Walter Isaacson Discusses Steve Jobs at Caltech

Speaking to a packed Beckman Auditorium last Wednesday, Caltech professor Jed Buchwald hosted a discussion with Walter Isaacson, historian and author of the widely read Steve Jobs biography which distilled over forty interviews with Jobs over the course of his last two years. Many luminaries were present, including university president Jean-Lou Chameau. Here are some tidbits of the evening.

When he worked at Atari as a teenager, Jobs was known as a drug-using hippie with a "prickly" personality who did not take showers. And Jobs had a stare, which he would use to make a point: unblinking, uncomfortable, intimidating. When Apple began, Jobs did not grant stock options to Apple employee #5. Such a consistency of character could not be endearing.

Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs

Yet, as experienced by Mr. Isaacson firsthand, Jobs was extremely charismatic. When Jobs wanted to seduce you, he could do it. He personallly convinced John Sculley to stop selling "sugar water" as the president of Pepsi and take over as the chief executive at Apple: a bad move in hindsight, but still impressive. And despite his propensity for rants, Mr. Isaacson observed that Jobs was able to command unparalleled respect, admiration and loyalty from his senior staff.

As familiar as I am with the products of Apple and the cult of Steve, I did not tire of hearing new insights into a character that has shaped the computing world for so long, especially from someone who was able to spend so much time with Mr. Jobs. I respect the rebel mentality, the drive for perfection, the disdain for conformity.

Immediately following the presentation, there was a period for questions from the audience. Mr. Isaacson was asked if there were unique challenges in writing a biography of a living person. His reply: Mr. Jobs was living, but also dying. Though Jobs always felt that he could cheat death and get to "hop to the next lily pad" with new drug therapies, he finally conceded in the final days, and it was a very emotional period that was very hard for both subject and biographer.

As Mr. Issacson tells it, Mr. Jobs was in a wheelchair, and they discussed his his feelings on leaving a legacy. Steve wanted to believe that in years to come, he might be remembered for influencing society towards better design. Alternatively, Steve also thought that he might be forgotten, like a power switch that just gets turned off. Like the power switch that he purposely left off his final product, the iPad.

Another question: of all the subjects covered during his interviews with Mr. Jobs, which one did he feel would play a significant role in the coming election? With little hesitation, the answer was, "Education!" Though the top hundred American universities such as Caltech will continue to provide leadership through research, Mr. Issacson feels the other 41,000 have dubious futures as educational institutions. With an educational system ranked 17th in the world, America could fall to 17th in productivity and innovation, and watch its stature erode in the coming years.
Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs Signing

As the lights dimmed, Mr. Issacson remained for a few minutes to sign copies of his most popular books, including his other biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. I, like everyone else, was glad to have the opportunity to receive a personally signed copy of the Steve Jobs biography. In case you believe that the cult of Steve has passed, there were people buying multiple signed copies for their families.
Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs Signature

If you've read the book already, what are your thoughts on Mr. Issacson's version of the Steve Jobs story?

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