Engineering Time and Creativity

By: Eli Regalado Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Business

Although it was a typical Monday morning, in a typical executive boardroom, Steve Wozniak is not your typical kind of guy. If you’ve never met Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple and a self-proclaimed gadget freak, most would assume that the conversation would be difficult to comprehend or even dull. Yet Wozniak is surprisingly playful, and his sometimes enigmatic personality is quite refreshing. The man keeps you on your toes—from his watch to his curiosity, this was one interview ICOSA was happy to engineer.

ICOSA: What have you been up to recently?

WOZNIAK: Most recently I’ve been working with a company that is replacing hard disks with solid state chips. It’s a thing that everyone who has a camera is very familiar with, but we are doing it on a big scale with data centers consisting of hundreds of thousands of servers and hard disks. This company, Fusion-io is so successful—it’s like being with another legendary hit like a Cisco or Apple. It’s not that well known by people yet, but boy is it taking over the Internet servers.

ICOSA: From what I’ve heard, you’re quite the prankster. Why is a sense of humor important to you?

WOZNIAK: The best pranks to me are usually the ones that take a lot of time and effort to set up. It’s a pleasure of mine. My mother always said to treat life nicely and to have a sense of humor. I always made sure to build a lot of fun into my work so that I have breaks for fun and take time to laugh. I’m convinced that a little bit of misbehaving and crossing the boundaries of things you’re not supposed to, is what leads to creative thinking. When I was in school and when I was working for Hewlett Packard or doing Apple, I always believed you should have a lot of fun around your work.

ICOSA: Our magazine’s entire focus is on connection and collaboration. How have these two words shaped your life and career?

WOZNIAK: Connections with others have given me the guidance to have a direction to know if something is right. Even though I was very inward as a person and very independent, you hear things everywhere you go. When you hear people talking to other people, you can pick up a queue about the world. I was picking things up from other people when I was way too shy to actually develop them.

When I was younger, if I got interested in anything, like a Ham Radio license, my father, an electrical engineer, would help me but he never pushed me. He was there to work with me as a partner. Later on in school, I was lucky that one teacher saw that I was too brilliant for his electronics class so he arranged for me to program computers at a local company where an engineer would work with me and show me how to feed the programs in. It was where I wrote my first programs. I was lucky because the company was willing to allow a high school student to come in, supervised by an engineer, and use their computer because we didn’t have computers in high school. That was a type of collaboration between business and education that you rarely find, and the teacher was smart enough to get those connections outside of school.

Then there’s Apple. I worked on project after project with Steve (Jobs) because we wanted to build. Steve and I saw this terminal talking on the Arpanet, which was later commercialized to become the modern day Internet, and I said, "Oh my God, I had to have it." Well, I had no money, and Steve had no money so when you have no money, no savings account, and no rich relatives, we found that no one could loan us money. So we went home and built it with parts that were basically free. We just had to find a way to do it. So really my education and my evolution of technical designs were enhanced because I was just doing it with a close friend. And, in the end, when I had it, I showed it off to the world. Basically, I was collaborating with the world, and that was my motivation.

ICOSA: In your book iWoz you said that your dad taught you that electrical devices could do something good for people and take society to a whole new level. How has this statement come true in your life?

WOZNIAK: In the book, I was talking about how my father spoke about how technology— that it had good sides and bad sides—like how one might discover something more about the atom or might create the atomic bomb. There are different ways to look at things. Everything has its positives and negatives. My father always questioned, "What is the reason? Why do people want to be engineers? Why are engineers important?" I knew I just wanted to be one of those people who made things better for people. I wasn’t thinking about what the military needs to get a rocket into space and that kind of stuff; I thought about the transistor radio. The radio was just such a beautiful technology, and it gave me music all night long. I could sleep and hear the songs of the day. So, when I grew up and became an engineer, I was still driven by that foundational theory that I could make things good for the normal person’s home through technology. I knew I wasn’t going to be a theoretical engineer, but a practical engineer because I wanted to build devices that you could actually interact with—tune things, push buttons and they do things they are supposed to do. That was so key in my thinking.

ICOSA: What other breakthroughs do you feel have changed society in your lifetime?

