The wizardry of Steve Wozniak – interview

11 Jun 2013

Steve Wozniak, Fusion-io chief scientist and Apple co-founder. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

While the public face of Apple for so many years had been represented by the charismatic Steve Jobs, for industry insiders the man who co-founded Apple in Jobs’ garage with US$600, Steve Wozniak, has long been an equally iconic figure.

Wozniak is the creative and technical force behind the then-groundbreaking Apple I and II, and most credit him with the invention of the personal computer as we know it today. Having quit Apple in 1985, Woz, as he is affectionately known, is still inextricably linked with the tech giant. Today, he divides his time between his role as chief scientist at tech company Fusion-io, and his philanthropic efforts in creative and technology-based education.

Little surprise then that his eyes lit up when I mentioned CoderDojo, the voluntary organisation that teaches kids coding, with its roots in Co Cork. He said he was aware of the movement through people he trusts and respects, and was keen to glean more. “I met the co-founder here today [Bill Liao], and I’m going to learn more, because I am sure it is exactly what I am looking for,” he said. Wozniak was visiting the island of Ireland for the first time recently, to address the Noribic-hosted EBN (European Business Network) Congress in Derry.

Steve Wozniak on innovation

Having started up iconic computer giant Apple with Jobs as a young engineer then at HP, Wozniak believes that innovations come from the young, and that the earlier they are exposed to disciplines like programming and coding, the better. He may have a BSc in engineering from Berkley, California, but he does not believe that formal education is the only route to invention, and is enthusiastic about the movement toward more informally educated programmers and coders.

“You probably have a smartphone, and your life now centres around your apps, your software, so just how much need is there for young people starting up in this sector?” he said. “There’s hundreds and thousands of small companies – admittedly some of them making zero money, and just a few become successful – but there are literally thousands of ways for people to take any aspect of life and turn it into software and sell it.”

This opportunity was until recently only available to those with university educations and access to mainframe computers, but now, while the big corporations tend to hire the top developers out of university, there is a huge need for these kinds of developers, too, he said. “It’s very satisfying to see.”

Not that he believes that programming is for everyone but it is only through early exposure that kids can find out, he said. “If you don’t enjoy programming, don’t study it. It’s only for you if it’s a passion in your heart, but grab the chance when you are young to discover whether you like it or not,” he said.

“There’s a certain timeframe in your life when you discover what’s going to be important in your life,” he said. “When you try and pick it up at a later stage that doesn’t work so well, so it is good to get younger people – even seven-year-olds – into discovering basic programming they can do and understand. Even creating little web pages and putting things in them in an order that makes sense – that’s a type of programming,” he said.

Wozniak’s own belief is that “real programming” involves cognitive reasoning, where one can understand that a variable stands for something, and that can only be taught successfully to those over 11 or 12 years old. “Somewhere in that timeframe is when people’s heads are really ready for programming, but before that you still want to expose kids to basic programming. Remember that every spreadsheet is a programme, too.”

And even for those who do not go on to love the discipline, he said, there are still ancillary benefits. “When you learn programming you learn how to think logically about everything in the world.”

On the current push to encourage young people to start their own tech and internet enterprises, Wozniak urged caution.

“When I grew up there were separate business schools. Now there are entrepreneurial programmes in almost every university and discipline, meaning that a lot of people now know the formula: ‘write down my idea, communicate these categories of things, go to people with money and convince them I have a good idea, then hire the engineers to make it’. I don’t like that theory at all.”

Instead, he said, small companies should start with the engineers and programmers. “They are the people that have put themselves through so many ways of thinking how to get things solved. They’ll come up with the new clever ideas, and go a little bit beyond what other human beings can do,” he said.

Innovation economy

As all countries, including Ireland, strive to stimulate the so-called innovation economy, Wozniak believes that our young people must be supported literally with resources and tools, rather than the current trend for enterprise centres and incubators. “I’m not sure they are as effective as what I had. I had a job in a company [HP] where, if you designed something yourself, you could get the parts for free to build it, once your supervisor approved.”

He said it is our young people that will create the ‘next big thing’, citing the examples of Facebook, Google, Yahoo! and Twitter – and indeed Apple itself. “Look how young these people were – we were – when we created these companies. When you’ve got young people who are willing to work hard on a great idea, sponsor them with the resources and the tools, and you’re likely to have some of those huge hits that change everything.”

