A Chat With Steve Wozniak

The man who shaped the computer industry



Mention the word “Apple” and the name Steve Jobs likely comes immediately to mind. But while Jobs was the public face marketing the computer giant, Steve Wozniak was the engineering genius — and equal partner — behind him. Together, with an equal third partner who funded their work, they took Apple from a garage to being the second biggest information technology company in the world. 

Michael Bulbenko

Steve Wozniak 

Wozniak, a Silicon Valley icon who helped shape the computing industry with his design of Apple’s first computers, will be in Tallahassee on Nov. 5 to talk about that journey and his own story as part of the Power Forward Speaker Series, co-presented by First Commerce Credit Union and the Florida State University College of Business.

While he still receives a “small paycheck” from Apple, Wozniak (nicknamed “Woz”) is currently chief scientist for Fusion-io and became a published author with the release of his New York Times best-selling autobiography, “iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon.” Earlier this year he was honored with the Hoover Medal, an American engineering prize given for “outstanding extra-career services by engineers to humanity.”

Wozniak, who permanently left Apple in 1987, recently took time out to speak  about Apple, his career, his advice to young entrepreneurs and the future of the computer industry.

 

The Apple ‘Connection’

“I’m not particularly tied to them, like what I say could get me fired. I speak honestly and openly so they might hear things from me that add to their own thinking now and then. You know, like directions products could go in.”

 

Apple’s Future Holds No Dogs

“Taking phones with keyboards and turning them into a flat panel, that sort of change doesn’t happen very often. It doesn’t happen every year. 

“Where does Apple get its greatness? Where do they get the royalties from? It’s from brand recognition. And where does that come from? It’s not just the name Apple. It’s what Apple has done over time, which is make one great product after another after another, not take sloppy little intermediate steps that aren’t excellent products. There are no real crappy products; no dogs come out of Apple.

“I think great new product ideas are going on inside of Apple. The iPhone was totally unexpected. You develop products in secret. You don’t show them to the rest of the world while you’re doing them or talk about them too openly. That’s the way to get the really great products.

“Apple isn’t going to put out something great that can sell. It’s got to be like Steve Jobs used to say, it’s got to be insanely great. It’s got to grab everyone by surprise and be the finest in its class if it’s a new idea. I’m sure that’s going on quite a bit behind the curtains.”

 

Looking Back

courtesy of First Commerce Credit Union
Steve Jobs, John Sculley and Steve Wozniak present the Apple II computer in 1984.

“My mentality is, don’t look back. I had such a good mind at thinking out the right solutions given the resources I had; every step I took was A-plus steps in those days. And there’s not a thing I would change now. 

“I came out with our first computer language, but it didn’t deal with decimal points like dollars and cents. I was working on a computer language that would add that, and then Bill Gates walked in the door and already had one completed that would run on our computer. We just had to add some touches to it. Turned out the Apple II computer (introduced in 1977) was the only successful product in our first 10 years.”

 

Advice to Young Entrepreneurs 

“First of all, it takes a lot of discipline and a lot of professionalism, which you don’t have when you are young. Steve and I were very young, and our funder (Michael Markkula) was really the leader who told us how to establish a company, what sort of people we had to hire, how much expense should go into which department. He really established the business as a business. That was crucial to us. You need not just engineering, but you need marketing, you need operations, you need somebody overseeing the whole thing.

“Ideas aren’t worth that much because 10,000 people in the world are having the same idea as you. Go and make working models. Be a builder. Actually make things. If you are more a thinker … you’d better link up with someone technical, maybe an engineering student, who can build some things and get some demos, even if it’s just a demonstration on a computer screen. Don’t raise money based just on ideas.

“Don’t go after products you think are going to sell and be good for other people in the world. Go after products you want yourself. When it comes from inside your passion, your heart, that’s when you get real great products and the big successes in life and business.

