not gonna care about the Pixar production system, they're not gonna care about anything--except what they will be able to judge for themselves, and that's the end result, which they can appreciate without having to understand what went into it, what went into creating it. And that, I love. "
And then later, he capitalized on those strengths.
"I got everybody together," Jobs said, "and I said, 'At our heart, we really are a content company. Let's transition out of everything else. Let's go for it. This is why I bought into Pixar. This is why most of you are here. Let's go for it. It's a higher-risk strategy, but the rewards are gonna be much higher, and it's where our hearts are.' "
But perhaps it was the token Jobsian perfectionism that drove him throughout these years, too. That doesn't sound like it changed much:
"We've done so many hardware products where Jony and I have looked at each other and said, 'We don't know how to make it any better than this, we just don't know how to make it,' " Jobs told me. "But we always do; we realize another way. And then it's not long after the new thing comes out that we look at the older thing and go, 'How can we ever have done that?' "
The complete story can be found on Fast Company's website.