WOZNIAK: The personal computer, the Internet and access to the Internet are key breakthroughs. But networking advances where we were able to switch packets and then get high speed to our homes was crucial to that. Today the whole computer is in such a tiny package. I look at it and I’m in awe to this day and I wonder how much of a computer is in there and how many sensors? I think it is incredible how displays and input devices can even sense direction like a gyroscope does. And now it’s portable, useful, and it has changed my life more than the actual computer did.

But then there are cell phones. Even if it was just a dumb phone that just made calls—my gosh! It used to be in the old days that you had a powerful AM radio transmitter, and 50,000 watts was the most power you could get. You could probably hear signals across the country. Smaller stations were local, shared the same channels, and only worked in a small area. When cell phones came along and small little cells shared the same frequencies, it thereby multiplied the number of people who could use the phones and be portable. I was always into portability. Anything that made you feel freer and connected was good to me. Now we have all these smart phones that can browse the Internet and retrieve email. Really the iPhone is the first one that changed that world. So that was a big one too.

ICOSA: In regards to Facebook, with connections and relationships between people growing, how do you see this affecting society as we become increasingly connected?

WOZNIAK: Facebook is today’s modern creative person’s outlet. It used to be you built your own little devices, but now people are building their own web pages. People are establishing those links and connecting to the world. It’s really like the world is based around people—what they are doing and who they know. It’s a much more interesting type of world than the traditional structured business thinking. Social networks are basically... every new friend you meet is free. It’s like you get a new gift for free if you have something in common and you start sharing ideas. That is the gift.

ICOSA: So, let’s talk a little about education. Where do you see gaps in our current education system?

WOZNIAK: I used to talk a lot about the gaps in education. After Apple, I secretly taught fifth grade and above for eight years. I saw a lot of things that were wrong, and when I would suggest ideas about what I thought needed to be fixed, it did not get fixed. It hasn’t been fixed my entire life.

For the last 50 years everybody is always talking about how education doesn’t have enough money and that it doesn’t do a good enough job. Well, in my opinion, it’s worse now than it was 50 years ago. Schools, I think, are always going to be shorthanded because it’s sort of like taxation without representation. Families with no students don’t want to pay more money. However, families with students care about schools a lot and want to pay more money for schools, but only one third of families have kids. So, a family of five gets no more votes than a family of two and that means votes turn into money. So, it’s short-handed—the students never get counted.

ICOSA: For an engineer you seem remarkably concerned with people and concerned with society. Where did that come from?

WOZNIAK: I wish I knew. I grew up quiet, and maybe because people left me out of their society, I had a lot of time to think things out for myself. I’ve always tried to be a really good person. Aside from being an engineer, I wanted to be a good person, and a good person is one who takes care of others, like a family. It’s like how Hewlett Packard took care of everyone during the recession when they gave people one day off every two weeks rather than let people go. I tend to care about the people who don’t have much. I don’t know why it gets to me. I was never one of those people. I was so lucky I didn’t even have to worry about what I was going to do for a job after I got out of college. I just always knew. I really think one of the most important things you can do is to relate and help someone person-to-person.

ICOSA: What do you want our readers to know about you?

WOZNIAK: Right now I am doing a lot of public speaking on different categories and topics. I used to be afraid of people and now I just like meeting them, talking to them, finding out what they’re about and sharing stories with them. Because of Apple’s success, people hold me in high esteem. They are always very nice and friendly to me. I’m very blessed.

I also think about how fortunate I am when I’m in small venues listening to music. Music has always been an important part of my life. In high school, they taught us how to listen to songs and analyze them as poetry. I learned there were messages in songs that I never would have caught reading the words. I wasn’t really into literature so it just stunned me to listen and hear the words. I got into Bob Dylan in his early years and his words were just so incredible. I wondered how a human being could write words like that. I use a lot of the words as little guides in my life—when I come across something in life where I ask, "How do I handle this?" I often relate it to a certain phrase in a song that applies to my situation.

Lastly, everybody should know we’re all sharing in the same life. We’re all drivers on the highway and we’re all going places, some different and some together. We’re all a team. We’re all on the same side. We’re all working together. I love that, and I smile at people wherever I go. I think, "You’re all just a part of this world that I’m in. You’re in the same game. Hooray for us!