the barefoot hippie who dropped out of Reed College to hitchhike around India, is in truth the
equivalent of Steve Jobs attending business school. In other words, he grew. By leaps and bounds.
In every aspect of his being. With a little massaging, this middle act could even be the plotline for
a Pixar movie. It certainly fits the simple mantra John Lasseter ascribes to all the studio’s successes,
from Toy Story to Up: “It’s gotta be about how the main character changes for the better.”
I had covered Jobs for Fortune and The Wall Street Journal since 1985, but I didn’t come to fully
appreciate the importance of these “lost” years until after his death last fall. Rummaging through
the storage shed, I discovered some three dozen tapes holding recordings of extended interviews—
some lasting as long as three hours—that I’d conducted with him periodically over the past 25 years.
(Snippets are scattered throughout this story.) Many I had never replayed—a couple hadn’t even
been transcribed before now. Some were interrupted by his kids bolting into the kitchen as we
talked. During others, he would hit the pause button himself before saying something he feared
might come back to bite him. Listening to them again with the benefit of hindsight, the ones that
took place during that interregnum jump out as especially enlightening.
The lessons are powerful: Jobs matured as a manager and a boss; learned how to make the
most of partnerships; found a way to turn his native stubbornness into a productive perseverance.
He became a corporate architect, coming to appreciate the scaffolding of a business just as much
as the skeletons of real buildings, which always fascinated him. He mastered the art of negotiation by immersing himself in Hollywood, and learned how to successfully manage creative talent,
namely the artists at Pixar. Perhaps most important, he developed an astonishing adaptability
that was critical to the hit-after-hit-after-hit climb of Apple’s last decade. All this, during a time
many remember as his most disappointing.
Eleven years is a big chunk of a lifetime. Especially when one’s time on earth is cut short.
Moreover, many people—particularly creative types—are often their most prolific during their
thirties and early forties. With all the heady success of Apple during Jobs’s last 14 years, it’s all too
easy to dismiss these “lost” years. But in truth, they transformed everything. As I listened again
to those hours and hours of tapes, I realized they were, in fact, his most productive.
Steve Jobs did not wander aimlessly into the wilderness after being ousted
from Apple in 1985. No happy camper, he was loaded for bear; burning to wreak revenge upon those
who had spuriously shoved him into exile, and obsessed with proving to the world that he was
no one-trick pony. Within days, he abruptly sold off all but one share of his Apple stock and, flush
with a small fortune of about $70 million, set about creating another computer company, this one
called NeX T. The startup ostensibly was a vehicle for revolutionizing higher education with powerful, beautiful computers. In reality, it was a bet that one day he would get the better of Apple.
Over all the years Jobs was away from Apple, I can’t recall him saying one good thing about the
company’s brass. Early on, he whined about how CEO John Sculley had “poisoned” the culture of
the place. As the years went by, and Apple’s fortunes dimmed, Jobs’s attacks became more pointed:
“Right now it’s like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz: ‘I’m melting. I’m melting,’” he told me in
the mid-1990s. “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.”
At NeXT, Jobs was damn well going to deliver a great computer. He was going to do it with mas-
sive resources, raising well over $100 million from the likes of H. Ross Perot, Japanese printer
maker Canon, and Carnegie Mellon University. He was going to do it with an astonishing automated
factory in Fremont, California, where every surface and piece of equipment would be painted in
specific shades of gray, black, and white. He was going to do it in style, working with a full-time
architect to give the corporate headquarters in Redwood City a distinctive, austere aesthetic; NeXT
HQ looked much like the interior of one of today’s Apple Stores. The centerpiece was a staircase
that seemed to float in air.
He was also going to do it with a revolutionary organization, something he dubbed the Open
Corporation. “Think of it this way,” he explained. “If you look at your own body, your cells are specialized, but every single one of them has the master plan for the whole body. We think our company
will be the best possible company if every single person working here understands the whole
master plan and can use that as a yardstick to make decisions against. We think a lot of little and
medium and big decisions will be made better if all our people know that.” It was a bold theory.
If Jobs’s time in exile can be seen as an extended trip through business school, the heady start
GOOD MANAGEMENT IS LIKE THE BEATLES OCTOBER 2004 My model of management is the Beatles. The reason I say that is because each of the key people in the Beatles kept the others from going off in the directions of their bad tendencies.
They sort of kept each other
in check. And then when they
split up, they never did anything
as good. It was the chemistry of a
small group of people, and that
chemistry was greater than the
sum of the parts. And so John
kept Paul from being a teenybopper and Paul kept John from
drifting out into the cosmos, and
it was magic. And George, in the
end, I think provided a tremendous amount of soul to the group.
I don’t know what Ringo did.
That’s the chemistry [at Pixar]
between Ed [Catmull] and John
[Lasseter] and myself. It’s worked
pretty doggone well. We talk
about things a lot, and sometimes one of us will want to do
something that’s really stupid, or
maybe not stupid but . . . oh, I
don’t know . . . maybe not the
wisest thing in the long run for
the studio. And, you know, at
least one of the other two will say,
‘Hey, you know, I think there’s a
better way to do that.’ So we’ll all
slow down and think it through,
and we usually come up with a
much better way.