When Apple Computer co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs collaborated on their first project together — a couple of years before Apple was created — it became clear what role each would play in their business relationship.
Both had youth on their side, and without it, that first project might not have happened. The pair was given four days to deliver to the Atari Corp. a circuit board for the game Breakout. They worked day and night and met the deadline.
Jobs showed his expertise of electronics and Wozniak demonstrated he could design a computer.
Jobs was a visionary and a dreamer who could pitch an idea while Wozniak was content to be an engineer all his life, working in a basement laboratory designing computers. It was the combination that helped launch the world of personal computers and put Apple at the top of this cultural revolution.
“When you are falling asleep and waking up, especially in those younger days, your mind is more lucid and just goes to more places, like creativity and thinking out of the box and innovative,” Wozniak says of his energy level in those days. “Those are the times when you get really good thoughts. The trouble is you just have to be around someone or have it in yourself to know that you have the skills to build what you think of.
“You’re young, you’ve got so much intellectual energy and so much physical energy that you can work late nights.”
He later left Apple to finish his education, but it’s been reported he still receives an annual stipend from the company.
Wozniak was the keynote speaker at the recent EO Thrive Cleveland conference and shared the stage with Fred Koury, president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Here are the highlights of the interview:
FK: What I would like to do is go back to the beginning, prior to you co-founding Apple Computer, and have you share with us how you got into engineering.
SW: I had one of those elementary school projects that now I look back on and say, whoa, that was the equivalent of a master’s degree at a university and I didn’t even know it. To me, they were just the most fun projects. I was kind of great in electronics, because electronics was an analog science. You had to learn difficult mathematical equations, formulas and design things with all these little parts that fit together. So I was very good at that.
I had a ham radio license in sixth grade. That was when you had to bolt together a bunch of parts. You had to bolt them together and had instructions on how to bolt them together, solder all the wires and run the little strings to tune in your receiver and transmitter. I was an early guy in analog electronics, but somehow I also discovered digital.
In high school, we didn’t have computers, but I had a great electronics teacher who said education is outside the school too. I got to go down once a week to Sylvania in Sunnyvale and program a computer. I was like, in my mind, the star of my school. Of course I was a nerd, an outsider, because I was an electronics geek. But I got to go program a real computer!
So I never had a book, I never had a class, I just had pencil and paper and tried to formulate methods to design a computer out of the smaller parts, the little chips that were available. I did it for fun. I never thought I would even have a job designing computers. I didn’t think there were such jobs.
FK: How do you keep innovation alive when you are growing a company? How do you stay ahead of the curve?
SW: In the early days of Apple, it was just so free. Almost everything we touched turned to gold. It was a new industry and there was a lot of positive press. The computer was built on parts connected to a printer — that changed the world for people forever. You could plug a printer into your computer. You had a part to plug into a modem. You could turn your computer into a terminal. These were new things, so this is what I loved to do. I would’ve done that anyway. Back then, the innovation was all really on me, I was the only engineer for a while.
We were revolutionary, we had the best product in the world, we had a real high price, but our product cost less to build than the ones with the low price. We had a company. We had investors. We had advisers. We had professionals around telling us how to establish a company — you need a president, director of operations, and here’s what he does. Investors were telling us all the people we needed and what their roles would be. At that time, Steve didn’t have an official title. You just participated in everything and learned how to run everything. But I hate politics, so I said, leave me out of running the company, just don’t kick me out.
I stayed in the laboratory. I wanted to do hardware, software for the rest of my life. I believe engineers are the best people in the world, and I wanted to be an engineer for life. I never wanted to move up the management ladder. Engineers are where brilliant ideas can become reality. There were a lot of great ideas, but they are not worth much on paper. You better have some working model; you better have an engineer who can build it.
When you design something, it has to work. It has to do the job. You have to take every precaution, because one little bug will come back to haunt you. That is what engineering is about, and you need that kind of precision when you are thinking out what kind of things do we put in a product.
FK: Is innovation something you are born with or is it something you can learn?