However, Wozniak’s view on taking a job with the big tech companies based in Ireland is perhaps more surprising. “Absolutely right, take the big job first if you’re offered. When you graduate, the most important thing is to get an apartment and pay the rent. Think of it as a holding spot.” The same applies to school or college he said.

“While you’re in one of these holding spots you have time to do your own thing, follow your own passions, to build things, to do the kinds of things you would do as an entrepreneur. Work that out on your own time.”

He did concede that this meant cutting back on pursuits like partying and watching television. “Work on something, because it is during those few years when you are young that your intellectual and physical energy is at its highest. Make something for yourself in those few years, and it could support you for life.”

This clearly will not be the case for everyone, so Wozniak had one further piece of advice that he said was of even greater importance. “Try to have values that mean you’re going to be happy no matter how life turns out. Then you’ve got life made no matter what happens.”

Apple, Ireland and tax

Wozniak may have left Apple back in 1985 but his affection and admiration for the company appeared intact after all these years. At an earlier press conference, he fielded the many inevitable questions on Apple’s tax policies and operations in Ireland frankly, describing criticisms of Apple’s tax policies as “extremely warranted”.  However, he was quick to add that it was the entire system that needed to change.

“On a personal level, we always know when it’s wrong, but for a corporation there’s no such thing as personal ethics. You will do any scheme you can to maximise your profits. So the big companies are all just obeying the system of taxation.”

Not that he said corporations should be left off the hook. “And why is the system that way? It’s that way because those with the power and the money, large corporations particularly, make sure that politicians create the environment that will enhance the corporations.”

And the technologies to watch in coming years? Wozniak believes wearable computing will be a growing trend, and admitted to being “oddly attracted” to Google Glass, even though it is not an Apple product, although he said the jury was still out on who would be the winner – Apple is developing a wristwatch which it hopes will rival the Google product. “Let’s wait and see until all the wearable products are out there,” he said.

Apple, too, has a long life ahead of it, he said, dismissing any talk about Apple losing its mojo when it lost its icon Jobs.

“People artificially put this god-like image on one person and, yes, Steve was great, but if he’s gone does the mojo go away?” he said, adding that Jobs had gone away once before. He was referring to John Sculley’s tenure as CEO after Jobs was pushed out by his board in 1983. Sales at Apple increased from US$800m to US$8bn under Sculley’s management.

“When John Sculley was our CEO, he took the smartest people in the company like Alan Kay, Larry Tesler, and Bill Atkinson, and drove them to come up with ideas like the Knowledge Navigator (a concept which presaged many aspects of the iPhone, iPad and Siri voice-activated personal assistant). But it still came down to turning over a new machine every six months or a year, and yes, they lost a little bit of that excitement and flavour that you’ve got to have.”

Steve Wozniak on Apple

That excitement returned with Jobs’ own return to Apple in 1996, and with products like the iPod and iPhone but, Wozniak said, big game changers like these simply cannot come along every year, adding that Apple is still No 1 in the world in terms of prestige and innovation, although not so in unit sales – a distinction currently held by Samsung.

“People are waiting to see that again, but you can’t come out with a hot new product like the iPod or the iPhone every year,” he said. “You go into slow periods and then some new basic technology like affordable touchscreens comes along and all of a sudden you can make a new product that didn’t exist, that people want.”

This is what will drive Apple’s future success, he said, not just the people that are in leadership positions there, adding that current CEO Tim Cook had worked with Jobs for many years and absorbed many of the values that make Apple products great.

“I’ve seen a lot of times when Apple went down to half its stock value and then it would double up in a later period. I’ve seen this so often,” he said. “The worst thing for a company that has such high prestige and brand recognition, is the press is always predicting our demise,” he said. His use of “our” is a conspicuous signal of the affection and esteem in which he still holds the company he left more than 25 years ago.

Wozniak’s hopes for future innovations may lie firmly with our youth, but on meeting him in the flesh, one suspects this energetic 62-year-old would be more than capable of doing it all again – given US$600, the use of someone’s garage and a co-founder like Steve Jobs.

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 9 June

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human