“You really need more than one person to be successful in the end. Don’t jump at it because you have a good idea and can convince someone with money to put a little in. Get further along the curve.  

“Be willing to take a job. When you are young you have such great mental and physical energy. Put those into your own ideas in your own time; don’t waste your time away when you’re out of work just partying. You’re limiting your chances for success.” 

 

Jobs, Wozniak and the Beginning

“The company was built by that third party, an investor, who actually owned as much of Apple as Steve and I did, but you never hear about him because he wasn’t the young guy, the young guy who had no money. 

“When we did start, I was the engineer. I was not a good person to talk to the press. I avoided them. I did not want to be the face of the company. Steve Jobs, it was a very strong idea of his to be the face of the company, and in the end he communicated to people about why our products, our computers were going to change their life. It was a very important role. Understanding the customers in my mind is more important than the engineering. His role was critical.”

 

Handling Failure

“I had virtually no failures in my life. I was one of those lucky guys that was so advanced in certain areas, electronics, I never had to worry about a job from when I got out of high school. I was designing the hottest products of the time without a college degree as an engineer at Hewlett Packard. I got to design some of the newest technologies in the world and the country.

“When the Macintosh failed, our stock dropped almost in half in a week, and if you are in the business world you know how critical that is. Jobs didn’t have the execution abilities to work the strategy to get out of it. To save the Macintosh, to save the company … it would take years of hard work to get it to work.”

 

Classroom Learning

courtesy of First Commerce Credit Union

Steve Wozniak, the engineering brain behind Apple, waited 20 hours in line to be the first Apple customer at the Los Gatos Apple store to buy the new iPhone 4S.

“When you get a job in engineering, you find out that almost nothing you took courses for at the university directly applies to the work you are doing. Academic learning is very important to have the skills to be able to make things, but it’s not the essence of where you follow your heart to create things like Apple and Google and Microsoft. They spark from things you are good at that are generally outside of school.

“In high school I had an electronics teacher who was pretty unusual. He didn’t use pre-written books to teach his class. He wrote the lessons himself knowing where our heads were at, what we had in our minds and what equipment we had to use. He took a few bright students like myself every year and made agreements where we could go to local industry once a week and we’d be able to do something at a real company. That’s where I got to encounter a computer, because we didn’t have computers at our school. I got to program a computer.

“As long as we have a class of 30 kids all learning the same thing, the problems aren’t going to go away just because we have great computers. The school teaches them the measure of intelligence is the score you get on the test that comes Friday, it covers these pages in the book and the right answer is the same as everyone else’s. It’s not your answer from your thinking.

“I taught for eight years, elementary to middle school … and I learned that class size is probably the biggest limiting factor in the way schools are run. I thought computers would be the teacher, but a computer doesn’t have a personality, it doesn’t attract a student to believe in it. It’s just a machine. If computers ever got an attractive personality where they seem to really care about the student, then we would have the possibility of revising education for everyone in a way that’s never been done, but I don’t have great hopes it’s ever going to happen. We’ve gone for too many hundreds of years with education being done the way it is. It’s hard to change something that huge.”

 

Artificial Intelligence

“I bought into it, and then I started thinking about it. The ramifications were so negative. If computers can think faster than us, what is the human brain worth? What are humans worth? A company with no humans is going to outdo the company with humans economically — and the economics always seem to win. So, I started thinking against it. Computers aren’t going to get that smart, because we are at the limit of how much more intelligence we can put in a computer every year. 

“Computers have grown to become kind of intelligent — they got that smart because we’re able to make them smarter by a certain percentage every year, and this has been going on for about five decades. I think we’re at the end of that. I’m trying to be optimistic about the worth of humans, and I don’t want computers to get as smart as us. We’re at the limit of how smart we can make computers. We’re storing the mathematics of computers in as little as eight electrons. You can’t go much tinier. I think we’re getting at the end of where we can make the computer smart, and that’s good because people will still be in control.”  

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