SW: My own thinking is that you are not born with it. I think everybody is born equally curious. Every little baby wants to learn everything about anything that starts to come into their eyes.
We are all born that way, but that doesn’t mean we’re all going to fit in a box and follow the same course. You have to take the same tests and you are called intelligent if you have the exact same answers as everyone else. But if you think differently and try to come up with answers that aren’t in the book, or if you challenge that thinking, you are called disruptive.
In schools there are 30 kids and one teacher, and you can’t have every kid doing everything randomly and independently. It doesn’t work in our system because of money. We don’t have one teacher per student. So we are trained all our lives to not be innovative.
I would do a lot of things outside of school. With my science fair projects, I discovered thinking about a problem and how to solve it. I was just lucky to be a creator, to create things on my own, and not just read about them in books.
I had no idea that in 1975 all the pieces were going to be there at the right price to make the personal computer affordable. I didn’t know that when I was learning. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was I wanted a computer of my own someday, because a computer sounded impressive.
FK: What did Steve Jobs mean to you, not as a partner, but as a man? What do you miss most?
SW: I miss the early days, before Apple, the most. I also miss the day when he returned. When Steve and I started Apple he was forming his personality. At the time, we had an investor who was our mentor and he was telling us how to run the business. Steve was learning, but he taught himself that as the founder of the company he was always going to be in the top position and he needed to secure that. And he changed.
He stopped laughing and doing pranks and got serious, as a businessman is supposed to appear. Then, he had no success — we had failure after failure.
But when Steve came back, he was a different person. He was much more mature in business. He knew how to build a company, have foundations in place and run things. He had built a great computer at neXT — a real computer, finally, something the Macintosh was not. At neXT, he learned how to run a computer company, but it didn’t have millions of loyal fans. Apple, on the other hand, had so many loyal fans right from the start. A number of people loved Apple, loved what it was about, loved its products.
Years after he came back we did a strange thing with the iPod — we went open.
We said we’re not going to restrict this to only Macintosh users, which were 5 percent of the world’s market. We’re going to write iTunes for Windows so everybody could have a Macintosh (in a sense), and that’s the Steve Jobs that I remember. He took that risk with the iPod and it made it a huge success.
The iPhone I think was the greatest product introduction in my life. Yes, the sale of music was very important, the retail stores of Apple were very important, all these things were so great and that’s what I think about Steve Jobs and his greatness. I think that’s how most people look at him, he thought about the world at a higher level.
You see, the higher level is what we really want — and Steve always thought that way. I admire him so much for that. That was even back in the early days of Apple. He had great thinking. He had great vision.
FK: What are you inventing today?
SW: I’m not inventing today. I think about it all the time. I try to come up with ideas.
Well, there is my drone idea — build a drone where nobody really has to fly a drone and operate the camera separately.
But ideas are not the same as actual reality, building things as an engineer. When I was an engineer I carried so many hundreds of bits of info around that I woke up in the middle of the night. I was a different person back then — I was younger, I had more energy.
Now, I have so much public recognition and philosophies about being open. My email is totally open. I get eight hours of email a day, at least. Everybody is contacting me and writing me, so I don’t really have the time for engineering.
I also do a lot of public speaking. I’m probably going to get about 100 speeches in this year, most of them overseas. So that’s a huge deal for me. And I love it. I love meeting people. I just love meeting people from different walks of life. That’s a big thing I’m doing now.
The Wozniak file
NAME: Steve Wozniak
COMPANY: Apple Computer Inc.
Born: San Jose, California
Education: Homestead High School, Cupertino, California, where seven out of the first 10 people employed by Apple went to school — according to Wozniak; University of California, Berkeley; he returned after leaving Apple in 1986 under a false name and received his diploma as Rocky Raccoon Clark.
Parents: Margaret and Francis Wozniak, an electrical engineer for Lockheed Martin.
What’s on his wrist: It changes, but I wear an iPod Nano on every airplane flight for my music. That is no longer made but it goes on a wristband. I listen to music, and I love it.
