My Time With Woz

14 Feb, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Steve Wozniak believes that having fun and being the best at what you do are incentives enough.

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I just returned from the SolidWorks World 2007 user conference in New Orleans. As usual, the company put together a conference that was well worth attending, and it afforded me the opportunity to meet with SolidWorks executives, developers, partners and users. The conference also provided me a chance to meet and chat briefly with Steve Wozniak, formerly known as "the other Steve" who cofounded Apple Computer, but now is recognized as a man of many of talents, interests and possibilities.

For those of you who don't know or know of Wozniak, he possesses a rare combination of intelligence, passion and a sense of mischief, and he showed all of these personality traits at SolidWorks World, both at a private press dinner and during his keynote speech the next morning.

Over the years Wozniak has had several nicknames, including The Woz and Wizard of Woz. WoZ (Wheels of Zeus) is also the name of a GPS company Wozniak founded. He also developed, in four days, the initial prototype of the classic Atari game Breakout. Although Wozniak supposedly is known for his introverted character, he seemed very personable to me, and I noted that, although he finds his level of celebrity somewhat annoying, he puts up with it gracefully.

Steve Wozniakhas had a unique career that began as a computer engineer who later turned teacher and philanthropist. As an educator for eight years, he taught 10-to-13-year-olds, and his goal was to make learning fun. Contributing to the fun part were his use of animation and 3D tools in his classes.

His inventions and machines are credited with contributing greatly to the personal computer revolution of the 1970s. Wozniak cofounded Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.) with Steve Jobs in 1976, and created the Apple I and Apple II computers in the mid-1970s. The Apple II was fairly popular, eventually becoming one of the best selling personal computers of the 1970s and early 1980s. Wozniak did not design the relatively low production Apple I from the ground up -- he took an existing computer terminal, used a TV as a display, and combined it with a microprocessor to create a computer that could run programs via a keyboard instead of switches. The Apple II was his design and it wowed potential users to the world of computing with its color display and graphics capabilities. It also had about 10 times the computing power of the Apple I.

He said that the so-called "computer revolution" began with two realizations many years ago. First, that if computers were inexpensive enough and easy to use, they could be owned by individual people, not just companies. Second, to really take off, personal computers needed a "killer software application" and not just additional hardware, such as the floppy disk and drive.

Where Woz Began

Steve Wozniak (left) and Jeff Rowe at SolidWorks World 2007 (photo courtesy of Roopinder Tara).

Wozniak is the first to admit that his path to computers and technology was largely accidental, but he believes he was very lucky to have grown up in Silicon Valley, where so many contemporary digital technologies began. He also surrounded himself with computer builders as friends, and the skills they learned served them well as successful creators and engineers. Wozniak and his friends found building electronics fun because they had no formal plan or scheme -- a tenet that he still follows today. Even back then, money was not his central focus. For odd jobs he preferred to be paid in resistors, diodes, capacitors and batteries by his neighbors.

As a kid he was always asking how things worked, and he discovered that computer science was more compelling to him than rocket science. Thanks to his dad, Wozniak realized the importance of education and that engineering was "cool." He also realized, quite astutely, early on that engineering requires both analysis and diligence.

In school, Wozniak was a math and science whiz and while he realized he was considered a nerd, he was proud of it. At that time he was greatly influenced by Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Like Thoreau, Wozniak wanted to be self-sufficient and come up with solutions on his own while using his own tools to achieve them. He has never wanted to do things because other people were doing them, but rather always needed a personal reason for doing something. He never wanted to be a follower, and all of these traits combined are what he thinks are the components of true intelligence.

Creating Something Better

As was the case when he was much younger, even today, Wozniak is more concerned with internal satisfaction than with extrinsic rewards such as clothes or fancy cars. He thinks it's much more important to know that you're good at what you do. He notes that to come up with a best solution to a problem, it is often necessary to make things perform functions they weren't necessarily designed for. Wozniak also constantly strives for creating something better than he did before. He usually accomplishes this by making things simpler and, therefore, more understandable. "When you feel a design represents you, you want it to be as perfect as possible," he said.

Wozniak had some sound advice to hardware and software vendors: "Listen to your users, keep things simple and keep technology transparent. In other words, the smaller the user manual, the better the machine. Companies have to decide which is more important -- people or technology. If you're smart, you'll focus on the user. Bend hardware and software on ease of use for the user, not the other way around."

My brief time with Wozniak was a great experience and one that I will carry with me for quite some time.

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