2013 Conference Six Questions

Six Questions with Steve Wozniak

woz head shotSteve Wozniak is an author, speaker, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. and chief scientist at Fusion-io


1.  What’s one myth or misconception about the early days at Apple that you wish you could debunk?


The myth that we started in a garage. It doesn’t explain things correctly at all. No design or engineering or prototype work was done in the garage. It was done in my apartment and my cubicle at HP. No business (ordering parts, getting publicity, getting sales) was done in the garage. Steve Jobs did that stuff on the phone in his bedroom. No manufacturing was done in the garage. That was done at a company in Santa Clara. We picked up finished computer boards and drove them to Steve Jobs’ home. We used the garage to make sure they worked and fix some problems and then we put them in boxes and drove them to a store. Using the garage lasted maybe 6 months until we could afford office space. From then on, most of the company business took place as normal, in the office.

The truth about the garage is that it represents how we came from zero money, where you have to do things out of your garage.


2.  You have a love of jokes and play, complete with favorite puns, well-executed practical jokes and beloved toys. Is there a connection between a dedication to play and your ability to stay creative, is it just fun for fun’s sake — or something else entirely?

I find that the fun in play makes me feel glad about life and glad about what I’m doing. In that sense, it’s a motivation factor. It serves as relief breaks so long projects don’t get you down. In this sense, it’s fun for fun’s sake.

But there is more. Creating new jokes or recognizing the creativity in jokes you hear, is a lot like the creativity in making new devices that never existed. A joke has a story line that leads you on a path very different than the normal path that would cause you to guess the punch line. It’s like creating a new product in ways that had never been done before. Such a creation has its own joy when you realize that what you always believed is not necessarily the truth.

When I took foreign language classes I always watched for the point that I could create a joke of my own in that language as a mark of my creativity. I put humor and creativity in the same bubble.


3.  What recent technological development are you most excited about? What one development do you see on the horizon that you are most looking forward to see take off?

I look at the major transitions in personal computer technology. You could call the start of personal computers the era of hardware and software and owning your own computer. Then we had the ease of use transition to computers with the mouse for input and layers of windows for output. We had the internet (browser based) age. We had the social network period, which is still evolving. We had the mobile internet since the iPhone.

Along these lines, I see wearable computing as the next transition. Each stage so far was based on smaller devices and a more natural interface, meaning working the way humans work with other humans. With every advance we felt more like we were communicating with a human than with a machine. The machine becomes more and more invisible. This fits wearable computing. Flexible displays will be a big part of this. I use a couple of simple devices on my wrist, including an iPod, and I can feel that I would really like more of my whole mobile computer on my self.


4.  How can colleges and universities create environments that “inspire inspiration”? How can we help foster the next generations of creative innovators?

Inspiring innovation is partly an oxymoron. Innovation is largely in the personality. Personalities do settle during early to late university days though, so this is an important time. We tend to treat having the same right answer as others as intelligence, but goes more for memorizing than thinking creatively. Even the approach to solutions must be learned this way, but the truly creative individuals learn to discard what they have seen in books and take risky endeavors into other possible ways to achieve the same results. This takes place in the head, during quiet times and even sleep. It’s the ‘dream’ side of creation, coming up with new ideas and new methods.

The university testing paradigm partly opposes this thinking mode. When you write a paper, your talents really show and it’s not from memorization. In engineering, that’s true of computer programming. You are given a task and no 2 programs will be the same for a significant project. Assigning projects isn’t as good as letting students choose their own. It’s like a graduate project where you know the goal and have the skills to come up with your own solution. This is the way you can judge who is truly creative. But they shouldn’t have a mentor or advisor telling them exactly how to do it.

Encourage students to come up with the best solutions, even if it’s answers, than other humans would come up with. But you can’t force something like this on creative people. Reward it whenever you see it. For example, when a project is finished, challenge the student to improve it or remove parts or lower cost or get even more functionality out of it. Encourage them to find some way that others have not thought of. At least a few students will be motivated the way I was, to spend hours and hours researching parts and trying to do things in ways that aren’t in books. Not to get a grade, but to be special.

5.  In your autobiography, iWoz, you describe an increasingly strained working relationship with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. How would you coach others in dealing with challenging professional relationships, especially when the stakes may feel high?

I had a personality without conflict or fights or enemies. I did not ever fight with Steve Jobs. We had rather minor differences in thought or opinion ever. So I’m not exactly sure what this is referring to. I can think of a few of those minor things but they wouldn’t be relevant here. Apple is a bad example. Myself and Steve Jobs are bad examples. When we started, I made it clear that I didn’t want to run a company. In my head you have to do bad things that I could not do to run a company. It was well understood that I’d stay in the laboratory because I loved creating new hardware and software. I’m very thankful to Steve Jobs and other early Apple employees for allowing this structure. I did not like it when Steve Jobs was bad to others. He could have been polite and still accomplished his great things. I felt that Steve was the best visionary in the company and I supported his vision and I was wrong when he was about some things.

As for others in the company, Steve Jobs was the mixed bag. He could be progressive and constructive, but he could demean other good thinkers. This is not really good in a company. It worked when Steve had total control and let everyone know it, but wasn’t necessary in my opinion. I was always immune to the ‘bad Steve’ because he always respected me through time, with only a few exceptions.

Like many companies our HR department engaged us in ‘play’ retreats with games intended to get us to work together better as teams. But my real memory of dealing with challenging professional relationships goes back to Hewlett Packard. My associate there, Stan Mintz, went to a retreat or class that he told me about. There were parameters of personality that divided people into groups like “drivers” and “submissives”. I forget the groups and parameters now, but the message was that some of these didn’t work well together unless they understood where the other was coming from. Imagine a driver who has to be “boss” and a shy brilliant engineer. The engineer might get run over and feel bad. But if the engineer understands the driver’s personality, he or she can realize that what was said and acted out was not the real feeling or inability to communicate. A person might strike out and say something very bad to you, but it might not have the same meaning as if you did it yourself. It might be a mild feeling in the person acting strong. Understanding what the other is about lets you work together toward the good solution you both really want.

6. If given the chance, would you hire a real-life Dr. Sheldon Cooper? Why or why not?

If my company had a good stable source of income, I would view Sheldon Cooper as that rare person with unusual thoughts, and abilities to turn them into the rare diamonds of ideas. I would not feel that every employee should be a Dr. Sheldon Cooper. It’s hard to find the people who think creatively and differently than others. To tell you the truth, the PhD’s have the skills but it’s usually young kids without degrees that have the creative vision. It’s hard to find them in one person. But the way I see Sheldon is that he is just “crazy” enough to have unique visions. And I’d rate comic relief a ton higher than most in the workplace.


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