Most legendary prank: Calling Vatican City using a ‘blue box’ phone hacking device, using a Henry Kissinger accent and asking to make a confession before the Pope. “But you know what I found out? Every one of these pranks was the development of a mind always trying to think of ways to do things so other people wouldn’t know what was going on. It was a very healthy part of developing a creative mind and innovative mind. Almost everyone I meet who has developed a hot product like the Android likes to play pranks.
Wozniak on …
… working for Hewlett-Packard
Leading up to Apple, the hot product of its time — the iPhone 6 of its time —was the Hewlett-Packard scientific calculator. They came out with the HP 35 and up until then, all us engineers and scientists used slide rules. This calculator was going to put slide rules out of business. In five years.
Hewlett-Packard heard I was some kind of great designer. So they brought me in for an interview and hired me on the spot. I got to design the iPhone 6 of its day. I got to actually work on the products. It was incredible! I didn’t have a college degree at that point, I only had three years of college but I was lucky to be so advanced.
While working at Hewlett-Packard, I had no chance of having a girlfriend or a wife — I was too much of a geek. So I would work on calculators in the daytime at work and then I would go home and have a TV dinner and watch Star Trek. And then I’d pull out the paper and start working on my own projects, my own designs. I had a reputation around California — here was this 21-year-old engineer that would do engineering jobs for free for anybody. That’s how much I loved doing it.
… on geeks and nerds being different
Well, geeks are the ones who know the electronics and math. Nerds are those outsiders that normal people won’t talk to — you’re just not going to be included in our little group. So I was kind of both, but that made me do wild stuff independently.
I was doing good things, I didn’t have to do the same things as everyone else and they didn’t even have to approve.
But you have to convince yourself that you are right and the rest of the world doesn’t ever have to agree with you. I became a no conflict, no argue type person. I believed very much in what I was creating just in my own little world. When I saw something, I’d say to myself that I could build one of those. Being a builder was a big key, because when you are a builder it has to work in the end. And building it was like saying: I don’t care what other people are doing. I am just going to do what I am interested in doing. It became very much a part of my life.
… on the greatest Super Bowl ad ever
Steve called me over to the Macintosh division one night — the Mac was going to come out — and he sat me down with some old-style tape recorder and he showed me this tape.
I watched that commercial. Wow! It was just an unbelievably well-done commercial. I asked, ‘We are going to show this at the Super Bowl?’ He said, ‘Well, the board voted against it.’ I said, ‘What? Why?’
He told me it cost $800,000 and I said I’d pay for half if he’d pay for half. I thought just two people could pay the money — this commercial had to be seen. I told Steve that this is us — a young company challenging thinking. We were referring to IBM, everybody’s thinking has to be identical and we have to follow our lines, and we were the company with fresh air, breaking through all that.
… on meeting Steve Jobs
Bill Fernandez, Apple employee No. 4, introduced us.
When I met Steve we started doing pranks together and we tried to out do each other. But we also had our electronics knowledge. I told him all these computer things I designed, what I’d done, and I don’t think he ever tried to become a designer after that. When it came to design, he wasn’t going to win that one. But he never stopped thinking.
When he was very young he just kept having these ideas and dreams of the world, of a few people becoming important. He wondered how those people would take steps forward for mankind, for science and how the world never goes back from that. He thought about big steps forward.
… on turning ideas into money
Steve was selling stuff that I could come up with. Once a year, Steve would find a way to turn my stuff into money. But here’s the reason: I had a job as an engineer. Steve had no job and no money at all. Having no money at all was worth a lot to him.
Our first deal with Atari was funny because he told me we got paid 700 bucks, and he wrote me a check for $350. Twelve years later, when the Lisa came out, I discovered that he had made thousands. But you don’t judge a person based on one thing in life. That’s wrong. To me, friendship was more important than anything. I wouldn’t have done it with anyone else but my best friend, Steve Jobs. That’s it.
… on the first Apple Logo
Back then it cost $1,000 to make a color television. The reason that it cost $1,000 was that you had to have circuits with precision … it was so complicated.
Our first logo for Apple was six colors for a reason. Nobody could have ever expected color in a low-cost computer.