In a wide ranging discussion at the recent Splunk.conf held in Orlando, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak spoke about the qualities he sees as most valuable in today’s aspiring technologists. He also discussed the importance of marketing and in creating products that attract people rather than locking them in and where education fits in.
“We’re all born curious,” said Wozniak. “Schools like to put young people into categories to do things in a certain way. It’s almost counter-active to the creativity we’re born with”.
One of the big drivers for Wozniak was his hunger to find interesting things – things his friends don’t know about and outside of school. That led him to electronics. And while he was a good student at school he said learning different techniques from books led him to creating his own ways to do things. He designed many of his early creations on paper. But they were grounded with what he read in manuals and electronics books – there were no computer books at the time – before he started trying out his own ideas.
Learn Form Books But Don’t be Limited By Them
While you learn techniques from books he said what he learned, combined with curiosity gave rise to a “inventor personality”.
“You want to just do unusual ideas that come to you. They don’t have to have value. They don’t have to fit a spreadsheet that will make money or a successful company. You just go into it to have fun, show off or play pranks – pranks were a big part of my life. “
Wozniak said that despite his social shyness, being able to create things gave him a “power”.
In his early days designing circuits and computers, Wozniak didn’t have the money to buy a single chip. That meant he needed to be very frugal and economical in what he designed.
“Everybody that has written a book [about doing a specific thing] has a standard way of doing things. My way is ‘What is the method I would use to solve a problem?’ I always came up with the tricks that would let me do it in fewer steps than other people. Is there a way to reduce my code or use fewer parts in a circuit?,” he said.
Part of the way Wozniak likes to work is to define an architecture loosely so you know the building blocks and how they come together but allow you to come up with new ways to put them together. He also noted that many of the best inventions come from a single person working freely than by a team who are constrained by each other’s way of doing things.
Perhaps the biggest shift that came in the early days of computing was no longer doing everything with hardware. During the 1970s, Apple realised that one of the most potent tools they had was the ability for their core product, the Apple II, to play arcade games. Rather than requiring bespoke hardware, games could be programmed in software. He said that capability was necessary if personal computers were ever going to make it into people’s homes.
Openness Is Key
In telling the story of how he built a terminal that he showed off at the Homebrew Computer Club, Wozniak noted that he gave his designs away for free. When break-throughs happen, they are supported by openness, ease of access and a focus on technologies that enhance people.
While it’s well known that Wozniak gave away a large portion of his initial Apple shareholding to early employees who weren’t eligible for stick during Apple’s initial offering, he says money is not the most valuable asset you can give away. This is why he spent eight years teaching fifth grade students about technology.
“Giving money doesn’t have the same meaning a giving your most valuable possession which is you time,” he said.
Wozniak’s focus in teaching those students wasn’t on making them into technical gurus but in focussing on things that would be valuable and useful such as making their homework look better. That led to positive feedback from teachers which fostered greater commitment and creativity from the students.
It’s Not About Products
The key, he said, is to start by solving problems and not creating products.
“One of the great things I did all my life was, every project I came up with, I built things,” said Wozniak. “I would encourage young children today to start building projects where you can see ‘Here’s a goal I can reach'”.
Interestingly, he also said he wouldn’t focus on teaching young students how to code. He would hold off until they were 12 or older. He says one of the skills children gain as their brains develop is symbolic reasoning – knowing what a variable is.
And then it came to helping students he said that motivation is far more important than knowledge.
“If you make it fun enough, they’ll learn”.