Woz urges engineers to follow their hearts

Steve Wozniak, Apple's co-founder, recalls his early days fulfilling his engineering dream by working for Hewlett-Packard while designing Apple computers.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--Steve Wozniak got his start as a down-to-earth engineer, but the Apple co-founder made the case for keeping your head in the clouds sometimes.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak at the Intel Developer Forum.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak at the Intel Developer Forum. Stephen Shankland/CNET News

In an on-stage interview with Tech Nation's Moira Gunn here at the Intel Developer Forum, Wozniak talked about a life driven by his passion for the electronics and computing. And passion can be a more important incentive than money, he said.

"The rewards are in your head. The reward is invisible. It's what you like to do," said Wozniak, who designed the Apple I computer and its commercially successful successor, the Apple II, largely during his spare time.

Wozniak was in the right place at the right time, falling into computer design during an era when electronics were growing more powerful but were still simple enough that designs could be done by a smart human being. And he found a small circle of technophiles who shared similar views and ended up building the first personal computers. They, too, were driven by passion.

"We had dreams that computers would improve education and improve communication and help us achieve a lot of tasks. A lot of us in our group understood it," though their vision didn't extend as far as today's broadband-connected Internet. "What we were doing was not (figuring out) how build a computer, it was how you get a computer that fits into the home. Price, looks--a lot of that stuff. It gave us more passion. We used the word 'revolution' all over the place."

Among other thoughts from the Segway fan and iPhone customer:

• "I was doing really advanced computer designs when I was 10," including a tic-tac-toe machine. "I just loved computers and what they were and ones and zeros and the logic and how they added."

• "Sometimes when you're short of resources it forces you to do better work," he said. To design the Apple's logic circuitry, "I couldn't afford an online timeshare computer system. I had to write down ones and zeros (and simulate the computer's operations). It was all done by hand, never once on a computer."

• He never looked at details of others' computer designs. By designing the technology himself, he designed a lot of tricks to squeeze as much performance out of the electronics as possible. "Some of the tricks were so weird I knew you'd never find them in a book," he said.

• His life's dream was to work for Hewlett-Packard for life, and he got his start with a job before graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. "I got a job a Hewlett-Packard designing handheld calculators. I was very lucky. Because I could design, they interviewed and hired me. But I didn't have a degree," he said.

ZDNet video: Wozniak on Apple, Jobs, and the iPhone line.

• But after a plane crash, he decided to take time off from Apple and finish college. "I did go back to college. I got my degree under a fake name, Rocky Raccoon Clark," the name on his diploma. "I wanted my kids to see they had a dad who had a college degree. I went back 10 years after I finished my third year."

• He offered his computer designs to HP five times, but they never were interested. "I would not sell something for money without my employer getting a cut of it."

• "I was never going to leave HP for life. That's where I wanted to be forever," but Apple co-founder Steve Jobs launched a campaign that eventually persuaded Wozniak to strike off on his own. "Steve Jobs got all my friends and relatives to call me."

• Wozniak had technical chops, but Jobs had the ambition to build the business. "Steve wants to be this guy...who wants to change the world. Every time we'd create something great, he'd have the idea to sell it," Wozniak said.

• Computer technology is ever more powerful, but brute force isn't everything. "I learned something when I was young," he said, when creating a knight's move program to move a chess piece across all 64 squares of a chessboard. A quick calculation showed the program might produce its first answer in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years. "The speed of the computer isn't enough. You need a good approach and good thinking."

• Where has there been computing advancements? Processors in the graphics world--"What we can do with photography and movies."

• As the Apple computer's designer, Wozniak got employee No. 1. "Sometimes I go into an Apple store and say 'I'm an employee, I get a discount.' They say, 'What's your number?'"

• He buys his Apple products, including the first and second iPhones. "And I did not cut in line," contrary to some media reports, he said. "These press guys who write stuff like that--they get seated first in the prime seats" at Apple conference keynotes. "They are cutting in line."

• The media: "Now we're in the age of blogs. Opinions get replicated. Facts don't come into play much," he said. "I don't like any articles that put people down, like Steve Jobs, because it sells. Everybody likes to see heroes beat up."

• He was a prankster, but because he didn't boast, he only got caught once in high school. While spending the night in a juvenile detention facility as a result, he taught the prisoners how to take the electrical leads from the ceiling fan, wire them to the jail cell, and shock the guards.

• Another prank involved creating a combination of transistors and capacitors that could impair TV reception, and Wozniak would fiddle with it to get people to believe they were actually adjusting the TV. "I got one guy to hold his hand on the middle of the TV for half an hour, and his foot was on a chair. It was a lot of fun," Wozniak said. "It could have been a great psychology experiment."

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